By Harry Onickel

School improvement. How do we do it? If you’ve been reading our local newspapers, it involves a spending a lot more money, either closing poor-performing schools or sending them more money, firing teachers or paying them more money, giving students access to more technology, which costs lots of money, either opening more or closing all charter schools thereby changing the money flow, or – well, you get the idea.

The federal government has offered their own solutions enclosed in various schemes based on the unavoidable truth that in order for any student to succeed, proper reading skills are essential. None of these programs have made more than a trivial difference in increasing literacy. They have sent a lot of money to schools though, which had to be spent only on materials and training that had been approved by the Department of Education. They have also advanced the use of buzzwords and educational clichés like, investing in innovation, high academic standards, high-quality preschool, accountability, high expectations, equal opportunity, achievement gap, and many others.

There is one thing that all of these newspaper articles are missing and that none of the government initiatives are addressing: curriculum. How and what are children being taught? As an elementary school teacher and reading tutor who has also trained teachers and done a lot of research on past education practices and the history of school improvement, I know that children, especially those in high-poverty areas, where the first exposure to the written word might be in school, need explicit phonics instruction. It is a necessary part of the curriculum that is being ignored. Even children in high performing schools, where they learn in spite of the teaching methods, would benefit.

Children don’t need expensive computer labs fitted with colorful computer programs and websites that “make learning fun.” Children need a good sharp pencil, lots of paper, and a teacher who has learned and therefore can teach the phonetic structure of English.

Here’s why. Phonics is the beginning of reading. It’s learning the sounds that the letters make, both individually and in combination with other letters. Some students, especially those whose parents read to them frequently, can usually do this with little phonetic instruction. Those children coming from poverty and a lack of household literacy usually can’t. We know that. It’s been documented and re-documented. And yet until recently, almost all big time reading programs ignored phonics in favor of “balanced literacy”, formerly known as “whole language.” Teachers began in the middle with sight words and were taught that phonics doesn’t work.

Since the “balanced literacy” name change, phonemic awareness has become a piece of beginning reading instruction, which is kind of “phonics lite” with no expectation that teachers know and understand English on a phonetic level. How can teachers teach what they don’t know? Even Common Core, which does have some phonics requirements doesn’t truly address the issue since teachers are not trained to teach phonics and don’t know enough phonics to be effective.

If students are taught a systematic, explicit phonics program, they can be taught how to put letters together to make words. That’s called “Spelling.” And yes, it is important. Before students begin writing sentences, they must learn to spell correctly. “Invented spelling”, pushed by whole language and balanced literacy advocates, is an abomination and should be banned from even being uttered, except in contempt or ridicule, by anyone inside a school or who is genuinely concerned with education. It is part of the reason I (and other teachers) get students walking into fourth grade spelling the word “and” as “in”. Example: “me in my mom wint to see my cuzin cuz he dint member he was post to visit us”

With enough instruction and experience building words with the sounds they know, students can also begin to sound out unfamiliar words. That’s another thing, students have to be taught to sound out words. It’s not something you can just demand a child do. It is a skill that involves the knowledge of sounds, the ability to make those sounds clearly, and the ability to listen. Listening too, must be taught. And along with the previously mentioned skills, it must be practiced.

While students build their reading skills, they should also be writing. From phonemes (sounds) to words, once they have a large enough spelling vocabulary, students should use their words to write sentences. Not like the example I gave though. Students need to be taught proper writing mechanics, including grammar, punctuation, and capitalization, like the stuff they see in books. That way, when they read books, they will also read the punctuation. This should all be done in kindergarten and first grade. By fourth grade it should all be automatic.

I’ve had and continue to have fourth grade students who read words almost fluently, but since punctuation is ignored in their writing, it’s ignored in what they read. They’re looking at a collection of words that the teacher insists they read. Since punctuation has no meaning to them, there’s no understanding where one idea ends and the next one begins. Even when they write, they don’t know where one of their own sentences ends and the next one begins. It makes some students angry at the painful proofreading process and at me for insisting that yes, we have to go through that painful process.

Literacy is more than just reading. It’s reading, writing, and spelling, and it begins with a solid phonetic foundation. For many students, especially those in high-poverty schools, there is no other way to build comprehension or (buzzword alert) critical thinking skills. By ignoring the reality that reading must begin at the beginning with a phonics in the early grades, millions more will be condemned to a lifetime of illiteracy, or at best limited literacy, no matter how much money is spent, whether or not they have school choice, how schools and teachers are graded, or how strongly politicians imagine they can legislate literacy.

Who am I? I’m Harry Onickel. I’ve been a public school teacher for the past 28 years. I’ve been a reading/writing tutor for the past many years. Occasionally I also train teachers to teach the same phonetic language arts system I use when I tutor (and I used to use in my classroom) so that more students will learn to read, write, and spell. Sometimes I write about it on The Teacher That ExplodedYou are invited to like my Reading Tutor Facebook page. I also have opinions (who doesn’t?) on other topics. I can be reached at [email protected].