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Walters: Joseph’s literary crusade for teaching phonics is paying off

Sometimes – not often, but sometimes – one person can have a life-changing impact on the wellbeing of millions of people.

Marion Joseph, who died nearly a year ago at age 95, was one of those people. She impacted millions of California schoolchildren present and future who struggle with reading comprehension, the vital skill that underlies all of education.

The pandemic underscored that too many of California’s elementary school students lack effective reading ability. EdSource noted that, prior to the pandemic, fewer than 50% of the state’s third-graders were reading at the expected level for their age. Three years later, after students had suffered through school closures and haphazard Zoom school, that had dropped to 42%.

It’s evident that one factor in the state’s reading crisis was that too many students were being subjected to a trendy form of reading instruction called “whole language,” which largely left them struggling on their own to decipher the words in their books.

For decades, California educators and politicians had been waging what were dubbed “reading wars” over whether that approach or the rival phonics method was more effective. School districts were left to decide for themselves which to use.

Joseph was one of the fiercest reading warriors. She had retired in 1982 after a long career in the state Department of Education, but became a tireless advocate for phonics after discovering that her granddaughter was struggling in reading.

Appalled to learn that the majority of California’s elementary students could not read well enough to learn from textbooks, Joseph started pestering state officials to do something. In the 1990s, then-Gov. Pete Wilson appointed her to the state Board of Education, which gave her a platform for the phonics crusade.

Joseph had some success in advancing the phonics cause, which stresses fundamental instruction in the letters and letter combinations that make up sounds, thus allowing children to sound out words and eventually whole sentences and passages.

In 2005, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy research group, honored her, saying, “Her relentless, research-based advocacy – for which the retired grandma didn’t earn a dime – is still a sterling example of what a citizen-activist and lone individual can accomplish in reforming U.S. schools.”

Alas, after Joseph retired for a second time, the advocates of whole language, which assumes that reading is a naturally learned skill, much like speaking, recouped and reading scores once again stagnated. However it now appears that phonics, now dubbed the “science of reading,” will become the state’s preferred method.

Phonics have a new champion in Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has struggled with dyslexia and thus has a strong personal interest in improving reading skills.

Buried on Page 123 of a trailer bill attached to Newsom’s proposed 2023-24 state budget is a $1 million appropriation to the Department of Education for creation of a “Literacy Roadmap” aimed at improving reading and other language skills using “evidence-based literacy instruction in the classroom, including explicit instruction in phonics, phonemic awareness, and other decoding skills.”

Newsom’s support isn’t the only indication that Joseph’s long struggle is paying off. Beginning next year, credentialing of teacher preparation programs will require reading standards aligned with phonics.

Perhaps most importantly, 14 leading figures in California education research and advocacy, including those who have fought in reading wars on both sides, have issued a joint paper that calls for more vigorous and targeted instruction in basic reading skills, including phonics.

It’s unfortunate Joseph is not alive to see what’s finally happening to address California’s literacy crisis.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

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