The chancellor of New York City Schools, David C. Banks, announced a dramatic overhaul of the city’s reading curricula on Tuesday. He admitted that the current system, which is based on progressive ideas of “whole language” instruction, is “fundamentally flawed” and scientifically unsound.
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your child’s fault. It was our fault,” he said of New York’s disastrous reading scores, which show that only 49 percent of children in New York public schools are proficient in reading. “This is the beginning of a massive turnaround.”
The new program — which will require all New York City school districts to select one of three phonics-based curricula — marks a huge defeat for the progressive vision of “whole language,” experience-based reading curricula. It also marks the ascendency of traditionalist phonics-based curricula, which conservatives have trumpeted for decades.
Under the progressive vision of “whole language” instruction, students receive little formal training on how specific letters, consonants, and sounds work together to build words. It is premised on the idea that learning to read is analogous to learning how to speak. In this view, sounding out words is a waste of time, and only unstructured immersion can teach reading.
Instead of receiving formal training, children given “whole language” instruction are encouraged to read and write stories they are interested in. Often, children are directed toward books about identity or ethnicity, and they are encouraged to write about their personal lives. The emphasis is on deriving personal meaning from texts and connecting those texts to one’s identity.
In 2000, the National Reading Panel published a study that definitively concluded through the use of numerous sociological and psychological studies that phonics is an essential component of teaching children to read.
That was bad news for a cohort of educators, including Lucy Calkins of Columbia University’s Teachers College, who were pioneers of the progressive approach to reading instruction — and greatly profited off its implementation. But, facing blowback, they adapted and moved toward what they call “balanced literacy,” or curricula that incorporate both phonics and “whole language” instruction.
The reality, however, is that “balanced literacy” only marginally incorporates phonics, and its claimed usage of phonics serves more as a means of staving off evidence-based critics. The vast majority of it consists of “whole language” instruction.
Even the New York Times acknowledged in a 2003 article that “balanced literacy” incorporates very few elements of fundamental language instruction. Louisa C. Moats, a top reading instruction expert, has gone so far as to argue that “balanced literacy” is just “‘whole language’ … wearing the fig leaf of ‘balanced’ instruction.”
Banks has been aware of the faults in the system for quite some time, having hinted at his plans previously. With New York City Mayor Eric Adams’ support, he has, in denouncing “balanced literacy” as an “old way that has failed far too many kids,” implicitly begun to undo years of progressive efforts to enshrine in education a flawed instructional approach.
When then-Republican Michael Bloomberg became mayor of New York City in 2002, many expected him to push reading instruction away from the “whole language” approach. Instead, his chancellor, Joel I. Klein, went all-in on the progressives’ “balanced literacy.”
Klein announced a phonics component of the reading curriculum: Month by Month Phonics. This “phonics” curriculum, however, provided no formal instruction in conventional phonics; instead, it advocated “phonemic awareness” through the use of rhyming words and tongue twisters.
Klein sent Calkins to train teachers in the approach of “balanced literacy.” Ultimately, she provided training sessions to one-third of New York City’s public school teachers. Like-minded peers provided instruction to the remainder.
James Traub, a journalist with the New York Times, was dispatched to one of these training sessions at Columbia’s Teachers College. He observed that Calkins never used the words “vocabulary,” knowledge,” or “analysis” and that she did not discuss formal language instruction. Instead, Calkins argued that children should write about what is personal to them; many children, according to her, had used this personal writing “to surface buried hopes and fears.”
Klein’s approach failed to help students, so he pivoted away from “balanced literacy” approaches in 2008. However, the city returned to “balanced literacy” during the chancellorship of Carmen Fariña, who served under Mayor Bill De Blasio.
The use of “balanced literacy” curricula over the past two decades has left New York City’s students with a dismal education in reading — an effect magnified by monthslong school closures in 2020–2021. In 2022, only 12.7 percent of New York City students who are learning English as a second language were proficient in reading. The same was true for only 35.8 percent of black students and 36.8 percent of Latino students.
Banks’ announcement that New York City will move away from “balanced literacy” is a resounding rejection of progressive ideas on reading instruction. It also emerges out of a movement against “balanced literacy” that has gained steam in recent years, especially through the popularity of journalist Emily Hanford’s 2022 podcast Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, which thoroughly explained how the tenets of “whole language” instruction are neurologically incorrect. Hanford presented scientific evidence that showed that — unlike learning to speak — learning to read is not at all a natural process. She also demonstrated that the systematic teaching of phonetic concepts is the most effective way to teach reading.
Hanford’s podcast is backed up by numerous studies that have been available for decades, including ones that the National Reading Panel used in 2000 to pinpoint phonics’ necessity in education.
This information has encouraged parents to rally against “balanced literacy” and “whole language” reading methods, causing almost 20 states over the past two years to pass laws requiring the use of phonics instruction.
The intense backlash against “balanced literacy” has even induced its foremost proponent, Lucy Calkins, to admit error. Last year, the professor announced that she has rewritten her curriculum to include more instruction in phonics. She even stated that Hanford’s work contributed to her change of mind.
Requiring the use of phonics instruction in New York City, the home of Columbia’s progressive Teachers College — which is one of the main centers of “whole language” instruction — strikes a deafening blow to progressive reading methods.
Such methods, however, have been ingrained in schools across the country; so, while the use of phonics as an instructional method is likely to increase, many children will continue to learn to read — or, rather, not — experientially through identity-based stories.
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