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Why is everyone and their mother talking about phonics?

Noticed that the whole world is suddenly buzzing about phonics?

You can thank Emily Hanford and her astoundingly-good documentary Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?, which has been BLOWING UP in social media lately.

How did long-form journalism about phonics – uhh, arguably the least sexy topic in all of K–12 education – become this year’s literacy must-read??

Maybe it’s the wowza reading outcomes in Bethlehem Area School District after they invested in phonics instruction:

Hanford district data

Maybe it’s the voices of teachers, who earnestly thought they were doing phonics instruction with their kiddos, when they were actually just doing letter study:

“When they became teachers, they did a little of what they thought was phonics. ‘We did like a letter a week. So if the letter was A, we read books about A, we ate things with A.'”

I was personally moved by hearing the pain of those educators, after they received good PD about phonics, and they realized they’d been underserving their readers.

Maybe it’s because the story has a clear villain: the teaching colleges that didn’t prepare our teachers to teach reading.

“Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don’t know the science or dismiss it. As a result of their intransigence, millions of kids have been set up to fail.”

And maybe it’s the important reminder that this issue has high stakes, since two thirds of our students lack proficiency as readers:

NAEP scores Hanford

Boy, does that chart hurt to look at.

Whatever the reason, Hanford’s piece has been Viral Like Whoa, and the reactions have become Must Watch Stuff.

Teachers are writing letters to their Ed school deans to grouse about their lack of preparation for teaching kids how to read, spawning an important conversation among education leaders about teacher training issues.

Teachers have also been opening up about personal experiences, from their own struggles as readers to parenting dilemmas. You can’t read I Am a Teacher and I Have Raised Two Struggling Readers without having All The Feels.

And parents are sharing the article, within the dyslexia advocacy community and beyond.

Read It Read It Read It

If you haven’t read ‘Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?,’ you must.

I’d also suggest reading Emily Hanford’s follow-up article for parents: What to do if your child’s school isn’t teaching reading right?

Why must you read these eye-opening pieces?

If you’re a parent of an early reader:

Read them to understand how phonemic awareness and and decoding skills affect your child’s development as a reader.

If you’re a teacher, literacy coach, principal, or curriculum director:

Read them to reflect on your reading curriculum, and whether it needs strengthening around phonics. Also, to be prepared if parents turn up seeking details about your phonics approach… I’m already hearing that the article is showing up in parent-teacher conferences and principals’ inboxes.

If you’re a superintendent or school board member:

Read them so that you’re asking the right questions of your C&I leaders, potentially allocating resources to enhance to your literacy program, and so that you’re prepared for the very likely wave of parent advocacy around literacy.

Also, Listen to Mom. The Problem Isn’t Just Phonics.

I found myself discussing this piece with my Mom, a longtime elementary principal and now curriculum director.

Mom had some concerns about the piece, and her main concern is super-fair:

“I see that this article is being shared all over the place, and that scares me a bit. Education has too many fads, and the last thing we need is for parents – or superintendents – to think that phonics is the only issue, or some magic bullet in how we teach reading.”

That is So Darned True.

And I loved this:

“Kindergarten achievement is the easiest gap to close. The place where teaching reading gets hard is in first grade. Teaching reading to first graders is rocket science, and systemic phonics instruction is just part of it.”

– Sue Vaites (my Mama)

Phonics matters – a lot – yet it’s not a magic bullet, and there’s a lot more to elementary reading instruction.

And phonics isn’t the only thing we’re getting wrong. The practice of grouping kids by reading levels remains pervasive, even though it’s unsupported by research. Too few educators understand the importance of content knowledge to literacy (explained in 3 minutes here, and in detail here), so schools are cutting back on science and social studies without realizing the impact this has on reading outcomes. I wouldn’t want a phonics fad that distracts us from important conversations about all of the ways we should be raising the bar for elementary reading instruction.

The ‘aha’ moment that I want educators to be having right now is not “uh-oh, I need a phonics supplement STAT.” Instead, I hope those ‘aha’ moments sound like, “wow, there are research-based practices that may be missing from our classrooms, starting with phonics, but perhaps not ending there.”


Hanford helps us see that teaching colleges aren’t adequately preparing teachers on how to teach reading. I hear a lot of focus on that issue in the wake of Hanford’s piece, and it feels like a big, hard problem to solve.

Conversely, the answer to getting phonics into reading programs feels straightforward and comparatively easy: it’s curriculum. That’s simply the easiest, most cost-effective option for empowering practice shifts. I liked the way Jessica Sliwerski captured it in ‘We need to step up our phonics game. Curriculum can help.’

The solution is good curriculum, mind-you… obviously, phonics-lite curriculum has been part of the problem. The curricula that score well in EdReports reviews cover the foundational skills bases, so if you’re phonics problem-solving, start there.

And if you want to know what to look for in those programs: the reading experts I know point to Timothy Shanahan’s insights: students should receive “daily, explicit, systematic decoding instruction.” 

I’m inspired to see a national conversation starting about reading instruction right now. And I’m inspired by the rapid gains in Bethlehem Area School District when they closed their phonics gap. Powerful reminders that we can improve reading outcomes when we focus in the right places are a gift.


PS – The Buzz Just Keeps Growing

As of mid-November, the conversation is getting louder and broader by the week. Think New York Times and #1-Article-on-EdWeek loud.

Check out my more recent post, A Literacy Tsunami Warning for K–12 Educators, for the latest.




Published inK–12 EducationLiteracy


  1. […] In the astoundingly-good documentary Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?, Emily Hanford unpacks our systemic failure to bring phonics instruction into elementary classrooms – and the cost for kids. It’s must-read stuff, and it feels like everyone and their mother is talking about it. […]

  2. Bronwen Mize Bronwen Mize

    Timothy Shanahan, hes grumpy enough without getting his name wrong!

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      You are my hero for flagging it! Everyone else probably just rolled their eyes at me. 🙂

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