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Nancy Bailey’s Education Website: The Science of Reading Plot to Replace Reading Teachers with Phonics on a Screen

Not only are school districts spending huge sums on laptops with little research to indicate students learn better on computers, they’re also pushing children to face screens to learn the most serious subject, how to read. They’re doing this alongside efforts by corporate reformers to kick teachers out of the classroom, and by promoting the idea that teachers don’t understand a Science of Reading.

The Science of Reading (SoR) refers to explicit systematic or structured phonics. This argument has been around for a long time, but it recently resurfaced, and it seems a bit different. Now phonics is on a screen.

Commercial programs in reading and phonics have always been sold to school districts for teachers to use. In the past, this process usually involved a vetting process where parents and teachers would help choose the district program. Sometimes there has been controversy over those programs. 

The difference today is that reading programs are increasingly digital with embedded digital assessment. Phonics fits into software well. Think of it as worksheets on a screen, mini tests where students repetitively click the answer to show they mastered the skill.

The Science of Reading seems to be about this, selling online programs. Many of the crusaders for the SoR are found here promoting Amplify. Amplify is a questionable digital program based on Common Core State Standards.

With all the criticism of teachers and how they teach reading, no one associates reading failure with the phonics in the English language arts Common Core State Standards. They should. Common Core is used in most digital reading programs.

There is also no credible research to indicate that students learn better with technology, including reading. On the contrary, a 2015 OECD report indicated students who use computers very frequently at school do much worse, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.

But there’s money in tech programs, especially those that sell reading programs. If the Science of Reading is found on a computer, who needs a teacher?

This drive means that while some school districts in America can’t find the money to stay alive, other school districts find funds to give every child a laptop like it’s cheap candy.

There’s another side to all of this.

Parents are worried about their children and too much screen time. They’re concerned about data collected on their child when they’re online and whether that data is being used to track students into a workforce pipeline. They also understand that there’s no credible proof that screens are better at teaching children how to read.

Parents worry about the teacher shortage. Some schools can’t find enough qualified teachers to cover classes. Doesn’t it seem odd, that during a teacher shortage, teachers come under attack for the way they teach reading?

The dissatisfaction parents have with the overuse of technology is highlighted in the recent report by Debbie Truong of The Washington Post who wrote “More students are learning on laptops and tablets in class. Some parents want to hit the off switch.”

From Northern Virginia to Shawnee, Kan., to Norman, Okla., parents have demanded schools reduce or eliminate use of digital devices, provide alternative “low-screen” classwork and allow parents to say they do not want their children glued to glowing screens. Some families have even transferred their children to schools that are not so smitten with technology.

There’s also growing alarm about childhood screen addiction, not only with teens and middle school students. According to a NBC report “Is your child hooked on digital devices? (Chuck, Ward, & Sottile, Jan. 2020) researchers at Seattle Children’s Research Institute find computer addiction in the youngest learners.

They describe a 22-month-old who is glued to the reading app Elmo Loves ABCs. The girl is so obsessed with the screen that she ignores those who speak to her and other visual stimuli!

There’s questionable blame when the words “reading crisis” are used and when that crisis, if there is one, is blamed on teachers.

An assortment of problems facing schools, like poverty and the loss of school libraries and librarians and the dwindling services that are supposed to be provided to students with reading difficulties under IDEA are variables that are always ignored by those critical of teachers who promote a Science of Reading.

There is no mention of the substandard digital programs that complement the Common Core State Standards that have been running rampant in public schools for years! They include iReady, Amplify, and iStation. There are others and always new ones to come on the market.

Children learn to read well when teachers are well-equipped with a variety of reading strategies, and when conditions are right for reading instruction to occur. Most children need some phonics for spelling but not an intensive program. Other children might need more phonics, especially if they have dyslexia or reading disabilities.

One problem is that many school districts are not providing students with disabilities the special services they need. Children who do need more structured phonics are lost in inclusion classes, some that have thirty or more children. Some schools are not fulfilling the promise of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

When schools support well-prepared reading teachers with education degrees from reputable universities, the teacher, with feedback from the parent, should be the determiner of what individual students need in order to learn to read. Good teachers have always taught students how to read!

Today teachers are blamed for not understanding the Science of Reading, while school districts purchase more iPads and scrounge around to cover classes so students at least are supervised. What does this say? Teachers leave, but the un-scrutinized tech programs stay.

In the end, that’s what parents who can’t afford an expensive private school will end up with, whether they like it or not. Their children will get phonics on a screen with facilitators supervising their children at the nearby online charter school, or parents will have to teach their child to read at home.

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Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authore...