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Science backs balanced teaching of reading, not intensive phonics

Last updated January 24, 2022

By Tina Underwood

white man with beard, Paul Thomas

Paul L. Thomas, Department of Education.

In a commentary appearing in Statehouse Report, Paul Thomas, a Furman University education professor, cites new research to shed light on the debate in South Carolina and other locations about the best way to teach reading. At odds are two approaches – 1) systematic intensive phonics, which is supported by science of reading proponents, and 2) balanced literacy, which has its roots in the whole language movement, Thomas explains.

Researchers in England analyzed a shift, which happened 16 years ago, from a balanced approach to systematic intensive phonics. Thomas quotes the study: “Our findings from analysis of tertiary reviews, systematic reviews … do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful.”

Further, they offer, “Phonics teaching with children younger than [age 5-6] is not likely to be effective. A focus on whole texts and reading for meaning, to contextualize the teaching of other skills and knowledge, should drive pedagogy.”

Thomas concludes, “Although too many states have jumped on the ‘science of reading’ bandwagon already, this important research from England is an opportunity to pause, readjust and not waste another decade or two making the same mistake England made in 2006.”


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