While Madison students struggle to read, an ideological battle rages between proponents of different teaching styles. Last month, the state took a strong new stance on phonics education in schools.
Recently, the state’s Department of Public Instruction announced it would recommend more Wisconsin classrooms use explicit phonics instruction.
It’s the most recent development in the reading wars, a decades-long conflict over the best way to teach reading skills. It’s an alternative to the Whole Language system, which was introduced in the 1980s. That method focuses on finding meaning through context rather than breaking words into pieces.
Phonics was used as far back as the 1800s and has more recently come back into style. It focuses on associating letters with sounds, or “sounding it out.”
Neither style is exclusively used in Wisconsin now. Both the Madison school board and the state department of instruction currently use a hybrid approach to teach children how to read.
Lisa Kvistad is the Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning for Madison schools. She shares the state’s view that phonics-based learning is critical.
“We actually believe that an explicit structured approach to phonics is an urgent matter in our schools. We believe that all of our students should be receiving explicit and structured phonics, and we know that students who receive that have less of a need for intervention as they get older,” says Kvistad.
“We know more now based on the science of reading, we know that reading is actually not a natural act. We know that reading can and must be taught. And we also know that instruction has to be engaging.”
Meanwhile, both Wisconsin and Madison literacy scores are suffering. In 2018, an exam given to Wisconsin’s middle school students showed that only 41 percent were proficient in reading. In 2019, that number dropped to 39 percent. The percentage for Madison students was even lower.
There is also a significant gap in reading skills through the lens of race. In 2018, 9.8 percent of black Madison students were proficient in reading. That’s compared to 16.8 percent of Hispanic students and 59 percent of white students.
Steve Dykstra, co-founder of the Wisconsin Reading Coalition, says while phonics education wouldn’t solve everything, it could help to boost these literacy scores.
“So, what happens when you do more phonics-based learning…two things happen to the gap. The gap may get smaller. We have to remember this gap is created by a lot of things. We can’t magically eliminate the impact of racism and poverty by shifting to a different way of teaching,” Dykstra says.
“So we have to be realistic. The gap may get smaller. What’s almost certain, though, is that the gap will shift. So everybody does better, the gap gets a little smaller. But the most important thing is that everybody does better.”
It’s been ten years since the Madison school district has updated its literary curriculum. The district had hoped to introduce a new curriculum this spring, but the plan has once again been pushed back. While some advocates are frustrated with the lack of progress, Kvistad sees this as an opportunity to educate teachers before the new plan goes into place.
Dykstra agrees with this strategy, and adds that a new explicit phonics plan would require the school board to rethink fundamental elements of the education system.
“I think one of the things they have to realize is they don’t have anybody who can train their teachers with the depth and specificity of knowledge that they’re gonna need to have, they’re gonna need to expend some resources and bring some people in from the outside, bring some services and training in from the outside to do that,” Dykstra says.
“They should look at places that have done it. There are districts around the country that have made massive gains in reading by doing what MMSD says it wants to do. States that have made massive gains. They need to talk to those people.”
The new superintendent of Madison schools, Matthew Gutiérrez, will begin this June. School board members are hoping that by the end of this year, a new plan can finally be put into place.