In the war over literacy, phonics wins

For years, a ‘whole language’ approach taught students to guess, not to read

Columbia University’s Teachers College has invited educators in the Troy School District to participate in a workshop to improve literacy instruction. The timing is a bit odd: The college just shut down its Reading and Writing Project a few weeks ago because it failed to prepare teachers for evidence-based reading instruction.

The founder of the shuttered project, Lucy Calkins, developed the “Units of Study” curriculum, which relies on the “balanced literacy,” or “whole language,” approach to teaching kids to read. Columbia University announced that Calkins will go on sabbatical for the school year.

Calkins’ team trained hundreds of thousands of educators to implement her curriculum in their classrooms. About a quarter of the nation’s elementary schools use it. And it’s still used by many school districts in Michigan.

Here’s the problem: Balanced literacy doesn’t teach students to read. This is because English consists of letters that create meaning when combined into words. It is a code that must be deciphered. Readers must be able to match letters to their respective sounds and decode words before they can read and comprehend more complex texts.

Phonics-based instruction, which used to be the dominant method for reading instruction, teaches these decoding skills systematically and sequentially so that students can read new words in any context.

Balanced literacy approaches don’t work because they do not place enough emphasis on systematic phonics. Instead, they encourage students to use pictures and other contextual cues to essentially guess the word in question. Lacking decoding skills, students must figure out unrecognizable phonemes on a page. This is particularly problematic for students with dyslexia and other learning challenges.

State lawmakers recognize the need for interventions that improve reading skills, especially for young readers and those with dyslexia. In 2021, Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, and Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, introduced Senate Bills 380-383, in part to screen students for “characteristics of dyslexia and difficulties in learning to decode accurately.” The bill package passed the Senate but died in the House Education Committee.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 12 this year, which repealed the Read by Grade Three Law. This will result in less accountability for schools that fail to cultivate reading proficiency among their elementary students. Meanwhile, students continue to fall behind in the wake of pandemic-era school closures, as demonstrated by declining M-STEP reading scores.

In Michigan, each district selects or develops an academic curriculum to meet the state’s academic standards. This means some districts will choose a curriculum centered on phonics to support the state’s K-5 Reading Standards. Others will opt for a curriculum like balanced literacy. As a result, many students, including those with dyslexia, may fail to develop the literacy skills essential for reading proficiency.

With students still struggling to recover record learning losses incurred during the pandemic, lawmakers and school officials must make reading a priority.

They can do this by ensuring each district’s English language arts curriculum is developed based on the science of reading instruction and is closely aligned with state standards. They can use standardized test data to identify learning gaps and develop interventions. And they can ensure teachers receive training in evidence-based practices, including systematic phonics instruction, that give each student the best opportunity to succeed.

Molly Macek is director of education policy at the Mackinac Center. Email her at

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.