Saturday, February 08, 2020

1889 Institute: Why can't Oklahoma's kids read any better?

Why Can’t Oklahoma’s Kids Read Any Better?
By Byron Schlomach

As has been true every year since 2002 (save for one anomaly in 2015), Oklahoma’s National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) most recent reading scores for 4th and 8th graders came in under the national average. The 8th grade scores have been significantly higher in the past.

Why this poor showing? Why does it persist? Why has it gotten worse? No doubt, some will respond with the usual refrain about the need for more money. But, Oklahoma is one of only a handful of states that offers pre-kindergarten for all comers and funds it in its formulas. It’s better-funded than high school. And besides, did teachers have a better excuse for not teaching reading before they got a $5,000 raise?

The reason Oklahoma has poor readers might be because a whole-word “reading instruction” method, often characterized as the “three-cueing system,” is still used all over the state, according to an Oklahoma Watch article from last September. This method of supposedly teaching reading has children attempt to memorize the look of entire words, or guess a word from context, without learning the individual sounds letters represent. This basic method has gone by other names such as “Look-Say,” “See-Say,” “Sight,” “Psycholinguistic,” “Word,” “Whole-Word,” and “Whole Language” over the years. They are all discredited.

There is only one scientifically-verified reading instruction methodology – phonics. It requires instructing children in the constituent sounds we use to form words, and the letters and letter combinations that represent them. You’d think that educators would trip over each other to get their hands on a teaching methodology verified by science, one even confirmed with brain imaging, but that’s apparently wrong.

Maybe teachers persist in using wrong teaching methods in reading because of what they were erroneously taught in our universities’ schools of education, and they just don’t know better. If so, making them aware of their error should result in swift change.

Unfortunately, our Superintendent of Public Education, Joy Hofmeister, and the department she leads seem more concerned with subjecting our teachers to hours of meetings about “trauma-informed” instruction. Best I can tell, that means being nice to kids from dysfunctional families and neighborhoods. That’s laudable, but the vast majority of teachers are already compassionate. It would seem far more important and beneficial for these same children to learn to read than to have their teachers repeatedly told they need to be compassionate, which is not exactly news.

Maybe it’s time to mandate that the state universities’ colleges of education teach scientifically-verified reading instruction methods, that they re-teach current teachers at the universities’ expense, and that public schools use those methods. After all, Oklahoma students’ poor reading skills can ultimately be traced to our universities’ colleges of education.

Byron Schlomach is the 1889 Institute Director and can be contacted at


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