Keeping Phonics in the Reading Mix

  • Education
  • 1981

For reasons that are hard to fathom, phonics (teaching children to understand the relationship between word sounds and various letters or groups of letters) became controversial with “progressives” at many teacher colleges about a generation ago. As a result, new readers today often never learn the relationship between words they hear and what they see on paper. The National Council on Teacher Quality reported in 2013 that only 18 percent of teacher-prep colleges offer all of the components of good reading programs, with phonics awareness being the main oversight.

A number of philanthropists have tried to compensate for this blind spot in teacher education. In 1997, for instance, David Packard committed tens of millions of dollars to develop and expand reading curricula that included phonetic tools, then absent from most of the instructional guidelines used in his home state of California. The donor who has perhaps been most enduring in resisting the abandonment of phonics instruction is Sandra Rose. Widow of New York City real-estate magnate Frederick Rose, and a major donor to educational causes generally, Rose founded the Reading Reform Foundation in 1981, and has since funded (along with other donors like the Leir and Skirball foundations) its work providing intensive training and classroom support to reading teachers in the New York metro region.

More than 20,000 teachers and principals have benefited from the foundation’s assistance. Twice a week throughout the school year, 30 foundation employees and consultants offer expert assistance in New York City-area public schools. Training one teacher (which includes 120 hours of expert visits to her classroom over the course of a year) costs RRF $15,000, of which $12,000 is subsidized by foundation donors, while $3,000 is charged to the school.

In 2012, Rose and a co-author published a book outlining the foundation’s successful phonics methods so they can be copied by other schools and organizations across the country. Rose also provided a $1.2 million grant to Manhattanville College in 2013 to establish a literacy institute that will instruct the nearly 800 students in its School of Education in practical integration of phonics into effective reading instruction.

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