NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

California Rediscovers Phonics

February 12, 2002

Frustrated by reading scores that plunged close to the nation's worst, California officials are dumping "whole language" reading programs and returning to phonics-based instruction. The state has adopted two reading programs that emphasize sounding out vowels and consonants.

While the state policy does not require all schools to use the phonics programs, there is a powerful incentive for schools to do so: they are the only two reading programs the state will pay for.

Educators there have seen powerful evidence that phonics-based instruction works:

  • In Los Angeles, schools with the poorest results in reading were ordered to adopt systemic phonics in the first two grades two years ago.
  • First-grade reading scores soared to the 56th percentile nationally for the 2000-2001 school year, from the 42nd percentile the year before.
  • Scores in the second grade climbed to the 37th percentile from the 32nd -- with similar gains in standing of 10 to 20 percent for Los Angeles students through fifth grade, where explicit phonics had not yet been adopted.
  • The progress was registered despite severe school overcrowding and one-quarter of teachers lacking formal credentials to teach.

The school district is now emphasizing teacher training.

The shift to phonics also coincided with passage of a law mandating the end of bilingual education.

Source: Diana Jean Schemo, "California Leads Chorus of Sounded-Out Syllables," New York Times, February 9, 2002.  


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