[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 28, 2000/2 pp19-21]
[See other journal articles by Patrick Groff.]

How Fares Phonics in California?

Patrick Groff

Patrick Groff is professor of education emeritus at San Diego (California) State University, U.S.A.


The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the mechanism provided by the federal government of the United States to measure the relative academic attainment of school children nationally. In 1995, the NAEP reported that children in the state of California had become the least capable readers in America. They shared this ignoble distinction with the students in a southern state, Louisiana.

This bit of educational news was quickly and widely publicized across the U.S. Louisiana was notorious for its dismal historical record of teaching its children to read effectively. On the other hand, that students in schools in California, the so-called "golden state" of America, also suffered this educational indignity was viewed with great alarm in articles and editorials in leading newspapers.

A persistent question was raised about this circumstance: "How could such an instructional calamity happen in California, of all places?" While the bad news about low reading scores in Louisiana was not surprising, the same dolorous information about California children stimulated resounding demands from the media for an explanation of this educational calamity in America's most progressive, famous, and glamorous state.

Whole Language the Culprit?

Along with its 1995 measurement of how well children had learned to read in America, the NAEP asked teachers whether the reading instruction they conducted was the Whole Language (WL) variety. Concocted in the early 1970s by education professors Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman, the WL approach to the development of students' reading ability is based on the experimentally discredited principle that school children best learn to read in the same informal, natural manner in which they as preschoolers acquired the knack of speaking. Advocates of WL teaching thus insist that direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive (DISEC) instruction of a prearranged sequence of reading skills is time-wasting and unnecessary. Especially obnoxious to leaders of the WL movement is DISEC teaching of phonics rules (generalizations as to how letters regularly represent speech sounds).

It was discovered by the NAEP in 1995 that WL instruction of reading was more popular with teachers in California than with those in any other state. As a consequence, reading instruction specialists who believe that the method through which reading skills are developed is the key to children's success in this regard opine that WL reading instruction in California might have been the fundamental cause of the precipitous decline in its children's reading scores.

Especially assertive in this respect are experts in the teaching of reading who maintain that reading should be taught in ways based on relevant experimental research. These defenders of empirical evidence on how children best learn to read emphasize that none of the unique principles or original practices of WL reading instruction is corroborated by experimental studies designed to test the relative efficacy of different methods of teaching reading.

The Dispute over WL's Culpability.

On hearing of the adverse news about California students' deplorable performance on the reading section of NAEP, the California association of school board trustees insisted on a full-scale investigation to find the cause. Ordinarily, queries into problems regarding educational practice in schools are conducted by the California Department of Education (CDE). This is a bureaucracy expressly set up to exact obedience from the many school districts in the state to directives that it issues to them. However, the CDE had a painful conflict of interest.

In 1987, and again in 1994, the CDE mandated that WL must be used in California schools. Its "English Language-Arts Framework", a description of the reading instruction curriculum that schools are commanded to follow, liberally quotes with approval Frank Smith's unproved WL doctrines. The key one is that "children learn to read by reading," ie, that "almost all the rules, all the cues, and all the feedback (needed by students to learn to read) can be obtained only through the act of reading itself."

It thus is not remarkable that some of the WL loyalists the CDE has created declare there actually has been no decrease in reading ability among California students. That is to say, they contend that the NAEP is a bogus and reactionary measuring device that does not truly assess children's reading ability. Only the teacher loyal to WL principles is qualified to make that judgment.

Other WL enthusiasts claim that, if there were a genuine decrease in California children's reading ability in 1995, it only could have resulted from improper implementation of WL. In short, WL is defended as an absolutely unrivaled teaching process, one not open to negative criticism or future improvement. Any real decline in California students' reading skills, say the WL authorities, must have been chiefly due either to insufficient funding or to the increasing fraction of minority and non-English-speaking students from low-income families.

New Laws and their consequences.

Because of the CDE's enthusiastic commitment to WL prior to 1995, and the vigorous controversy between defenders and critics, the California legislature undertook to resolve the debate. The legislature provided both sides ample opportunity to present their perspectives. After intensive deliberation, the lawmakers voted against the WL side of the issue, and in favor of the idea that reading instruction must be based on experimental findings. Several statutes were passed that proscribe the worst excesses of WL in schools that operate with state and local funds. California state university departments of education were directed to teach DISEC phonics methods. Another law stipulates that candidates for teaching credentials must pass a test on reading instruction to work in California school districts.

What consequences followed this flurry of legislation? Unfortunately, there has been little advance of DISEC teaching of phonics rules. To the contrary, there are several signs that WL remains alive and well. For example:

1. Since there are no explicit penalties in the new reading instruction laws in California against individuals who flagrantly disobey them, WL proponents in school districts flout them without fear of punishment. A typical case comes from the San Diego schools. Shortly after becoming superintendent, Alan Bersin ordered elementary school teachers to use WL. "WL" is not mentioned in this directive. Nonetheless, it is clear to readers who know the literature that Bersin's mandate strongly respects it. His highly irregular practice of paying teachers during their summer vacation time to enroll in training in the use of WL pedagogy illustrates the extent of his commitment. On the other hand, Bersin brusquely overruled petitions from a cadre of San Diego teachers who protested his denial of their right to teach phonics information according to the experimental evidence.

2. In response to the new laws on students' reading development, the CDE issued a revised reading instruction curriculum to be implemented by school districts. This is a curious mixture of experimentally verified practices, and empirically invalidated ones. This compound of irreconcilable information is heralded by the CDE as a "balanced" approach.

3. One of the new reading laws in California provides funds for school districts to tell teachers the legal requirement to teach phonics in a DISEC manner. However, this statute often has been thwarted by school districts that take the money and use it to hire WL experts.

4. The new California law that requires candidates for teaching credentials to pass a standardized test on DISEC reading instruction has also been contravened. A critical analysis of this test published by the CDE reveals that the measure is riddled with compliments to WL concepts. Hence, a future teacher might pass by agreeing that phonics instruction need not be carried out in a DISEC manner.

Why Anti-Phonics Persists.

The present discussion reveals the deep-seated resistance within California's education establishment toward phonics instruction and, conversely, the continuing loyalty to the WL approach. Numerous academic surveys of the relevant empirical findings on this issue, including the recently published report of the U.S National Reading Panel, concur that the fastest and most economical way to develop students' phonics knowledge is DISEC instruction. Despite the overwhelming preponderance of pertinent information, objections continue to be voiced in California's teaching community against that kind of instruction.

There are several reasons why this reckless attitude persists:

1. Once educators establish loyalty to an instructional innovation, they are loath to admit that it contains fatal flaws. Admission by educators that they have held erroneous views on teaching reading appears to be too painful for many of them to confess.

2. The myth persists in educational circles that DISEC teaching of phonics knowledge is inevitably inhumane. It regularly is dismissed as "drill and kill" teaching, meaning it is harsh and severe animal-like training that destroys students' motivation to learn.

3. Educators commonly congratulate themselves as being progressive, modernistic, on the cutting edge, ahead of the curve, etc., in their instructional practices. Since DISEC teaching of phonics information has a historical record, while WL is relatively new, the former is rejected on that score.

4. The leadership of the WL movement is charismatic, dedicated, vigorous, diligent, clever, self-assured, and not reluctant to use traditional propagandistic techniques (eg, the "bandwagon" appeal) in promoting its version of reading teaching. The kingpins of the WL movement have also captured America's influential reading-education periodicals which repeatedly proclaim the superiority of WL.

5. WL proposes that only teachers, and not standardized tests, can properly measure how well students have learned to read. This dogma is especially attractive to educators who understandably dislike being held directly responsible for their performance by external assessments.

6. The apparent simplicity of WL holds allure for teachers. As noted, the governing WL theory is that children best learn to read simply "by reading". Therefore, WL teachers do not have to master any intricate, specialized, technical knowledge about reading instruction.

7. Some educators may be attracted to WL by its radical social, economic, political, and cultural agenda. They would find attractive WL's proclamation that the ultimate purpose of WL teaching is to drastically change the status quo of the present capitalistic society, one that is said to be hopelessly stratified by gender, class, race, and a variety of other unworthy divisions.


The California scene illustrates how a democratic society's desire, as expressed through its elected representatives, to give its children phonics instruction in tax-supported schools in a DISEC manner can be readily circumvented by people hired to carry out the law. The California case thus is an object lesson in the need for elected representatives to install mechanisms to ensure that educational laws will be obeyed by educators.

People in democratic nations assume that educators employed to implement education laws have the scruples to do so. The recent events in California, however, are a warning to parents, taxpayers, and the general public that the powerful ideological commitment by educators to WL can override their personal integrity in this respect.

The lessons for the simplified spelling movement are clear. Even if the spelling of words is reformed in order to make it less difficult for children to learn to read, this progressive step toward facilitating students' literacy may be obstructed by the reluctance of educators to teach reformed sound correspondences in a DISEC manner. Before teachers subscribe to the principles of simplified spellings, they will have to concede the current scientific findings about how reading should be taught.


Morris, Joyce M (1994) Phonicsphobia. JSSS, J17 1994/2, pp3-12.

NAEP = National Assessment of Educational Progress, National Center for Educational Statistics, Washington, DC.

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