Phonics Is Back; Did It Ever Leave Catholic Schools?

Phonics-based reading instruction is back in U.S. public schools, and Catholic experts want parochial schools to review their own standards.

Phonics has long been a hallmark of Catholic education.
Phonics has long been a hallmark of Catholic education. (photo: Shutterstock)

WASHINGTON — Back in the 1980s, when Mary Pat Donoghue completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, “Units of Study for Teaching Reading” was a popular new program that celebrated children as natural learners and downplayed the need for strong phonics instruction in K-2 classrooms.

Today, Units of Study is reportedly used in about one-quarter of U.S. elementary schools. But its primary author, Lucy Calkins, an influential Columbia University Teachers College professor, has been accused of failing millions of students who needed evidence-based techniques for building literacy, prompting her to add more phonics to her program.

And Donoghue, now the executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), believes that the nation’s parochial schools can learn from this national reckoning with untested “whole language” or “blended literacy” methods — though most diocesan institutions never fully abandoned phonics, and their students typically score better than their public-school peers on standardized reading assessments. 

“Lucy Calkins was the guru who advocated the idea that if you share rich, high-quality literature with students they will imbibe it, and you will create a reader,” Donoghue told the Register. She said that a child who lives in an environment rich in literature can benefit from that advantage. “But it isn’t the case for all children,” she added. “And when you deprive them of the rules, the building blocks of language itself, you make reading inaccessible for children.” 

Donoghue is a seasoned Catholic educator who has served as a teacher and principal. She turned around a failing local school in Hyattsville, Maryland, and worked with the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education to help parochial school systems and individual parish schools adopt a classical Catholic curriculum that provides a rich, integrated approach to literacy. 

At the same time, she has followed the ebb and flow of the decades-long debate over phonics and has become increasingly skeptical of educational trends that seem to “please adults and make it easier to teach” but leave students poorly prepared for more rigorous academic work. 

These fads have roiled public-school communities, pitting frustrated parents against teachers and school boards. Further, they have stymied efforts to boost U.S. student-achievement levels, with 65% of fourth-graders testing at basic or below basic reading levels in the latest  National Assessment of Educational Progress

Catholic schools have faced similar curriculum disputes. 

“All of these misdirected education philosophies come out of schools of higher learning,” Donoghue reported, noting that these problematic theories have influenced teachers and administrators in Catholic schools, as well.

Yet the most frustrating part of the current national debate over phonics and the science of reading for experts like Donoghue is the fact that the discussion isn’t new. Indeed, it was supposed to be settled more than two decades ago, when a government-commissioned panel of literacy experts issued a report in 2000 that endorsed systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, combined with vocabulary-rich readers that helped boost comprehension, as the most predictable path to literacy.


Prioritizing Phonics

“Phonemic awareness” is the knowledge that spoken words can be broken apart into smaller segments of sound known as phonemes,” the report explained. 

Phonics was defined as “the knowledge that letters of the alphabet represent phonemes and that these sounds are blended together to form written words.” With phonics, readers “can sound out words they haven’t seen before, without first having to memorize them.”

But many education schools, textbook companies and principals failed to adopt the full complement of recommended practices, choosing instead to combine techniques from different schools of thought in an approach called “blended literacy.”  

Thus, while 30 states have now mandated the adoption of phonics and other “evidence-based” strategies for student literacy, and the Oakland, California, branch of the NAACP recently filed an administrative petition with the Oakland Unified School District to ask it to include “explicit instruction for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension” in its curriculum, popular textbook series and teacher certification programs may still downplay best practices. And that means some teachers are still confused about the right strategies to prioritize.

When Heather Calix, a first- and second-grade reading instructor at St. Joseph Catholic Academy in Queens, New York, returned to college to earn a second degree in reading literacy, the Church-affiliated credentialing program gave no special weight to phonics. 

“They taught every approach and let future teachers make that choice,” Calix told the Register. 

Calix, who believes that “phonics instruction is necessary,” still employs a “balanced literacy” approach that uses other techniques. 

“Not every kid will learn the same way, so we use a multitude of resources and blend different practices,” she said, noting that she tracks students’ progress and targets learning gaps that are identified.

Parish schools are not insulated from untested educational theories. But many Catholic-school superintendents have worked closely with local principals to share best practices and evaluate outcomes.

“The ‘return to phonics’ is a foreign concept for us because it never left,” Stephen Marositz, associate superintendent for teaching and learning at the New York Archdiocese, told the Register.

Archdiocesan standards have consistently mandated phonics instruction. 

Schools decide what materials they will use, he said.

“But we don’t leave them out to dry,” Marositz said. “We provide intervention programs that act as supplemental tools to help teachers meet the needs of the kids.”


Advancing Achievement 

Regular assessments of phoneme awareness and related skills confirm the success of this model, he reported, with students at archdiocesan schools outpacing their peers in public schools. 

That message resonates in New York City, where state testing has exposed pervasive problems with student literacy, and fewer than 50% of children in public school read at grade level. Local government officials have vowed to overhaul classroom instruction, and phonics is making a comeback

Over the past decade, a number of struggling Catholic schools faced a similar reckoning, and their resulting curriculum reboot also included a stronger phonics program.  

Jessica Aybar, principal of St. Athanasius School in the South Bronx, said she remembers when the piecemeal approach that once defined reading instruction at the school came to a grinding halt in 2013, and a rigorous new framework took its place. Looking back on that time, Aybar acknowledged that she had grown frustrated with the reading program used in her classroom but didn’t know why the students weren’t becoming confident readers. 

When Partnership Schools, a network of urban Catholic schools in Harlem, the South Bronx and Cleveland, Ohio, took over management of St. Athanasius, she was introduced to a completely new approach: the Core Knowledge Language Arts program. 

Core Knowledge featured a full complement of phonics instruction, combined with strong vocabulary-building and foundational reading strands that exposed lower-elementary students to history, culture, science and literature. The fictional stories from the old reading program that featured characters and plots deemed to be “relevant” to students were gone. The new texts included myths, fairy stories, fables and jingles. 

“When we began working with CKLA, we saw the impact of a more rigorous curriculum,” recalled Aybar, who was a teacher at the time. 

The improved test scores confirmed that CKLA’s approach to phonics and vocabulary acquisition was advancing achievement levels at the school, especially for children who had less exposure to spoken English and books at home. 

Kathleen Porter-McGee, the superintendent of Partnership Schools, has witnessed the same turnaround in other struggling parish schools that began using CKLA and benefited from related investments in classroom resources.  

Initially, she often got pushback from anxious teachers who had received their professional training in whole-language reading methods, which typically restrict “boring” phonics instruction and provide less rigorous reading materials. 

One teacher waited several months before she acknowledged the benefits of the new program. 

“The teacher told me, ‘I did not realize I had been teaching reading the wrong way,’” Porter-McGee recalled.

A growing number of reading programs now feature phonics instruction for younger elementary-school students. But experts like Porter-McGee single out the CKLA framework because it approaches “phonics systematically, while constantly building a base of knowledge that allows students to accelerate across reading levels.”


‘We Can Do This Better’

Robert Pondiscio, a specialist in K-12 education at the American Enterprise Institute, said these Catholic educators were on the right track. It was important to improve phonics exercises and build reading comprehension, he said. 

“I am a big fan of the shift to evidence-based reading instruction,” he said, but phonics alone “won’t solve the problem.”

Decades ago, when Pondiscio served as a middle-school teacher in a tough neighborhood, he realized that his students could “decode words but lacked the background knowledge” to make sense of the text. 

“Lucy Calkins said you have to make the reading materials engaging, personal and relevant to students,” he noted, but the children in his South Bronx classroom needed something else, and “tips and tricks” couldn’t replace their knowledge deficit. 

Pondiscio thus became a devotee of E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, because the visionary educator underscored the importance of “cultural literacy” — knowledge that was assumed by authors but often lacking in students who had not been exposed to a content-rich curriculum. 

Now, with the students from his old classroom in mind, Pondiscio wants U.S. educators who care about racial equity to focus first on curriculum reforms that can make Black and brown students strong, competent readers. 

“If you are not serious about literacy, you are not serious about equity,” he said bluntly. “There are a lot of theories about what an equitable system looks like for kids of color. The first and last word is literacy.” 

Catholic inner-city schools have always focused on the transmission of basic academic skills like reading. But some dioceses are now making sweeping changes to their curricula, combining the CKLA phonics and vocabulary-building strands with explicitly Catholic content. And the Institute for Liberal Education, which has expanded its staff to meet the growing demand for a classical Catholic education, is often assisting with this shift in educational priorities that may include explicitly classical-educational methods like a more systematic focus on grammar, rhetoric and poetry recitation and memorization.

Mark Salisbury, director of education and evangelization for the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, told the Register that diocesan educational leaders had become dissatisfied with their previous approach and decided to make a change in 2015.

“We wanted a richer Catholic curriculum that spoke to our mission” and returned to the roots and religious identity of Catholic education in a “practical, high-quality way,” he said. So while they tap elements of the CKLA framework, they have added Catholic materials, such as the lives of the saints, Church history and readings that celebrate Christian virtues that build comprehension and inspire the moral imagination of their students.

Salisbury has worked to get diocesan schools on board with this new approach.  

“We have a group of principals and teachers who get it and are excited about it,” he said. 

For now, however, teacher recruitment remains a challenge for Marquette Catholic schools. 

For that reason, Salisbury and other like-minded Catholic school superintendents are exploring new-teacher training options and plans for a teacher credential aligned with their goals. 

“We have to retrain teachers, and that will take real clarity about goals and rigor,” Salisbury concluded.

“To help children read rich material, to write well and speak well is hard. But we have gotten to work, knowing we can do this better.”