In summary

While Marion Joseph, a fierce advocate for phonics in reading instruction, has died, one California school district’s experience validates her position.

Marion Joseph died last month in Walnut Creek and while her passing received only scant attention in California media, it rated a lengthy obituary in the New York Times.

Why? Because she was a renowned expert on and advocate for rigorous reading instruction based in phonics, having delved into the issue when she realized that her own grandson, then a first-grader, was having difficulty learning to read.

Joseph took on the improvement of reading instruction as a cause in the 1980s after retiring as a top aide to Wilson Riles, then California’s superintendent of public instruction.

“Drawing on the research of G. Reid Lyon, chief of child development and behavior at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, she confronted the evidence that more than half of California’s fourth graders could not read well enough to understand basic texts,” the Times noted in its obituary.

“In 1994, Ms. Joseph was named to a state task force whose mission was to improve reading instruction. Instead of accepting the prevailing progressive premise that every child learns differently, Ms. Joseph sought to impose a more rigorous standard that every child needs to know certain fundamental skills.”

Joseph persuaded Gov. Pete Wilson to take up the phonics cause in the 1990s. He appointed her to the state Board of Education and phonics was adopted as California’s preferred reading education technique.

Joseph took her crusade national and in 2005, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative public policy research group, honored her for valor and said of her efforts, “Her relentless, research-based advocacy — for which the retired grandma didn’t earn a dime — is still a sterling example of what a citizen-activist and lone individual can accomplish in reforming U.S. schools.”

Alas, after Joseph retired from the nation’s reading wars, California drifted away from phonics and back into what’s called “whole language.”

Phonics stress fundamental instruction in the letters and letter combinations that make up sounds, thus allowing children to “sound out” words and later whole sentences and passages. The whole language approach assumes that reading is a naturally learned skill, much like speaking, and that exposing children to reading material will allow it to emerge.

This month, a few weeks after Joseph died, EdSource, a journalistic website devoted to California education issues, published an article about how phonics had a miraculous effect on reading skills in Lodi.

“With $131 million in federal and state COVID relief funds,” EdSource reported, “Lodi Unified chose to prioritize literacy and social-emotional learning in its plan to help students recover from the pandemic.

“So far, the district has spent nearly $500,000 on teacher training and materials for a reading program called Systemic Instruction in Phenome Awareness, Phonics and Sight Words, or SIPPS, which initially was only used at two of the district’s 32 elementary schools.”

The sharp boost in literacy test scores at those two schools led to district-wide adoption.

 “In order to have a healthy, thriving community, our schools’ No. 1 priority is to send every child into the world knowing how to read,” said Susan Petersen, the district’s director of elementary education. “If you can read, then you can access everything else out there,” Petersen said. “It’s amazing what’s happened. Its positive impact has spread like wildflowers.”

Marion Joseph would have been proud that Lodi has bucked the education establishment and embraced phonics. It’s widely acknowledged that California schools have a reading crisis, so one must wonder why, given the success in Lodi and other school systems using phonics, the establishment continues to advocate whole language.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...