Getting '(Un)Hooked on Phonics' Didn't Work for Oakland

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

Remember Hooked on Phonics? The reading program was such a success back in the ’90s that you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing an ad featuring a child proclaiming, “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!”


Phonics has been an important part of teaching kids how to read for generations. Even with the increased emphasis on “sight words” and other factors like context cues, young children discover the sounds that letters make and use what they’ve learned to “sound out” words.

“Plenty of evidence shows that children who receive systematic phonics instruction learn to read better and more rapidly than kids who don’t,” writes Emily Sohn at Science News. Phonics is a key component of a balanced approach to teaching kids how to read.

But not too long ago, the reliably left-leaning Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) decided that phonics wasn’t the way to go. Like all things tried-and-true, the hip, modern educators at the OUSD decided to throw out what worked and replaced it with something more multicultural.

A recent article in Time detailed what happened in Oakland.

“This seems dehumanizing, this is colonizing, this is the man telling us what to do,” teacher Kareem Weaver explained how teachers felt about the curriculum at the time. “So we fought tooth and nail as a teacher group to throw that out.”

This move happened after the program the OUSD used helped the district see the fastest growth in reading skills of any urban school system in the state of California. But the teachers weren’t satisfied, because what was actually working was “dehumanizing” and “colonizing.” Because it originated from “the man.” The horror!


It’s not as if the new reading program offered greater success to black students; it just wasn’t “colonizing,” and that’s what mattered most. The Time story doesn’t detail what culturally sensitive curriculum replaced the reading program that was working so well at the OUSD, but whatever it was, it was an overwhelming failure. Only 19% of black students in Oakland were reading at grade level under the new system.

So guess what? Teachers in the OUSD — including Weaver — are pushing to re-incorporate phonics into the school’s reading curriculum.

“It has been an unmitigated disaster,” Weaver understated.

Related: Metro Atlanta School District Sneakily Includes Gender Propaganda on School-Issued Devices

The lack of success that the new program brought to students in the OUSD combined with the learning loss that the pandemic brought across all subjects led educators and other concerned groups to lobby for bringing some of the basics back to the classroom.

“The timing for such a dramatic change feels especially challenging, writes Belinda Luscombe at Time. “Elementary-school teachers are already having to recalibrate after two years of disruption; vicious fighting about public-health mandates as well as what kids should be taught about race and gender; and a widespread parental freak-out about how little their children have learned during the pandemic. Now the most fundamental skill that society asks them to pass along is also being completely shaken up.”


Even the local chapter of the NAACP has gotten involved, pressing the school system to reintroduce “explicit instruction for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension” to the curriculum.

In the end, teachers have begun to realize that the switch away from a reading program that worked in the name of making leftists feel good about themselves took the priority off the kids they’re supposed to be teaching.

“We abandoned what worked because we didn’t like how it felt to us as adults, when actually, the social-justice thing to do is to teach them explicitly how to read,” Weaver admitted.

It looks like “the man” isn’t so bad after all when it comes to teaching children how to read.


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