A return to basic phonics, more than 12 years after the state of California dropped its use in favour of the "whole language" approach in which reading is taught through comprehension, has led to dramatic improvements in children's literacy levels.
In the mid-1990s, 56 per cent of children in California primary schools were reading below basic level. Most of them were from families in which parents were college graduates, which pointed to it being a curriculum rather than a race or class issue.
Two years ago, in response to this problem, schools in Los Angeles were told to adopt a systematic phonics programme for six and seven-year-olds, which relies on explicitly teaching children to work out words by the sounds of syllables rather than learning phonics implicitly. Reading scores increased to the 56th percentile nationally; the previous year, they were at the 42nd percentile.
Hand in hand with the switch to phonics, the Los Angeles school district also paid for a small battalion of well-trained literacy coaches to work alongside teachers and classroom assistants. The combination of these two innovations, believes the California Board of Education, has led to the impressive improvements.