Unpacking the Reading Wars and Advocating for Phonics

Unpacking the Reading Wars and Advocating for Phonics

On May 23, the Luminos Fund convened leading education experts to discuss the U.S. reading wars and refocus attention on the crucial task of teaching children how to read. This was the second webinar in the Luminos Method series, which also marked the launch of our latest Luminos Method element: Phonics for First-Generation Readers. This Method element is a user-friendly resource designed for governments and education organizations, combining the latest research on effective phonics instruction with our best practices developed through years of experience in some of the world’s most challenging contexts.


Emily Hanford, Senior Producer and Correspondent, American Public Media

Dr. Benjamin Piper, Director, Global Education Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund

Watch the webinar below:

Journalist Emily Hanford, celebrated for her in-depth, investigative podcast, Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, set the scene by providing an overview of the current state of reading instruction in American schools. Dr. Benjamin Piper of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drew on his extensive experience working in low-income countries, and shed light on the journey of learning to read in such contexts. Of the many valuable lessons they shared, here are five that stood out:

1) We are facing a global learning crisis.

The global learning crisis transcends national boundaries, and the consequences of this crisis are far-reaching, hindering social and economic progress and perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. In the U.S. and around the world, far too many children are not learning to read.

“7 in 10 kids worldwide can’t read at the age of grade three, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s 9 in 10 children. 90% of kids can’t read by the end of their third-grade year, age 10… Learning levels in these foundational years have lasting impacts on children’s low learning trajectories and future life prospects overall.”

Dr. Benjamin Piper

2) All children can benefit from a phonics-based approach to reading instruction, especially those in low-income countries.

Research consistently shows that explicit and systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of a comprehensive approach to foundational literacy. This approach promotes inclusivity and equips children with the tools they need to become successful readers. This is especially important for first-generation readers who are growing up in homes without books or parents who can read to them — phonics-based instruction equips them with the tools they need to become independent, confident readers.

“We work with students who are often the first in their family to learn to read, coming from homes that may not have a single book and coming from environments where the printed word is not a familiar thing. Most importantly, many of the students we teach are actually learning to read in the language they don’t speak at home. When you think through all of these extraordinary barriers to learning to read, it starts to become clear why a systematic step-by-step approach to teaching kids to learn to read is all the more essential.”

Caitlin Baron

A Luminos student in Ethiopia practices reading during class.

Luminos students in Ethiopia practice their reading skills using readers with local stories and illustrations. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)

3) Partisan political and ideological concerns have highjacked the debate on reading instruction.

The U.S. debate surrounding reading instruction has unfortunately become mired in partisan political and ideological concerns, diverting attention from evidence-based practices. It is crucial to refocus the conversation on research and best practices, ensuring that decisions about reading instruction prioritize the needs of children above all else.

“If you’re a mom of a kid who’s struggling to read, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, or a Democrat or Republican, you still care about this issue… And I’m hoping that means we will start to get the politics out and just do what we know is best from a lot of scientific research about how to teach kids to read.”

Emily Hanford

4) The key to academic success and social-emotional well-being is grounded in foundational literacy skills.

Foundational literacy skills serve as the cornerstone of academic success and social-emotional well-being for children. These skills not only establish one’s reading abilities but also contribute to broader cognitive development, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Moreover, mastering foundational literacy skills empowers children, instilling confidence and a sense of accomplishment which positively impacts their overall well-being and engagement in the classroom. By prioritizing and strengthening foundational literacy skills, educators can set children on a path toward lifelong learning.

“If we put a bright light on the foundational skills and really make sure that kids are mastering those, that allows them to experience success in school.”

Emily Hanford

Learn more about how we grow our student’s sense of self-belief and ensure they are able to experience success in the Identity & Self Belief element of the Luminos Method!

Luminos students in The Gambia use their student workbooks during a literacy lesson.

Luminos students in The Gambia during a literacy lesson. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund)

5) Teaching children how to read is not easy, and teachers need support.

Teaching children how to read is undoubtedly challenging, and explicit phonics instruction can often be new to teachers. They need ongoing coaching and support to help children become successful readers. It involves adapting teaching strategies, providing individualized support, and fostering a joyful classroom environment.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms in Sub-Saharan Africa and India in the last 16 years having lived here. [In] well-designed programs where teachers are trained and supported to teach these programs that are not only phonics but include phonics, you see the magic of having these kids track with their fingers as their teacher is reading the word, and actually seeing the relationship themselves between the letter sounds and the words.”

Dr. Benjamin Piper

Equitable and Effective Reading Instruction for All 

The webinar served as a platform for educators, policymakers, and advocates to contribute to the global conversation on one of the most critical issues facing education today: how to teach children to read.

The insights shared by our speakers reinforce the urgency of prioritizing evidence-based reading instruction for all children. With continued efforts and collaboration, the global community can strive towards equitable and effective reading instruction for future generations.

To learn more about the Luminos Method, including Phonics for First-Generation Readers, click here.

To view the webinar on LinkedIn and read the commentary from event participants, click here.

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Cracking the Code: Phonics 101

Cracking the Code: Phonics 101

In Luminos classrooms, we use a systematic and explicit phonics-based approach to teach children to read. But what is phonics and why do we use it? 

Phonics is a step-by-step way of teaching children to decode and recognize new words rather than just memorizing words by sight. At the start of a systematic phonics approach, children are taught the simplest relationships between letters and their corresponding sounds, such as the letters b, a, and t. Then children can begin decoding simple words by identifying the individual sounds represented by each letter and blending them together to pronounce a word. For example, children that have already learned the sounds for the corresponding letters b, a, and t, will be able to decode the word “bat” and pronounce it (/b/ /a/ /t/). Lessons then gradually progress to cover more complex relationships between letters and sounds, enabling students to read a wide range of new words.

The reason we use phonics is simple: it is proven to be the best way to teach children how to read.[1]

Blending Sounds to Read Words

For more detailed information on phonics, visit this webpage to access the latest Luminos Method element: Phonics for First-Generation Readers >

“The reason we use phonics is simple: it is proven to be the best way to teach children how to read.”

While some children may be able to learn to read through a less structured approach, phonics is significantly more effective and inclusive. For example, research shows that phonics is particularly beneficial for children with learning differences such as dyslexia, and that it particularly benefits students from low-income backgrounds and those who do not speak the language of instruction as their first language.[2] For first-generation readers who are growing up in a home without books or parents who can read to them, phonics instruction is equipping them with the tools they need to become independent, confident readers.

What strikes many people when they first see phonics instruction is that it involves a lot of repetition. The debate on how to teach children is fueled by such judgments, with some arguing that this repetition stifles creativity, but this is misguided. It is precisely because we want children to develop critical thinking skills and creativity that phonics approaches are so effective. Learning to read with phonics means that the process of decoding words becomes completely automatic, and children can focus on higher-order skills like comprehension, fluency, and yes, critical thinking and creativity.

Learn more about phonics in the Phonics for First-Generation Readers element of the Luminos Method ↓

A useful analogy, for those of us who perhaps cannot remember learning to read, is to think about how you learned to type.

“I learned in my early 20s using the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing program,” shares Dr. Kirsty Newman, Vice President of Programs at Luminos. “It involved a lot of repetition, but now that I have developed the skills, I can type without even having to use my thinking brain at all – it feels completely automatic. This means that my conscious brain can be fully utilized to create and problem-solve.”

Teaching literacy with phonics enables a similar phenomenon for reading – children learn how to decode text automatically, leaving them with plenty of brain power left over for analysis, problem-solving, and so forth. Thus, the old adage really comes true – “first, you learn to read and then you read to learn.”

The Impact of Phonics in Liberia

In 2016, the Luminos Fund expanded our accelerated learning program from Ethiopia to Liberia. Liberia had one of the highest rates of out-of-school children in the world and our top priority was improving students’ reading skills. We began using an approach that has worked well in Ethiopia, supplementing the government curriculum with games and activities that encouraged student participation and joyful learning.

However, we soon found that students were not learning as expected; although they were engaged and having fun, they still were unable to read even simple words. With only 10 months in our program, we urgently needed to find a solution that would equip children with the necessary literacy and numeracy skills to be successful in government schools. After a deeper analysis of the government curriculum and a review of alternative approaches being used in the country, we decided to implement a phonics-based program created by a local non-governmental organization (NGO).

The impact of the new materials and methods was clear; students were soon reading with a level of fluency we had not seen before. Recent project evaluations continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach: our students in Liberia typically start the program able to identify just a few letters of the alphabet, and after 10 months they can graduate reading at an average of 39 words per minute. By learning quickly and frequently experiencing success, students grow their self-belief, propelling them on their learning journey. 

“At first it was a bit difficult, as it was a new way of teaching for our teachers, but they soon saw the progress that students were making. That was very motivating for them, they could see that children were actually reading for themselves.”

Alphanso G. Menyon, Liberia Program Coordinator, Luminos Fund

Learn more about our work in Liberia here.

Additional Resources and Reading on Phonics:

Washington Post: “Cut the politics. Phonics is the best way to teach reading.”

Reading Rockets: “Reading 101: A Guide to Teaching Reading and Writing.”

National Literacy Trust: “What is Phonics?”

Northern Illinois University. College of Education: “Raising Readers: Tips for Parents.”


[1] The National Reading Panel’s meta-analysis of literacy research, published by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development [NICHD] (2000), found “solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction.” Shanahan and August (2006) found that the research on second language learners also demonstrated the importance of a phonics-based approach.

[2] August D. & Shanahan T. (2006); NICHD, 2000; Machin, S., McNally, S. & Viarengo, M. (2018) Changing how literacy is taught: evidence on synthetic phonics. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 10(2), 217–241.

The Power of Self-Belief to Accelerate Foundational Learning: Watch the Webinar

The Power of Self-Belief to Accelerate Foundational Learning: Watch the Webinar

Children everywhere learn best when they are happy, but for children who have fallen behind, how do you help them become confident, successful, life-long learners? Watch our webinar below to find the answers, as we dive into the Identity & Self-Belief element of the Luminos Method.

Our speakers discuss how children form beliefs about their own abilities, how this affects their development in school, and strategies to help students build their confidence.


Caitlin Baron

Caitlin Baron

CEO, Luminos Fund

“Part of our work is telling our children they can be successful, telling our teachers that every child can succeed, but actually, an equal part of our work is actually showing them that they can.”

Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund

Dr. Alex Eble

Dr. Alex Eble

Assistant Professor of Economics and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

“The emphasis on confidence building is important because in life, as in school, we come upon challenges, and so bumping up against challenges is a key place in which we need to emphasize the importance of persistence, the importance of identity, the importance that I belong.”

Alex Eble, Assistant Professor of Economics and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University

Emily Joof

Emily Joof

Associate Director of Programs, Luminos Fund; published children’s book author

“Being an out-of-school child means that you likely have not been successful in the classroom, that you possibly do not think of yourself as an individual with potential, with something to give, with the ability to grow… I think we do a lot to empower the child and build that sense of self-belief and self-esteem.”

Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs, Luminos Fund

This is the first in a series of webinars where we will explore key elements of the Luminos Method. Follow us on social media and subscribe to our Spotlight newsletter to stay updated on details of our next event!

“We are ensuring that learning is fun, that learning is relevant, and most importantly, that a child who opens the pages will see words, places, contexts, ideas that are familiar to themselves. And all those we know are stepping stones to ensure that a child builds their sense of identity and self-belief.”

Emily Joof, Associate Director of Programs, Luminos Fund

Teachers Transforming Education: Five Key Learnings from Luminos’ Event

Teachers Transforming Education: Five Key Learnings from Luminos’ Event

The Luminos Fund’s sixth annual U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) week luncheon event, “Teachers Leading in a Post-COVID World,” discussed innovative strategies to tackle the global teacher shortage and ensure teachers have the tools and training they need to help children become successful learners in a post-COVID world.

The panel discussion, moderated by Luminos CEO, Caitlin Baron, included:

  • Dr. Andrew Cunningham, Aga Khan Foundation
  • Dr. Asyia Kazmi, OBE, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

The event also marked the launch of the Luminos Method – a new series of resources that combine the latest research with key practices and data from our work. The first three elements of the Luminos Method are available in interactive web and PDF formats, including Community Teachers, Teacher-Led Assessment, and Identify and Self-Belief.

Against this backdrop, each panelist shared important insights on how teachers can be empowered to create an environment of transformational learning. Of the many valuable lessons they shared, here are five that stood out:

1) We need to think differently about who can be a teacher, how we train them, and how we support them.

“Teachers need ongoing support. It’s a contact sport. It’s a team sport. You cannot tell the teacher at the beginning of the year, ‘This is what you need to do for the rest of the year,’ and walk away.”

Dr. Asyia Kazmi, OBE, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The world is facing a global teacher shortage, with UNESCO estimating that almost 69 million teachers need to be recruited to achieve universal education by 2030. The Community Teachers element of the Luminos Method is our response to this global challenge.

Our experience shows that motivated people recruited from the same communities as our students can become great teachers for the early grades, provided they have quality training, practical written guidance, and ongoing in-classroom support.

With a supportive environment, we believe community teachers can play a critical role in reaching the most vulnerable children and enabling them to catch up with their peers.

2) Teachers can build a child’s confidence (and change their life).

“I could have been a number.” – Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

Instead, Dr. Nyahunzvi’s teacher said three powerful words that changed her life: “You are enough.”

“I remember in that moment… she built something inside of me to a point that I became the first generation [in my family] to attain levels of education beyond grade seven,” said Dr. Nyahunzvi.

How can we help students change their perceptions of themselves, build their confidence, and enable students to see themselves as successful learners, well-equipped to return to government schools? How do we ensure our teachers are building our students’ sense of self-belief and sending a clear message that all children can learn?

The Identity & Self-Belief element of the Luminos Method describes how we address these challenges by building self-belief among our students,

which in turn supports further successes in a virtuous circle that can continue throughout the students’ school career and beyond.

3) Assessment is essential.

“When I heard about Luminos and what you are able to do in nine months–that perhaps the public systems are not able to do in three years—I remember saying, ‘I bet you they have a really strong assessment-informed instruction principle.’ That means they’re using assessment information to understand where children are. They are then supporting the teachers to say, ‘Where do they need to be and how we can help you get there?’”

Dr. Asyia Kazmi, OBE, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Luminos views regular assessment as an essential component of education that is truly learner-centered and based on individual needs. The Teacher-Led Assessment element of the Luminos Method highlights strategies to empower teachers to track their students’ progress using a mix of weekly assessments and informal techniques. Equipping teachers with simple assessment tools, along with the appropriate coaching and support, is essential to keep students’ learning on track.

4) We must value and respect local cultures and communities.

While teachers should have access to detailed lesson plans and curriculum, we also believe there should be flexibility for teachers to utilize their expertise and knowledge of the local culture and context. For example, at Luminos, reading materials, songs, games, and role-play are relevant to the children’s mother tongue and culture. Family members and other community figures participate in students’ learning as well.

Learn more about ways Luminos works to ensure students feel their culture and identity is valued in the Identity & Self-Belief element of the Luminos Method.

“When you think about what assets this community has—you think, there’s wisdom in the grandparents—and then by involving them in the schools, in the academic, it helps the kids learn and build from what they know.”

Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

5) All children can learn.

“With the right skills and support, anyone can be anything.”

Dr. Vongai Nyahunzvi, Teach for All

All children should have equal access to joyful, foundational learning, especially those shut out of education by crisis, poverty, or discrimination. When given a second chance at education, children can learn, thrive, and succeed throughout their lives.

Yet 70% of children in low- and middle-income countries cannot read a simple story. As a sector, we desperately need to extend our reach and provide quality education to the most vulnerable communities around the world. By sharing the Luminos Method, we move closer to making this possibility a reality. 

Unlocking the Light

The Luminos UNGA week event highlights that by providing teachers with simple, but effective tools, training, and support, teachers can be empowered to truly unlock the light of learning in children.

“Teachers can own, lead, and inspire change.”

Dr. Andrew Cunningham, Aga Khan Foundation

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The Luminos Fund is a 501(c)(3), tax-exempt charitable organization registered in the United States (EIN 36-4817073).

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