As educators welcomed students back to school this fall, many tuned in to the chatter around reading instruction sparked by Emily Hanford’s APM Reports audio documentary “Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught to Read?” In this piece, Hanford lays out the disconnect between how kids learn to read and how many of their teachers are trained to deliver reading lessons.
A bounty of scientific research tells us that kids cannot simply learn to read through exposure to books and storytime. Rather, they need to be taught how to decode words. It’s a skill that requires a strong foundation in phonics — being able to connect sounds with letters.
It’s sounds pretty straightforward. But reading instruction has a lot of political baggage. Nearly four decades ago, the so-called “reading war” had taken center stage, overshadowing the science behind learning how to read.
The debate characterized proponents of explicit phonics-based instruction as conservative, pitting them against more left-leaning educators who believed this level of detail threatened to quash students’ budding passion for reading. Instead, guided by the thought that literacy would come naturally, the “whole language” supporters prioritized exposure to good books and reading practice.
After the U.S. Congress weighed in by creating a National Reading Panel, which underscored the importance of teaching phonics in the report it released in 2000, the division got murkier.
Phonics gained widespread status as an essential component of reading instruction. The debate, however, pivoted to how much phonics instruction was necessary to develop strong readers. The “whole language” approach morphed into the “balanced literacy” approach, with educators incorporating bits and pieces of phonics instruction — still reluctant to drill students with word rules.
This seems to be the case in Minnesota, where people — from professors and teachers to parents and education consultants — continue to be divided over how, and to what extent, phonics instruction should be delivered. Likewise, there’s still no consensus over whether explicit phonics-based curriculums should be delivered to the whole class, or reserved as an intervention tool for struggling readers.
Going all in with phonics
Working in partnership with the professional learning division of Groves Academy, a private school based in St. Louis Park for children with learning disabilities, a handful of schools in the metro area have begun implementing a more systematic approach to covering phonics in the early grades. Most are only a year or two into the transition. But the early results are promising — not just at private schools, but at traditional public schools and charter schools as well.
For instance, first-graders at Prodeo Academy’s St. Paul campus made significant gains after their unit 1 assessment earlier this year revealed many were still struggling to differentiate between the letters “b” and “d.” Rather than forge ahead, Principal Liz Ferguson had her teachers spend an additional week reteaching these letters, so more students could master this important distinction. As a result, the average score on this assessment jumped from an initial 29 percent to 88 percent during the retake.
This level of detail given to explicit phonics instruction and mastery, delivered to the entire class, isn’t found in most elementary classrooms.
In addition to building kids’ vocabulary and comprehension skills through their regular reading lesson, teachers at Prodeo are tasked with adding on a daily 30-minute phonics-based lesson to ensure that students are grasping the reading rules they’ll need to one day achieve fluency.
Many of these lesson plans are scripted, so teachers know exactly how and when to introduce leach letter, along with its sounds. And how to build up to words from there. Additionally, teachers get weekly check-ins with a literacy coach from Groves Academy, along with support tracking student progress through routine assessments.
“These programs are research-based, highly systematic. We follow it to a T,” Ferguson said of the reading curriculum, noting it’s added efficiencies and consistency to how all students in the building are being taught to read.
The phonics exercises that these teachers are integrating into their daily lessons are grounded in research as well, says Katharine Campbell, who leads Grove Academy’s literacy partnership initiatives.
On a recent morning in Kathleen Boland’s blended kindergarten and first-grade classroom, students warmed up for their routine literacy assessment by participating in a quick “skywriting” exercise. They extended one arm and wrote out the letter “t,” as they recited the sound it makes. In another exercise, they “tapped” out three-letter words with their fingers as they spelled them out loud together.
“In the ages we deal with, kindergarten through third grade, there’s a lot of brain plasticity,” said Campbell, noting these sorts of exercises help activate more areas of their brain, helping them commit word rules to memory. “We’re really molding those brains into more reading and spelling brains than, perhaps, they had when they came in.”
‘Beneficial for everyone’
At Holy Spirit Catholic School, a private elementary school located in St. Paul, Principal Mary Adrian says she and her teachers were noticing a trend: By fourth grade, kids were all of a sudden hitting a wall in their literacy development. Often these were kids who hadn’t shown signs of struggling with literacy before.
“We were curious about that, and didn’t know exactly what to make of that,” she said. “And we weren’t sure why we weren’t catching that earlier.”
This trend isn’t unique to Holy Spirit. Elementary students may become good at committing new words to memory, but when they transition from learning to read to reading to learn in the later elementary years, this crutch begins to fail them. Textbooks are filled with new words that they need to be able to break down and read on their own, in order to keep up, explained Campbell.
Case in point, in the upper grades struggling readers seemed to be benefiting from the phonics-based interventions. So, Adrian says, it made sense to implement a phonics-based literacy approach, wholesale, in the early foundational years.
“That was a new idea for teachers. They were like: ‘So-and-so is a pretty good reader already. Why would we need to do this?’ So the idea of it being a whole-group instruction is something we had to wrap our heads around a little bit and embrace,” she said of the phonics lessons taught in partnership with Groves coaches. “But what we’ve seen is it’s essential for kids who are struggling, [and] beneficial for everyone.”
The basic reading curriculum her elementary teachers had used for years primarily focused on comprehension skills, Adrian said. It included some decoding instruction, but nothing nearly as “specific or as intensive” as the decoding instruction embedded in the supplemental lessons supported by Groves.
John Alexander, executive director of Groves Academy, has long been an outspoken advocate of explicit, whole-class, phonics-based literacy instruction. While this approach has yet to gain widespread traction in Minnesota schools, he doesn’t have to dig very deep to make a compelling case for doing things differently.
According to the latest state assessments, only 56 percent of fourth-graders tested proficient in reading. That number has remained relatively stagnant for years. Broken down by race and special status, the proficiency rates are even more alarming. For instance, only 32 percent of black students are proficient in reading; and only 37 percent of students who qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, are proficient in reading.
“A lot of this is due to poor teacher preparation programs and poor instruction in classrooms,” Alexander said.
The new battle line
Hanford’s story definitely raised public awareness of the underuse of explicit phonics instruction, Alexander says. But it’s an issue that’s long been simmering in Minnesota. From 2006 to 2009, he served on a reading task force created by state legislators, where he went head-to-head with higher education folks and the teachers-union representatives.
He and others managed to rewrite the state reading standards, to better align them with what we know about the science of reading — a move that forced professors to realign some of their coursework. In turn, these changes prompted related changes in the state teacher licensure test, said Susan Thompson, a parent activist who served on the task force with Alexander.
But the resisters fought to shield current teachers from being impacted by this change, they both added. It’s a caveat that continues to thwart meaningful change.
“When you have a new teacher come out of the pipeline with this knowledge and they’re placed into a culture, into a school district, that has teachers that were already trained and have a lot of experience … that’s a culture that’s difficult to imprint with the knowledge that you’ve gained in your new teacher preparation,” said Thompson.
To encourage district administrators to invest in professional development opportunities that might help close this chasm in reading instruction training, Thompson says advocates passed a literacy incentive aid law. (But even that initiative has been criticized, for its lack of accountability and transparency.)
Lori Helman, director of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research and literacy education professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, contends the old “reading war” camps no longer exist because “everyone is pretty much in agreement that we need phonics.” She adds she can’t even think of a program today that tries to teach reading without phonics.
However, she doesn’t believe an entirely scripted, whole-class delivery of phonics lessons is what’s needed.
“If we started teaching a scripted program to every kid, we would have an equal backlash from parents who said: ‘Why are you teaching my kid this? They already know this,’” she said. “So we have to be really sensitive to what the needs are of each child and make sure they’re getting the systematic phonics they need at that time.”
She’s a bigger proponent of using that level of phonics instruction as an intervention tool for struggling readers, who need more one-on-one support to catch up to their peers. It’s something the university continues to support through its Path to Reading Excellence in School Sites (PRESS) program.
When it comes to teacher preparation programs, Helman listed a number of literacy classes and practicums that prospective teachers complete before graduating from the elementary education program. But she says the responsibility to refine their reading instruction skills falls on school administrators as well.
“Our students have quite an extensive preparation for being teachers of reading. With that said, we know that we can’t teach them everything in college. What’s going to happen is they’ll go out into the real world — they’re going to have teaching experiences, they’re going to need mentorship and adequate curriculum materials,” she said.
Discontented with the prevalent reliance on professional development as an avenue for teachers to refine their literacy instruction skills, in 2012 Thompson helped launch the Higher Education Literacy Partnership (HELP) in Minnesota. It brings together many of the major players in early literacy education — through an annual keynote speaker and book club, both focused on the science of reading — to help streamline everyone’s understanding of what students need to become proficient readers.
“We have come to see that there’s more comfort and more skill in teaching the comprehension skills and guided reading. And there’s less comfort and less skill in teaching some of the very important, early, emergent skills for phonemic awareness,” she said, noting this is the gap HELP focuses on addressing. “I think we’ve gotten to a place where we have a lot of very open communication among theses organizations, and a trust level.”