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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Reading revolution: It's a lot more than 'back to basics'

States are jumping on the "science of reading" bandwagon, writes Sarah Schwartz for Education Week. New York, Massachusetts, Indiana, Iowa and Maryland are moving to align instruction to evidence-based methods. That means teaching phonics explicitly rather than telling students to guess words based on pictures or context.

"Over the past decade, 37 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or other policies related to evidence-based reading instruction," she writes. Mississippi, which started first in 2013 with a comprehensive reform of reading instruction, has seen significant progress.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced her "back to basics" reading plan last week. Photo: Darren McGee

New York is one of the last states to tackle reading instruction, writes Robert Pondiscio, of the American Enterprise Institute. Gov. Kathy Hochul's "back to basics" plan calls for training teachers in the “science of reading."

The Reading League is “cautiously optimistic” about the plan, he writes, but suggests dropping the "basics" branding, which promotes the "common and unhelpful narrative that the 'science of reading' begins and ends with phonics."

It's a critical step in a journey that includes building students' knowledge and vocabulary.

In addition, the Reading League wants to train teachers before adopting high-quality curriculum.

Pondiscio disagrees. He suggests learning from Louisiana's curriculum-based reforms, pioneered by John White, a former New York City teacher. The Pelican State has "used curriculum adoption to drive changes in classroom practice, providing incentives for their state’s districts and schools to adopt and implement a coherent, high-quality English language arts (ELA) curriculum, then use that curriculum as the hook on which everything else hung: assessment, professional development, and teacher training."

He also recommends the Reading League's Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines.

KIPP charter schools in St. Louis switched from "balanced literacy" to explicit instruction in phonics, and plan to adopt the Core Knowledge curriculum.

Missouri is moving to evidence-based reading, writes Kevin Mahnken on The 74. KIPP's six charter schools in St. Louis began retraining teachers and adopting new curricula in 2019.

KIPP Victory showed the strongest reading growth of any elementary school in the state in 2021 standardized testing.

In the next few years, Angela Jackson, who heads elementary literacy instruction, plans to move "all three KIPP elementary schools toward the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum, which places a heavy emphasis on the explicit teaching of academic content and the cultivation of students’ subject-matter knowledge," writes Mahnken. "A study released last year showed that schools relying on the Core Knowledge sequence saw large improvements in ELA, math, and science scores." 

Oregon's proposed new literacy standards will require teacher colleges to train teachers in evidence-based practices, writes Alex Baumhardt for the Capital Chronicle.

"The revamped standards include an emphasis on directly and comprehensively teaching kids reading skills based on scientific research about how the brain learns written language, and an emphasis on instruction effective for children with disabilities and for those who are learning English as a second or third language," writes Baumhardt.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, "nearly all colleges in Oregon are failing to use reading instructional methods known to be most effective for all kids."

Oregon is the only state where reading and math scores show no signs of "learning recovery," according to a Stanford-Harvard analysis.

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