top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Why Johnny can't read in Oregon

Oregon schools, which once outdid national averages, produced "jaw-dropping declines in student outcomes" during the pandemic, and now score well below similar students nationwide, writes Betsy Hammond in The Oregonian.

"Oregon has spent more than $250 million in the past 25 years on reading" with meager results, reports Alex Baumhardt in the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Few fourth- and eighth-graders are proficient readers, according to on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). A growing number are "below basic."

Gov. Tina Kotek is backing a $140 million grant program to fund a switch to instruction supported by the "science of reading," she writes. That includes teaching teachers to provide explicit instruction in phonics as the first (not the only) step in reading.

But it may be another flop. The state education department can't tell districts how to spend money or hold schools accountable for failure, Baumhardt notes. That makes Mississippi-style education reforms impossible. Many districts base curricula and instruction on discredited "balanced literacy" ideas about how children learn to read, such as telling students to memorize words or use context clues and pictures to make guesses.

In part two, Baumhardt looks at Oregon's teacher education programs, some of which are doubling down on balanced literacy, despite the research showing it doesn't work for many students. In others, some professors prepare future teachers to teach phonics, while others tell them children won't love reading if they spend too much time learning to decode.

Until September of 2021, the exam to get certified as a reading specialist in Oregon included testing teachers on a “balanced approach to literacy” and on methods — called “cueing” — that involve getting students to guess at words and use pictures. It essentially ensured that teachers were taught flawed reading instructional methods in college so they could pass the exam.

Some education professors believe explicit instruction in phonics is just for special-needs students, Baumhardt reports. Others insist that the "science of reading" means teaching only phonics and decoding. Since even new teachers may not learn about reading science, some districts are retraining teachers and adopting research-backed curricula, she reports in part 3 of the series.

Ronda Fritz was trained in "whole language," she tells Rolando Hernandez of NPR. She was told that exposing children to literature -- with a little phonics sprinkled in -- would make them love reading and figure out how to read. "It sounded so wonderful," but didn't work for most students.

The "science of reading" includes a lot more than phonics, says Fritz, who now directs the Reading Clinic at Eastern Oregon University's college of education. "We need a comprehensive literacy program that includes a lot of exposure to wonderful literature." But most students won't learn to read well without "explicit and systematic" teaching in decoding.

1,783 views1 comment

1 Comment

Jun 28, 2023

Have these results been normalized for the number of pupils with limited English? When 25% of children don't speak English at home, teaching them to read English will necessarily be more difficult.

bottom of page