|The Fundamentals of Literacy…and Political Change
As far right forces try to divide our communities by instigating battles over what books can be in libraries and how our teachers teach history, we united forces to make sure our kids can actually read.
While the battles over libraries and history require our attention, a quarter of students enter 4th grade unable to read at grade level across the country and upwards of 50% of students in low-income districts start 4th grade way behind. It matters what is available on their book shelves AND it matters that students can actually read the books when they open them.
Decades ago, researchers argued that reading teachers should shift from the tried-and-true approach of teaching reading by using phonics. Instead, they wanted teachers to adopt a bolder whole-language method that relied on students figuring out how to read using a combination of memorizing words sounded out for them by teachers and then recognizing those words in context.
Researchers thought this process would help students guess at the meanings and sounds of new words. However, this approach skipped the basic step of teaching students how to sound out letters and letter combinations so they could learn to read new words.
The latest research shows that whole-language wasn’t successful. In fact, it has failed many students, notably children with disabilities and English Language Learners. Even the educator who pioneered whole-language publicly admitted its failure. Following suit, state after state changed their teaching standards and requirements for teacher preparation programs to follow the “science of reading.”
That’s why when State Representative Ortitay (R) from western Pennsylvania introduced and passed a bill that heralded the importance of relying on the science of reading to boost student skills, we jumped into action. We asked him if we could make that measure go beyond cheerleading for the cause to require that school districts and schools that train teachers to follow the science. He agreed and so did Senator Scott Martin (R) the chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Now, we disagree with many education policies advanced by Senator Martin, including his measures to establish vouchers, remove fraud and abuse regulations that apply to charter schools, and his latest foray into the “Don’t say gay” debacle. But we found common cause on reading instruction methods and now Pennsylvania joins the ranks of states getting serious about teaching students to read.
We didn’t win this victory alone. Our partners in the Philadelphia Read by 4th Coalition dug in and assembled impressive higher education leaders and researchers to speak up. We briefed lawmakers and helped pave the way for this real win for kids. Kudos to our most dogged Read by 4th partners Teach Plus, Lehigh Valley Reads, Mastery Charter School, and the PA branch of the International Dyslexia Association who helped make this happen.
Within a year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) will start training and release free resources to help teachers learn these key reading instruction skills. In two years, every Pennsylvania college preparing teachers must build this critical reading instruction content into their curricula.
The timing couldn’t be more urgent because the pandemic widened educational inequality. American students, on average, fell four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020-21 school year. It’s too early to know the extent of learning loss among southeastern PA children, but there’s no reason to think they were immune to the harm.
“I almost feel like I need to say ‘I’m sorry’ to some of the kids I taught before,” said Raul Olivares Jr., a kindergarten teacher, who has changed his literacy curriculum to embrace the science of reading methods.
Thanks to quick action by the Read by 4th Coalition, now Pennsylvania teachers will be spared that regret and students can become good readers and have a real stake in fighting back efforts to censor their library books and history lessons.