States including Illinois and California are increasingly embracing literacy instruction grounded in the “science of reading,” an approach that has regained traction in recent years and emphasizes phonics.
While the approach is being adopted into state-level literacy plans in some cases, Emily Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, said teachers should still have agency in classroom-level decisions around instructional experiences.
“Teachers should have access to every support and tool available,” Kirkpatrick said. “Their expertise and knowledge of their community guides the selection” of learning resources.
In Illinois, a bill recently passed by the state’s general assembly tasks the State Board of Education with developing a literacy plan around the science of reading by the end of January and a rubric by July 2024.
The “science of reading” approach differs from “whole language,” where students would be taught to learn entire words within a context, in that it incorporates tools like phonics to help students decode words and language.
Amid its resurgence in popularity in districts and states nationwide, literacy education expert Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who has long championed an approach known as “balanced literacy,” has even revised her “Units of Study” curriculum to embrace phonics.
Momentum for the science of reading has been driven in part by indicators such as Illinois scores showing that only about 30% of students between grades 3 and 8 met or exceeded state standards. After the pandemic, national drops in reading scores have also pushed stakeholders to reassess instructional strategies.
In 2022, the NWEA MAP Growth assessments revealed reading scores that dipped 6 to 7 percentile points below those from spring 2019.
Experts want teachers to be included in the development of literacy programs and have the support they need to deliver reading instruction that helps students strengthen their literacy skills and keep them engaged.
“Teachers have expertise that should drive the instructional experiences in the classroom,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s important that teacher and student agency be nurtured.”
Kirkpatrick suggests families should be involved, as well. “Everyday activities that engage parents and caretakers as partners in strengthening children’s language and literacy development sustains learning over time,” she said.