Jan 30, 2024 - News

Illinois gets re-hooked on phonics

Illustration of a letter "A" being lifted up by a construction crane hook.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Illinois is doubling down on phonics once again.

Driving the news: The State Board of Education (ISBE) last week unanimously passed a literacy plan that highlights the importance of "proficiency in phonics" versus a popular method that emphasizes word memorization or guessing, with only a smattering of phonics.

Why it matters: A growing body of research suggests that the latter approach doesn't work for large swaths of students and that the change could boost low reading scores.

Catch up fast: Gov. JB Pritzker last summer signed a bipartisan bill requiring ISBE to formulate a literacy strategy aligned with the latest research by January.

  • Though the new plan signals the direction the state wants to take, it's not mandated for school districts, WBEZ reports. It's up to individual districts to decide curriculum.

By the numbers: Illinois students raised their language arts proficiency levels last year to nearly 35%, roughly a 16% rise from 2022, per state data.

  • Yes, but: They still remain below pre-pandemic levels.

The big picture: Illinois' plan is part of a nationwide movement to phase out once-popular "whole-word/language" or "balanced literacy" teaching models, where teachers read aloud to kids, and teach strategies like guessing words based on pictures or memorizing them, Axios' Erica Pandey writes.

  • In their place, districts are adopting an evidence-based approach called "the science of reading," which emphasizes vocabulary, comprehension and phonics.
  • Depending on when and where you were taught reading, you may have been exposed to either or both of the methods.

Between the lines: This breakout moment follows a collision of trends in recent years, including more parents being exposed to problems with their children's reading when schooling went remote during the pandemic.

  • Plus: Journalist Emily Hanford's ultra-popular podcast "Sold a Story", synthesizing the history of the reading debate, has helped spread awareness of the issue.

The other side: Hanford's podcast has gotten pushback from some teachers who defend the "balanced literacy" method.

  • But she says she's also heard from hundreds who've shared relief, anger and recognition over their own struggles with it.
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