Jun 22, 2023 - Education

Hooked on phonics: Indiana adopts "science of reading"

Illustration of a glowing keyhole on an old book.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Teaching young children how to read is one of the most important things an educator can do, and yet many haven't been properly trained in what has long been recognized as more science than art.

Why it matters: 1 in 5 Hoosier third-graders didn't have foundational reading skills by the end of third grade, according to results of the state reading assessment in the 2021-22 school year, failing to hit a pivotal educational milestone in which schooling transitions from learning to read to reading to learn.

  • Results from the 2022-23 school year haven't been released yet.

Driving the news: This past legislative session, state lawmakers made major investments in improving literacy and codified new requirements for the way reading will be taught.

  • House Enrolled Act 1558 requires K-12 school districts to adopt a curriculum aligned to what's commonly called the "science of reading," which is based on research about how brains actually learn to read.
  • Colleges and universities with teacher prep programs will need to embed the science of reading into their curricula, as well, and prepare future educators to receive a literacy endorsement to prove their proficiency.

Context: The national education pendulum is swinging away from "three cueing" — a once-popular, now-debunked teaching approach that uses context clues like sentence structure and pictures — and toward phonics and the science of reading.

  • Indiana's new law bans curricula that rely on three cueing.
  • It outlines five essential elements: phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and phonemic awareness — understanding that spoken words are made of individual sounds, such as hearing the "c," "a" and "t" in the word cat.

State of play: The National Council on Teacher Quality recently released a review of how well nearly 700 of the country's educator preparation programs do when it comes to reading instruction.

  • Only one program in Indiana, Marian University, scored top marks.
  • Eight programs, including Indiana University Bloomington and Ball State University, received an "F" in the review.

The other side: IU and Ball State, which has one of the largest teacher prep programs in the country, pushed back on their F grades.

  • Representatives for both schools told Chalkbeat Indiana they are teaching the science of reading.
  • Ball State said the report relied on incomplete course materials.

Yes, but: NCTQ said it provided an opportunity for colleges to provide additional materials in January.

Zoom in: Marian University's program was highlighted as one of just 48 in the country going above and beyond.

  • Assistant professor of literacy Karen Betz said it took a lot of intentional work to understand the research and remake the curriculum to match.
  • Many teachers in both spaces — higher education and K-12 — aren't caught up with research done in other fields, such as neuroscience, about how brains learn to read, she said.
  • "Unequivocally, there's only one way to learn to read," Betz added.

What's next: The Indiana Department of Education is putting together a list of high-quality materials aligned to the science of reading, which schools will eventually be required to use in curriculum adoption.

  • Elementary educators teaching literacy and licensed after June 2025 must earn the new literacy endorsement.
  • Next summer, IDOE will begin conducting its own review of the state's teacher prep programs.
  • Those without a curriculum based on the science of reading may be put on an improvement plan or face losing accreditation.

What they're saying: "We have to make this shift quickly," said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana, which advocated for the law. "Every day we wait … kids are falling behind."


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