Jan 30, 2024 - News

N.C. is a part of a national movement to rethink reading

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

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Dozens of cities and states across America are overhauling the way their schools teach reading.

  • That includes North Carolina, which is already reporting success following its 2021 passage of the "Excellent Public Schools Act."

Why it matters: Nearly 40% of U.S. fourth graders are below the basic proficiency level for reading, according to a standard national exam.

By the numbers: 37 states and D.C. have passed laws or enacted policies changing up the way reading is taught — pursuing new methods that are backed up by studies.

What's happening: Reading curriculums in America's schools haven't kept up with decades of science and research into how kids learn.

  • Many districts have long used an approach dubbed "balanced literacy," which directs teachers to read aloud to kids, inspire a love of books, and teach strategies like guessing words based on pictures or memorization.
  • The new approach, called "the science of reading," teaches it much more explicitly. It relies on proven methods, and stresses key pillars including vocabulary, comprehension and phonics.

State of play: Since the state began training its teachers on the science of reading two years ago, the percentage of North Carolina first through third graders who are "on track" in reading has risen above the national average, the state Department of Public Instruction reported last month.

How we got here: The reading debate had a breakout moment due to the collision of several recent trends, the New York Times reports.

  • Many parents — home with their kids for the first time during the pandemic — noticed problems with their reading and started a grassroots movement to make curriculum changes, Hogan said. "The fire was burning, and that threw on the gasoline."
  • A podcast from Emily Hanford of American Public Media that dove into the war between teaching methods — and zoomed in on the students who were falling through the cracks — got millions of listens and spread awareness of the issue.
  • And some early adopters of the new methods saw stunning results.

Zoom in: Mississippi climbed from 49th out of 50 states for fourth-grade reading proficiency in 2013 to 21st in 2022.

  • State legislators and educators tried a number of strategies, including screening kids for literacy, hiring literacy coaches for teachers, and emphasizing phonics.
  • "After Mississippi, other states started paying attention," Hogan said.

Zoom in: North Carolina's efforts to change how reading is taught date back to before the pandemic. In 2019, the state's Republican-led legislature tried to pass science of reading legislation championed by Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, but was ultimately blocked by Gov. Roy Cooper.

  • Two years later, similar legislation finally made it across the finish line with Cooper's backing.
  • As part of a $114 million investment, the state's 44,000 elementary school teachers have to complete 160 hours of training in the science of reading by this year, the News & Observer reports.

What they're saying: The increase in reading proficiency the state is seeing — before the change has even been fully implemented — is "astounding," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt said in a press release last month.

  • "This shows that when we invest in research-based professional development for North Carolina teachers, they produce results."
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