Alabama State Board of Education Approves Literacy Coursework Change

The Board approved “science of reading standards” that include phonemic awareness and letter instruction.

The Alabama State Board of Education during its regular meeting on February 9, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

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The Alabama State Board of Education Thursday adopted a new literacy coursework for Science of Reading for teacher preparation programs in the state.

The change, approved on a unanimous vote, comes after years of a state focus on literacy scores, especially in the lower grades.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey said the standards would apply to elementary teachers, collaborative special education teachers and “could be applied to some other areas also.”

“Mostly, they are focused again on early childhood and elementary teachers,” he said.

The Science of Reading is an interdisciplinary body of research about reading and issues of reading and writing. The Reading League’s definition, cited in the standards, includes phonemic awareness and letter instruction as instructional practices but not emphases on larger units of speech, such as syllables.

The new standards also outlaw the “three-cueing” system in institutions of higher education and K-12 schools. The rule change defines three cueing as a “model of teaching students to read based on meaning, structure, and syntax, and visual cues.”

Three-cueing is a teaching strategy that is affiliated with “balanced literacy,” a compromise between whole language and phonics-based instruction that became prominent in the 1990s, according to the Hechinger Report. Three-cueing encourages students to guess and look for clues, such as at pictures, when facing an unfamiliar word.

The skills associated with the Science of Reading were not taught in schools for many years, as reported by Emily Hanford for APM Reports. As of May 2023, 15 states had outlawed the use of three-cueing after Hanford’s reporting, with some lawmakers and policy makers citing the podcast, according to APM Reports.

HB 173, sponsored by Rep. Leigh Hulsey, R-Helena, would have banned the use of three-cueing, with some exceptions. The legislation passed the House of Representatives on March 5 but was among the many bills that died in the final days of the session.

“This prohibition is specific to the teaching of foundational reading skills and should not be construed to impact the teaching of background knowledge and vocabulary as connected to the language comprehension side of Scarborough’s Reading Rope,” the Senate Education Policy Committee substitute reads.

Scarborugh’s Reading Rope is a visual representation of establishing proficient reading, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

Hulsey said Tuesday that her bill was “complementary” with the standards adopted by the board, and that she expected to bring it back next year.

“Ultimately, kids need to learn how to actually read, and that is done through the science of reading, learning how to decode sound out letters, and figuring out how to put those things together to actually decode the word and be able to be lifelong readers, versus someone who is just looking at words and guessing,” she said, “We’re not setting kids up for success if we’re not actually teaching them how to read.”

She said the exceptions in the bill were mainly for older learners and those with learning disabilities.

In October, members of the Literacy Task Force cited teacher training and implementation as a hurdle in implementing literacy instruction.

Mackey said they had received comments earlier. They received no additional public comments on the current version, which they voted on the intent to approve months ago.

Alabama Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alabama Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Brian Lyman for questions: info@alabamareflector.com. Follow Alabama Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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