Ohio Keeps Talking About the ‘Science of Reading,’ But What Does That Mean?

Reading instruction that prioritizes phonics and decoding words is gaining emphasis

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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A chunk of Gov. Mike DeWine’s proposed budget zeroes in on what’s called the science of reading method.

Specifically, it includes $64 million for science of reading curricula, $43 million each year for the next two years to offer science of reading instruction for educators, and $12 million to support 100 literacy coaches in schools and districts.

“I truly believe there’s nothing more important than the science of reading, and making sure that every single child in the state of Ohio, as they are learning to read, has the benefit of the science,” DeWine said at a March 23 event. DeWine has been making literacy stops in classrooms around Ohio to learn about how the science of reading method has been implemented in lessons.

The science of reading method incorporates phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, said Brett Tingley, the president of both Parents for Reading Justice and OH-KID (Ohio Kids Identified with Dyslexia).

“Teaching reading should be systematic, explicit, and direct based on the system of processing language,” said DeJunne’ Clark Jackson, president of the Center for Literacy and Learning, a Louisiana-based literacy nonprofit organization.

Meanwhile, some skeptics argue that the science of reading method doesn’t do enough to provoke the kind of thinking that enables deep comprehension in realistic reading situations.

“We must teach comprehension as a multidimensional experience,” wrote educators Jessica Hahn and Mia Hood in Education Week. “We want children to comprehend what’s happening literally in the text (who did what when), but we also want them to be able to analyze how parts of the text (literary devices, figurative language, structural choices) work together to develop ideas. And we want them to interpret the purpose and significance of the text in relation to their lives and to society.”

How children best learn how to read has been debated for decades, and a recent six-part podcast series from American Public Media called Sold a Story has thrust this hotly-debated issue further into the national spotlight.

A little more than half of the states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction since 2013 as of August, according to Education Week. DeWine is hoping Ohio can be added to that list.

Structured literacy

Structured literacy is an approach to reading instruction that applies the knowledge of the science of reading method, and it includes explicit and systematic instruction in foundational reading skills, including phonics. The science of reading says most children need explicit phonics when learning how to read.

“Phonics isn’t the only component of literacy instruction, but it can’t exist without phonics,” said Troy McIntosh, executive director of the Ohio Christian Education Network.

The science of reading method prioritizes this.

“To have a student say that they can comprehend what they’re reading, there’s two components to that, that go hand in hand, and it’s word recognition and language comprehension,” said Lindsey Roush, an assistant professor at Walsh University’s division of education.

Walsh University, a private Catholic college in North Canton, converted all their education courses to be aligned with the science of reading method in 2019, Roush said.

The method focuses on how letter sounds and printed letters work together, she said.

“We want their eyes to stay focused on the word and start from those little points of the sounds to bigger chunks of the word to analyze the word to be able to decode it and understand it,” Roush said.

Which is where phonics comes into play.

“Phonics is a very big part of this in terms of really getting down to those phonemes the letter sounds and understanding which sound each of those letters make, individually, and as they’re grouped together in different formats,” Roush said.

Balanced literacy

There is another approach to reading instruction called balanced literacy that does not teach phonics in an explicit, systematic way, but prioritizes students’ comprehension of a text.

Critics of that approach say it’s not based on the science. “It’s not using the foundational skills,” alleged Danielle Fontenot, vice president of program development at the Center for Literacy and Learning.

Balanced literacy incorporates the three-cueing method, which encourages children to read words by asking three questions: Does it make sense? Does it sound right? Does it look right? For example, there could be a picture of a horse on a book’s page and a student may say “pony.”

“When you get to books without pictures your strategy’s not working,” Tingley said.

The science of reading method eliminates guessing, Roush said.

“We don’t want them looking at pictures,” she said.

Whole language is another approach to reading that is more in line with balanced literacy that, as the name suggests, teaches students the whole word instead of parts of the word, Jackson said.

The balanced literacy and whole language methods teach children the “habits of poor readers,” Tingley alleged.

“The children are the ones who are suffering,” she said. “It’s hard to have someone you love struggle to read. … If you can’t read, you can’t do a story problem. You have a hard time in math, you can’t access science or social studies, so reading is the most important thing.”

Linda Fenner, a founding member of Citizen Advocates for Public Education (CAPEOhio), said she wonders if there is a “global solution or a one-size fits all program” that works best for teaching all students how to read.

“Different kids need different things in order to learn how to read,” she said. “The kids who need the most support really need different things and in different combinations.”

Ohio school districts

It’s unclear which Ohio school districts are using which methods when it comes to the reading curriculum. Ohio law gives local schools and districts sole authority regarding decisions about curriculum, so there is no required state curriculum, said Ohio Department of Education Spokesperson Lacey Snoke.

But one thing is clear — there are Ohio school districts not teaching the science of reading method and DeWine is working hard to change that through his proposed budget.

“This is a problem that we know how to fix,” Tingley said. “And we owe it to these children to fix it.”

Athens City School District in Athens County currently uses what would be considered a balanced literacy approach, but supports DeWine’s science of reading method budget proposal, Superintendent Thomas Gibbs said in an email.

“We have continued to see stagnation in our reading scores and have been internally training and reviewing different curriculum that is more in line with the Science of Reading,” Gibbs said. “The allocation of dollars in the budget to purchase new materials that are in line with SOR and dollars to support the additional time and commitment our teachers will have to put into professional development is necessary and would be a good investment.”

Athens Schools third grade English Language Arts reading scores from the 2017-18 to the 2020-21 school year have been between 9% to 29% for limited scores, between 17% to 25% for basic scores, between 13% to 22% for proficient scores, between 11% to 20% accomplished, and between 12% to 34% for advanced scores, according to ODE.

Ohio’s tests scores

Ohio’s test scores dipped in the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which published in October.

Eighth grade math proficiency dropped from 38% in 2019 to 29% in 2022. In reading scores for the same grade level, proficiency went from 38% in 2019 to 33% in 2022, according to the NAEP data.

Fourth graders saw decreases as well, going from 38% in 2019 to 33% in 2022 in reading scores, and from 38% in 2019 to 29% in 2022 in math.

“I believe that one of the biggest educational mistakes we have made over the last three to four decades is abandoning direct phonic instruction,” McIntosh said. “That has been disastrous for Ohio’s kids.”

“One of those ‘aha moments’”

Roush distinctly remembers being introduced to the science of reading method through Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) professional development training about four years ago.

“It’s just one of those moments, I feel as an educator, like one of those ‘aha moments,’ like, why haven’t we been doing this?” Roush said.

She previously taught for 13 years at McKinley Elementary School, part of Lisbon Exempted Village Schools in Columbia County, and remembers seeing frustrated students struggling to read before the district switched to the science of reading approach.

“If we can prevent that, of course, we should want to do that as educators,” Roush said.

She remembers students looking at a picture in a book that was near the word on a page and say something that might have started with the same letter, but was ultimately incorrect.

“(It) made zero sense whatsoever, because they were just simply guessing by looking for context clues in the pictures rather than trying to decode the word,” she said.

She starting noticing a difference after incorporating the science of reading method in her third grade classroom.

“It started to click with students,” Roush said. “The big thing was seeing them start to problem solve and how to break apart a word. If they came to a word that they didn’t know, they had the strategies to decode that word.”

Educators say it’s worth putting in the time to learn the science of reading method.

“It’s our obligation to do what’s best for students and if we have been doing it one way for so long and it isn’t working, then we have an obligation to our students to know better and do better,” Fontenot said.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: info@ohiocapitaljournal.com. Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

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