Are Illinois schools teaching reading all wrong?

When Kellyn Sirach sits down with a fifth or sixth grader who is struggling with reading, she starts by showing the student a picture of the left hemisphere of the brain. Reading, she tells them, is not a natural process. It has to be learned.

“We talk about the process that happens in the brain, just to read one word,” said Sirach, who works as a reading specialist in the Champaign public schools and is part of a group of teachers hoping to change the way reading is taught in Illinois. “It’s wild because oftentimes, students and adults actually think that reading just happens, it just occurs. And that’s not true.”

A mounting body of scientific research shows there are specific ways students should be taught to read. But many popular reading lessons in American schools, including those used in Illinois, aren’t aligned yet with that science. Data shows that, even before the pandemic, only 1 in 3 Illinois third graders were reading at grade level according to the state test.

Some states have moved quickly to adopt new approaches. As of July, 29 states and the District of Columbia had new laws or policies that aim to move schools to evidence-based reading instruction.

But in Illinois, where most curriculum decisions are made locally, the conversation about updating reading instruction has been slow to get off the ground.

Chicago is a district to watch. In August, Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez announced a shift from “balanced literacy,” a broad-swing approach intended to foster a love of reading that includes phonics but doesn’t prioritize it, to “structured” literacy.

The latter lays out a more strict series of steps to help children learn to decode words.

That shift is in the early stages, and teachers say there’s still a lot of conflicting information on the ground. But a growing group of parents is keeping the issue in the forefront.

Some Chicago parents in November organized a private screening of a forthcoming documentary called “The Right To Read” and invited Chicago principals. A post-film discussion beamed by Zoom to literacy parties in Champaign, Waukegan and several other cities.

Here’s what Chicago parents should know about the debate over reading instruction:

Old debate, current research

A large body of scientific research details how the brain learns to read—and that’s through explicit, systematic phonics. But just teaching phonics is not enough. If your teacher says “we do phonics,” experts say that’s not a sufficient answer.

The structured literacy approach is a series of steps that starts with letters and sounds, advances to consonant-vowel-consonant words, and then builds elements of comprehension and reading fluency. There are several different curricula available, including for bilingual instruction.

Many popular American curricula, including some taught in Chicago Public Schools and other large Illinois districts, do not teach reading this way. Many instead used the balanced literacy approach. It’s popular because historically these curricula come with multiyear contracts, a deep-bench of teacher training opportunities and boxes of books that promote a love of reading through bright pictures, compelling content and repetitive texts — not eschewing phonics entirely but quickly moving past it. This approach was developed in part because many kids and teachers found traditional phonics lessons dull and failing to ignite a passion for reading.

But in classrooms across America, there is often no single reading curriculum in use. One national survey of teachers in the early grades showed that many tended to use a mix of instructional techniques to teach reading, sometimes in conflict with one another.

Individual Chicago schools allowed to decide

Chicago schools have a lot of power to decide what materials they use. That means there is no real way to know how reading is taught in CPS and if it’s backed by science — unless you ask. Schools also have limited budgets to adopt new methods.

The district’s literacy director, Jane Fleming, said Chicago has started encouraging its elementary schools to shift to structured literacy and that shift will include paid trainings for teachers in early grades around literacy. The district is placing the most emphasis on its homegrown K-12 curriculum, Skyline, which debuted in 2021.

CPS, she said, worked with a leading national nonprofit reviewer of curriculum to develop Skyline and that any school that adopts the English unit has access to a structured literacy program. Use of the curriculum is voluntary, and the district is stepping up training for teachers on it, including rolling out more training for its teachers throughout this school year. Data shows Skyline usage increased tenfold this fall compared to last fall.

Fleming said CPS is also using its federal COVID-19 money to offer schools “training and support” in two other curriculum options that independent evaluators have said align with reading science.

The district, which has not previously kept a central list of reading programs by school, is not mandating that its campuses make a switch.

“We’re not trying to throw anybody off their game, it’s not like that,” Fleming said. But, she adds, where administrators aren’t seeing strong curriculum, “we’re having conversations with those schools about making other choices.”

Chicago has started encouraging its elementary schools to shift to literacy instruction that lays out a series of steps to help children learn to decode words.

Teacher training has not kept up

As momentum builds to change reading instruction, teacher prep programs in some states have come under the microscope. Groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality argue many still don’t offer sufficient preparation to future educators in the science of how children learn to read.

“Many undergrad programs and alternative certification programs have not trained teachers in this methodology so this is brand new for most people, unless they’ve gotten their own training,” said Hillary Muñoz, a special education teacher at Skinner West, a CPS elementary school in the West Loop area. She has been advocating for more widespread teacher training on structured literacy.

But making a shift isn’t about just switching resume. Teachers need to be trained in the “why” and the “how,” Muñoz said.

“It’s not the teachers’ fault,” she said. “If you as a teacher don’t understand the pedagogy and research behind an approach, you can’t possibly implement it effectively.”

Many people in education, though, are skeptical of swinging too hard, too quickly, in a new direction without the training and resources to deliver. Thomas Philion, dean of the College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University and a member of a state educator preparation and licensing board, questions a singular approach to reading instruction.

“For some children, it’s going to be a more structured approach and for other students it will alienate them or confuse them in their attempts to become readers,” he argued.

Parents should ask questions

For parents of younger children, ask what reading curriculum your child’s teacher is using, experts said. Why do they use it? Is it backed by science? What does their child do well and where do they need more practice?

Sometimes families with children in older grades don’t realize their children are not able to decode more complex words. Those struggles can cause children to do poorly in other classes or even act out at school. Sirach, the reading specialist, said parents worried about those issues should ask their teacher: Do you think my child is struggling with reading?

If a child says they don’t like to read, experts say it’s important for parents to try to understand why. It could be because their reading skills aren’t well developed.

Parents should also understand that decisions about literacy materials and what is used in a classroom are often made by school administrators and school district leaders, Muñoz said. Another question to ask: What sort of training are teachers getting?

She’s urging those leaders to be supportive of a wholesale shift to reading instruction that is backed by science. “It would be really helpful for more people making decisions outside of classrooms either at [the] administration or at district level to be supportive,” of a broader shift, she said.

But she says that work is just getting started.

“We’re at the beginning of a very long process,” Muñoz said.

Cassie Walker Burke is WBEZ’s external editor.

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