Beth Rivera felt like a rock star. She was interviewing for a teaching position in Union County Public Schools, where the district was focused on a “balanced literacy” approach to teaching young kids to read.
Rivera was fresh off a master’s degree in literacy from the Teachers College at Columbia University, where her professor was Lucy Calkins, whom Rivera calls the queen of balanced literacy.
“My school district was nothing short of thrilled to have a real-life, in-the-flesh Teachers College reading and writing expert in their midst,” Rivera said. “What a boost to my self-esteem.”
The balanced literacy approach combines a little language instruction with whole-group, small-group and independent reading exploration. While there isn’t one balanced literacy method, a common example involves demonstrating three ways of cueing readers to guess words through meaning, syntactical and visual information. Calkins’ curriculum is widely used throughout the nation, and, as of last year, balanced literacy instruction was in a majority of North Carolina school districts.
Rivera was overjoyed, and more than a little surprised, when the district asked her to go into other grade-level classrooms to model balanced literacy instruction for her peers.
But the joy didn’t last long.
She noticed some students in her class every year that she couldn’t reach. The reading light bulb wasn’t turning on for them, and she couldn’t figure out why. Although puzzled, she pressed forward. A few years later, the problem took root in her own home when her son, Brendan, started coming home talking about his “bad brain.”
“Mommy, my brain just doesn’t do what I want it to,” he told her.
After a mini-lesson from the teacher in his class, students would return to their desks to read by themselves. Brendan would just sit there.
“He had no idea what he was supposed to do,” she said.
The school said he was young. Give him time. Even her husband thought he’d catch up eventually. But Rivera wasn’t satisfied.
“As a teacher, I was seeing signs I couldn’t ignore,” she said. “He’d recognize the word ‘what’ on page 2 of his book, and then that same word would appear on page 6 and he’d tell me he didn’t know that word.”
One day, the word “flashlight” came up. Brendan said he didn’t know that word. Rivera looked at him and, reaching for her training in balanced literacy, started prompting him to guess based on pictures and the context of the story. But he was stumped.
“I realized that I had spent nearly $40,000 on a piece of paper that declared that I was a master of children’s literacy,” she said. “How am I a master if I can’t help my own son? I started to question everything.”
The questions led Rivera to the science of reading. This is a body of research from psychologists, linguists, and neuroscientists — all dating back more than 30 years and detailing how cognitive science says kids learn to read. It led her to the conclusion that balanced literacy is not right for many students and that an explicit, systematic approach with a phonics-foundation could work for nearly everyone.
She also came across a 2018 audio documentary by a journalist named Emily Hanford, whose work has made the science of reading accessible. Her reporting has prompted a resurgence of support behind using scientifically proven methods to teach literacy — including in North Carolina, where balanced literacy dominates while reading scores disappoint.
A growing coalition of North Carolina leaders wants to reform literacy instruction to align with the science of reading. A movement, which started as whispers when reporting for this story began in March, is growing louder through discussions and action plans shared at the General Assembly, State Board of Education, and the Department of Public Instruction.
Proponents say the right instructional practices will help more North Carolina children learn how to read and also turn around the Read to Achieve law, which has failed to produce improvement despite its $150 million price tag.
“We’re moving toward that science, and you’ll see it in our budget requests for the short session” in 2020, State Board member JB Buxton said. “You’re going to see requests around reading coaches that the state will hire. You’re going to see requests for appropriations that would allow us to do training for teachers, principals, and assistant principals on the science of reading. We’re going to need some support from the General Assembly when it comes to resources that go beyond what’s in the Read To Achieve, but given their strong support for that, we’re going to be able to build a strong case.”
This group of education leaders back their case with a carefully crafted State Board literacy framework and cross-divisional DPI steering committee, both of which took shape and sharpened in focus over the several months EdNC reported this story. And that framework cuts ties with ineffective reading strategies and moves toward both the science of reading and comprehensive policies implemented by states that built successful literacy reform — like Mississippi.
Does instruction based on the science of reading actually work?
Read to Achieve was passed in North Carolina in 2012. Mississippi’s reading law, the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, was passed one year later. But while North Carolina’s reading scores are stuck, Mississippi’s are rising. A lot.
Since October, Mississippi has garnered headlines for making more progress than any other state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In fact, Mississippi was the only state to show significant gains in fourth-grade reading scores.
And Mississippi is doing it with much less money than North Carolina. In seven years, Mississippi has spent less than $100 million under the law. Reading proficiency began showing marked improvement after its second year — just $24 million into the experiment.
In the first year of North Carolina’s Read to Achieve legislation, the passing rate on third-grade reading exams was 60.2%. Last year, it was 55.9%. A report produced by N.C. State University’s Friday Institute showed that in some grades the reading scores were stagnant, while in other grades they were falling.
What makes Mississippi’s law so much more effective? Kymyona Burk points to the science of reading, and she should know. Mississippi’s rise happened under Burk’s leadership as director of literacy at Mississippi’s Department of Education.
“The thing about our law is that it was specific enough to name the science of reading,” she said. “There are states that passed their law and then they waited, in effect, for it to have any teeth in it. But what happened to the money that you all pumped into it?”
The Mississippi law gave its Department of Education the ability to train teachers in programs aligned with the science of reading and to provide literacy coaches, hired by the state, to sit in residence at schools for an entire year.
“When people ask me what programs did we use, I tell them we invest in people — not programs,” Burk said. “When you increase their knowledge about the science of reading and what it takes to teach reading to children, then they begin to adopt programs aligned with that.”
The state provided training, using a significant portion of the budget. Mississippi provided early literacy professional development to teachers, principals, and ed prep professors using the science-based Language Essentials for Teaching Reading and Spelling (LETRS) program designed by Louisa Moats and Carol Tolman. Since 2014, more than 14,000 educators have received LETRS professional development.
“And then you go back to the coaches who are on site and say, ‘OK, now that you’ve had this LETRS training, let’s transfer that into practice with your students,'” Burk said.
The state hired 22 coaches that first year, training them in science-aligned practices, observing their ability to work with others, and sending them into the lowest-performing schools. That was seven years ago. Now, the number of state-hired literacy coaches is 82.
The ability to make decisions at the state level, Burk said, was crucial. And she credits other state leaders for supporting her. She was in constant contact with her state’s superintendent, as well as the Republican governor, Phil Bryant.
“And to say I’m a Democrat — I’m a black girl leading literacy in Mississippi, OK,” Burk said through a laugh. “But this isn’t a partisan issue. To have a sit-down with the governor several times, for him to keep asking me what do I need. We worked together, and they empowered us.”
Beyond the governor, Burk pointed to the department’s chief academic officer — whom she called an idea fairy who made all her ideas come true. She also said support from her state superintendent “was everything.”
In contrast, unity seems fractured around Read to Achieve among North Carolina’s officials — between the State Board and Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson, specifically. Just last week, Johnson accused the State Board of “aggressively” undermining Read to Achieve’s directives. He sent a memorandum calling out the board for promoting 70,000 students who hadn’t passed third-grade reading exams to fourth grade.
“The NC State Board of Education was tasked with implementing the Read to Achieve legislation,” he wrote. “Read to Achieve specifically directed the State Board of Education to end social promotion of 3rd graders – promoting students from one grade level to the next on the basis of age rather than academic ability. Sadly, the State Board’s policy aggressively avoided that directive.”
Burk agrees that holding to performance-based promotion helped Mississippi’s students, but she doesn’t think that’s the main reason reading scores have skyrocketed.
“If you’re going to hold them back, we had to make sure we had instruction in place that would help them learn to read,” she said.
And that assurance, she says, lies in the reading science.
Why does the science behind reading matter?
For more than a century, researchers have argued over how people learn to read. Most of the disagreement has centered on children figuring out how to decipher words on a page.
Phonics was popular for decades. The approach teaches children that words are made up of parts and focuses on how different letters and combinations of letters connect to the speech sounds in words. Phonics was tagged with a reputation for being mechanical and boring, though, and another theory — called whole language — gained popularity.
People soak up spoken language like a sponge from the time they are babies. We learn to talk through exposure to conversations. Whole language assumed that reading would work the same way. So if children are exposed to good books, kids should pick up reading on their own. It was designed to foster a love for reading and encourage kids to reach for the meaning of passages rather than focusing on words.
“This means that if we take it apart to focus on letters, lists of words or grammar patterns, we lose the essence of what language is,” one journal article on whole language pronounced. “Reading should not be taught as the isolated skill of connecting symbols and sounds. Learning to read must also be connected to life experience, meaningful activities and the learner’s goals through discussion, speaking, listening, and writing.”
But phonics proponents — and the science — said that reading is not natural. Our brains are not wired to read. We have to be taught. In the 1990s, the debate over the best approach became intense. One article referred to it as the Reading Wars.
Congress convened a national reading panel in 2000 to study the best ways to teach reading. That panel concluded that there was a lot of science to back up the phonics-based approach, and none validating whole language.
In response, the whole language community tried to move toward middle ground. They called the new approach “balanced literacy.” The idea was to introduce a little bit of phonics instruction to the whole language approach, but not so much that it would bore kids or distract from finding meaning and connection.
“In balanced literacy, phonics is treated a bit like salt on a meal,” Hanford says in her audio documentary, Hard Words, “A little here and there, but not too much, because it could be bad for you.”
In April, EdNC got a first-hand look at a balanced literacy instruction.
A first-grade teacher began her reading period with a mini-lesson for the entire class. She used an overhead projector and let students “walk the book” — looking at all of the pictures and guessing what was happening in the story. Next, they read the book together, page-by-page. On each page, they returned to the picture first and then tackled the sentences.
The students came against the sentence, Everything outside is cold in winter.
“Would I see snow in the summertime?” the teacher asked before a chorus of no.
“When would I usually see snow? What time of year?”
“Winter,” a young girl said.
“Let’s do a double check on that word,” the teacher said. “What does ‘winter’ start with?” She paused while the kids connected “winter” with the letter “w,” then said the letter aloud in a chorus.
The teacher then broke up the word and highlighted the sounds. “I also see another part of the word that I know,” she said. “I’m going to show you. What does -er say?” The students answered, and the teacher then covered the -ter, asking, “What word do you see?” The students shouted, “Win!”
The students seemed engaged and happy. And teachers at the school spoke excitedly about the their Calkins-based approach, which they implemented years ago in hopes of providing the best instruction for their kids. But this was the same approach that wouldn’t work for Rivera’s son, Brendan, or for the students each year she couldn’t reach.
“What happens if they come across reading where there aren’t any pictures, or the pictures don’t cue them on a word they are struggling with?” Rivera asked. “What if that happens on a reading exam?”
Tara Galloway is the director of K-3 literacy at DPI. Her arrival a year ago marked a major shift toward instruction using the science of reading.
“I saw going into the classrooms that balanced literacy was rampant in North Carolina,” said Galloway, who was exposed to the science of reading in ed prep and spent 20 years using explicit instruction as a special education teacher. “They were teaching them to look at the pictures and teaching them to use cues that were ineffective. I said, ‘We need to do something about this.'”
What balanced literacy left out from its phonics instruction, it turns out, is pretty important stuff.
In a recent Education Week article, reporters Sarah Schwartz and Sarah Sparks explain it well: “Written language is a code. Certain combinations of letters predictably represent certain sounds. And for the last few decades, the research has been clear: Teaching young kids how to crack the code—teaching systematic phonics—is the most reliable way to make sure that they learn how to read words.”
Hanford, who bases her reporting on poring through more than 3,000 pages of research and studies and hundreds of hours talking to experts in literacy, followed Hard Words with this year’s audio documentary, At a Loss for Words. In it, she talks about a literacy model published in 1986 called the Simple View of Reading. It asked questions like: How does reading comprehension happen? And what’s the role of phonics and decoding in all of that?
“The Simple View of Reading is a model that is now been backed up by lots and lots more research,” Hanford said. “It has a solid scientific base behind it and it essentially says, reading comprehension is the product of your language comprehension — the words you know how to say, the words you can hear — and your decoding ability.”
Product. As in: Language Comprehension x Decoding Ability = Reading Comprehension. That means that a child who knows how to decode words won’t become a skilled reader without exposure to a lot of books. But it also means that a child who is exposed to a lot of words and books still won’t be a skilled reader unless someone teaches that child how to decode words.
It’s a reminder that when experts talk about the science of reading, they’re not talking about phonics only. They’re talking about phonics — phonological and phonemic awareness — as a foundation, in addition to exposure to reading.
Most children begin their pursuit of reading by learning the alphabet. But while English words are made up of combinations of the 26 letters, decoding words has much more to do with something called phonemes — units of sound. There are 44 phonemes in the English language. Some words, like “a” or “oh,” have only one phoneme. Others, like check (ch-e-ck) have three. If you visit the classroom of someone teaching reading according to the scientific research, you’re more likely to find a “sound wall” displaying all the phonemes than a poster of the alphabet.
Learning how letters make up sounds, how those sounds make up words, and how to manipulate those sounds to form and read words is a gateway into learning to read. It’s decoding. And that foundation can help readers then thrive through the vast exposure to books.
“The hallmark of skilled reading is you very, very quickly and very accurately know exactly what a word is when it’s flashed in front of you,” Hanford said. “In fact, scientists have done these studies which have showed that if you flash, in front of a skilled reader, the word ‘chair’ and the picture of a chair, your brain actually processes the meaning of the word ‘chair’ quicker than the picture of a chair.
“Our brains weren’t meant to do this, but when you become a skilled reader, you get really, really good at it. So one thing I think that teachers really need to understand about all this is that the goal is automatic recognition of words, but we do not recognize them as wholes. When you and I are reading words, we are very quickly processing every single sound, every single letter in that word. So that is a hallmark of being a good reader.”
This is a process called orthographic mapping. And it could hold the key to producing better readers and, by extension, better reading scores in North Carolina.
Growing consensus in North Carolina around science of reading
Early this year, Buxton — the State Board member — started drafting a framework for literacy reform modeled after the Mississippi law. It was grounded in discussions with members of the State Board, presentations to that board, recommendations from literacy experts, what the data were showing, and consultation with DPI — particularly through Galloway.
The participants reached a consensus on nine points for the framework — which is now a State Board document called Guiding Collaborative Framework for Action on Early Reading.
On the surface, things still seemed status quo on the reading front. Quietly, though, the seeds of change were being planted and a coalition for change was forming around a common mission.
“We had to stop putting hurdles in front of kids or teaching them ways to slowly get over the hurdles,” Galloway said. “We need to just start moving the hurdles out of the way. Teaching reading based on the science of reading does that.”
About this time, in the spring, Buxton began working with Sen. Phil Berger, the architect of Read to Achieve, on revisions to the law and adding the “teeth” that Burk referred to earlier. It was meant to be the legislation that would align North Carolina with the reading science, expert consensus, and data.
Buxton was a high school teacher and has spent many years working in politics and education policy. Reading was always a piece of his work, but he says it was never a centerpiece agenda item the way it is now. His deep dive into science-backed literacy instruction happened this past year.
As he learned about the science, and the reforms in other states, he began putting that knowledge into work. Sen. Berger filed the legislation in August. It was stamped Senate Bill 438.
Buxton was impressed with the consultants Berger and his team brought in for help — including literacy expert Barbara Foorman, former commissioner of the National Center for Education Research at a U.S. Department of Education institute. Foorman had been invited to open North Carolina’s K-3 Literacy Conference and Reading Summit in March.
“And I realized that we were all talking about the same things,” Buxton said. “And we weren’t having disagreements about what the high-leverage focus areas needed to be.”
SB 438 was ratified in August and presented to Gov. Roy Cooper. Nine days after receiving it, though, Cooper vetoed it.
Buxton doesn’t believe Gov. Cooper had a problem with the substance of the proposed legislation. The issue was whether DPI had the bandwidth to handle the implementation. This was only weeks after scrutiny over DPI’s choice of Istation as the reading assessment vendor under Read to Achieve erupted.
“There was a real concern that we had a major, new set of revisions in the Read to Achieve law, a lot of which would have to be handled by the department and, at least from what I was hearing, a real concern about the capacity of the department to do it well,” Buxton said. “I understood those concerns. I don’t think it was disagreement by the governor with some of the specific changes to the law.”
If the veto was a setback, though, it was a momentary one. Leaders including Buxton, Galloway and Galloway’s boss, Deputy State Superintendent David Stegall, pressed forward — determined to find another way to launch these strategies.
“I would have loved to have seen the legislation go through because it provides the changes we need to make it effective,” Buxton said. “[The veto] certainly meant we were going to have to look at some different pathways to put some things in place. It would have been nice to have some provisions in the law that now we’re going to have to think about how to do through Board policy and department and administrative action.”
But even if it meant a longer road, Buxton says one of his main takeaways from working on the legislation is that North Carolina is in the midst of a moment — a moment we can look back on and say something special started here.
“Having spent a lot of years in public education in North Carolina, you see issues move when it’s almost like an echo chamber,” he said. “Where everybody’s talking about the same thing and you see much more alignment when that happens. I’m bullish on this moment.”
A framework for change in North Carolina
Over the years, and even at this moment, there are multiple literacy plans floating around the DPI building on Wilmington Street — some completed, some still in draft form. The one consulted most comes from the Read to Achieve law, but that hasn’t produced much focus. The Friday Institute’s report on Read to Achieve said it “appears to be 115 different pilots operating under a few common parameters.”
Leaders calling for change want more structure and guidance to set teachers and students up for success.
“We’ve got to get to an agreement on how we’re going to teach reading,” said Eric Davis, chair of the State Board. “And then, how we’re going to prepare teachers to teach. And, if we can get that done, we have to get agreement on what curriculum we’re going to use. There’s no really well-defined, research-based strategy now.”
Buxton said that one thing the original Read to Achieve bill did not have “was adequate teacher supports. And that’s what the new [vetoed] bill was moving towards, and we’ve got some additional pieces that we’re going to be making the case for now as well.”
That case will be made through the State Board’s nine-point Guiding Collaborative Framework and a B-12 Steering Committee that Galloway has been quarterbacking. The steering committee has “cross-divisional/cross-area involvement” including five different directors at DPI.
Over the next several months, and perhaps years, Galloway will present updates, action plans and recommendations to the State Board — starting in January. The framework will guide state efforts across nine initiatives.
1. Develop a statewide definition of high-quality reading instruction.
This is the subject of Galloway’s first report to the Board, to be presented in about four weeks. DPI held three regional stakeholder meetings to gather feedback on a working definition of high-quality reading instruction. They talked with administrators, advocacy groups, ed prep professors at universities, teachers, parents and state leaders. Prior to the January update at the State Board, DPI is requesting feedback from the public through a survey.
“You’ve got to be on the same page about what good reading instruction looks like to then define what your professional development is going to look like, what your teacher preparation is going to look like, all of it,” Buxton said. “That’s going to be in January.”
2. Improve focus on reading instruction in teacher preparation programs.
The next priority will be executed by an early literacy task force chaired by Ann Clark, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent and board member for the Belk Foundation. The task force will hold its first meeting December 20. It aims to ensure ed prep programs are providing sufficient instruction, modeling and practice in three focus areas: the science of reading; the review and selection of high-quality reading curriculum; and in working with struggling readers with diverse learning needs.
Buxton said some of the recommendations for instructional programs that districts will use, such as LETRS, will come from this group.
3. Improve summer reading camp quality.
Summer reading camps were introduced under Read to Achieve to curb summer learning loss and provide students extra instruction. Galloway and one of her regional literacy consultants, Tonia Parrish, said the camps needed more support and guidance. Last year, Parish worked on improvements, such as providing camp hosts with online modules on science-of-reading practices. She is now working on making those modules more robust.
4. Provide reading coach supports in low-performing schools and districts.
This priority is about providing reading coaches in select schools, such as turnaround schools in the bottom 5% of state performance scores, who would be hired and managed by DPI (in partnership with local schools and districts). Priority actions will include developing a budget that supports hiring and training coaches.
5. Expand partnerships to support beginning teachers.
This initiative would expand efforts with universities in select regions of the state, focusing on support for beginning teachers in grades K-3. The types of supports would include intervention and coaching on reading, ensuring high-quality curriculum, and building sustainable systems of teacher development.
6. Ensure high-quality reading curriculum and instructional materials in elementary schools.
Even as Burk says Mississippi focused on teachers more than programs, she underscores the importance of the right curriculum and programs. This priority focuses on making sure that reading curriculum, instructional materials and supports are aligned with state standards and reading science.
It’s critical, Buxton said, “because if you’re a second-grade teacher, especially if you’re new, you can’t be asked to figure out a way to put a series of lessons together or a series of modules. You shouldn’t be asked to look on the Internet, Pinterest, all these places to find good stuff. You need a high-quality curriculum that supports you in meeting these standards.”
This initiative would develop a budget to provide resources for districts that need help buying curriculum and instructional materials, as well as for training and coaching.
7. Explore a statewide system of training in reading for teachers, principals and reading coaches on the science of reading.
Having the right curriculum and graduating new teachers trained in reading science won’t help, Galloway said, without continued support. The B-12 Literacy Team and State Board are exploring a statewide system for training on the science of reading, high-quality curriculum and evidence-based interventions for principals, teachers, and reading coaches. It will also look at how a system of training would address non-native English speakers and consider culturally responsive approaches.
The North Carolina State Improvement Project (NC SIP) currently offers some training in the science of reading, and the priority is to build on that training.
8. Provide flexibility in state funding to support district action on reading.
This would provide districts with flexibility to take unused summer reading camp money and put it toward evidence-based supports such as reading coaches, reading tutors, high-quality reading curriculum, or professional development focused on the science of reading for K-3 teachers. Districts also could transfer funding between allotments for K-3 teachers, teacher assistants, and textbooks to support high-quality plans for reading.
9. Ensure access to high-quality PreK and strong early learning environments and transitions to kindergarten.
Under this priority, the state would look to support local planning for expanding access to high-quality Pre-K, support community partnerships and family engagement and focus on transitions to kindergarten.
High stakes riding on reform, from equity to basic human rights
“Literacy is a crucial part of the foundation of a thriving and prosperous community,” said Kris Cox, who was a public school teacher before becoming executive director at READWS, or Read⋅Write⋅Spell in Winston-Salem. READWS is a nonprofit that tutors students and consults with schools on structured literacy — which is a term the International Dyslexia Association uses for reading approaches rooted in the science of reading.
“The right to read is a basic, fundamental human right,” Cox said. “The perpetuation of illiteracy leads to heavy and often tragic consequences via lower earnings, poor health outcomes and higher rates of incarceration.”
In other words, this is an equity issue.
As Rivera tells it, it’s a matter of using reading instruction that reaches the most students — because not every family can afford to spend money outside of public schooling to learn the keys for unlocking reading. Nor should they need to, as Mississippi exemplifies. It’s turning out the nation’s best reading results on NAEP despite having the highest poverty rate of the 50 states.
After she devoured piles of research on the science of reading, she enrolled her son at a private school in Charlotte. There, she watched him go from a struggling to thriving reader. She was grateful, but her gratitude was clouded by regret and anger. She couldn’t shake the thought of how many students she had been unable to reach through balanced literacy. And she was angry at her master’s program, and particularly at Calkins — her advisor and instructor.
With hands shaking, she penned a note to Calkins asking why — why didn’t Calkins ever tell her about the scientific research?
“I never heard anything back,” she said.
Calkins did not grant an interview for this story, but she did respond by e-mail referencing a recent webinar that she did saying, “I think getting this right for the sake of kids is important.” The webinar is hosted on Education Week’s site but sponsored by Calkins’s publisher, Heinemann. Calkins also posted an article this month, entitled “No One Gets to Own the Term ‘The Science of Reading.’” It has since garnered a lot responses, such as this open letter, from those in the science of reading community.
Meanwhile, Rivera moved on from waiting to hear from her former advisor. And she was fed up with choosing between private school tuition and a public school that used balanced literacy. Her family moved to Upper Arlington, Ohio, where the district’s reading curriculum is aligned with reading science.
“Today, my son knows more about the rules of the English language than most of the reading and writing teachers out there do,” Rivera said. “He can tell you why we double the consonant in “babble.” He can tell you why we learn how to divide words into their syllables, so you know what the vowel says and can then decode the word. He knows that the sound /k/ at the end of a word is always going to be spelled with a “ck,” because “ck” comes at the end of a one-syllable word after a short vowel.
“These are the keys to our language. Brendan may not read as quickly or as fluently as his peers, but he can read. He can decode. He can encode. Everyone should have that opportunity.”
This article originally attributed a quote to journalist Emily Hanford. The quote is now properly attributed to this Education Week article.
This article originally contained the statement: “The B-12 Steering Committee will also be looking to find a more robust and ongoing training than NC SIP can offer.” This information did not come from anyone on the B-12 Steering Committee.