House revisits ‘reading war’ but votes against requiring phonics instruction in bill to fix Read to Achieve

A debate in the state House about a bill designed to improve North Carolina’s signature education reform program – Read to Achieve – morphed into a lengthy discussion this week about the value of phonics in reading instruction.

State Rep. Larry Pittman, (R-Cabarrus), offered an amendment to Senate Bill 438, also known as the “Excellent Public Schools Act of 2019” that would require students to receive instruction in phonics starting in kindergarten through first grade.

“Sometimes we discard the so-called old fashioned way of doing something because it’s old-fashioned, without stopping to think about the fact that it’s worked so well for so long,” said Pittman, who attributed his success as a reader to phonics instruction.

Pittman said not using phonics to teach reading is like teaching someone to “lay bricks when you don’t teach them the relationship between brick and mortar.”

“This bill will do a lot of good things to help with education but requiring, not just saying we encourage phonics, will help a lot kids, and they’ll be reading by third-grade a whole lot better,” Pittman said.

The use of phonics to teach reading was replaced by the whole language approach, which teaches students to read words as whole pieces of languages.

Meanwhile, phonetic-based reading is taught by having children use letter sounds and letter symbols.

Many older Americans swear by phonics instruction and the often attribute the nation’s much-discussed reading woes to the switch to a whole-language approach to teaching reading, which became popular nearly four-decades ago.

“This is a good amendment,” said State Rep. Charles Graham (D-Robeson), a retired educator. “When we’re talking about teaching to read, we know all children do not learn the same way. Phonics is a different way to work with some students who may not be able to understand whole language reading.”

State Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, (D-Guilford), an education consultant and former assistant school superintendent, said it would be harmful to require educators to focus solely on phonics.

Clemmons said phonics is only one of the five areas that are considered part of reading instruction, along with phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension.

“Proscribing an over-emphasis on one of those five ultimately would negatively affect, in my opinion, the reading of all of our children,” Clemmons said.

Clemmons noted that SB 438 includes a provision that requires educators to develop Individual Reading Plans (IRPs) for students struggling to learn to read.

“The intention of the Individual Reading Plans as written in this bill is for children to have the instruction on whichever the five areas they need, and proscribing all of them to have phonics does not help overall the reading of our state,” Clemmons said.

State Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham), who introduced the bill in the spring, has said the use of IRPs in Mississippi and Florida have resulted in substantial reading gains for struggling readers.

State Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union), said there isn’t anything in SB 438 that prohibits educators from using phonics to teach a child to read.

“As a matter of fact, the bill specifically moves us toward individual Reading Plans, and if that’s [phonics] is what’s best for a child, then that’s what we should apply for the child,” Horn said. “To thrust [phonics] upon a child, to thrust upon a teacher that this is the way you will do it because it worked for me last year or 50 years ago, that doesn’t make reasonable sense to me.”

Pittman’s was eventually defeated on an 86-23 vote.

He introduced a second amendment that would require a task force the Superintendent of Public Instruction would have to create if SB 438 becomes law, to study whether phonics is adequately integrated into the state’s standard course of study or whether a separate course of study is needed.

“This is exactly right on,” Horn said. “This is what we should be doing. Let’s study it, take a look at it and implement it where necessary.”

Pittman’s second amendment was approved on a 108-0 vote.

The House vote on SB 438 was much closer.

It narrowly passed on a 59-50 second-reading vote with all but one Republican voting in favor of the bill. Three Democrats cast votes in favor of SB 438.

Adopted in 2012, North Carolina’s Read to Achieve legislation’s goal is to ensure all children are reading at above grade level by the end of third-grade.

After spending more than $150 million on the effort, the results have been dismal. More than 43 percent of third-graders tested during the 2017-18 school year did not demonstrate reading proficiency.

“The overarching theme is Read to Achieve is working in some places and it’s not working as well as it should in other places,” Berger said Tuesday during a House committee meeting. “If something needs to be fixed, let’s fix it. If things are working well, then let’s try to replicate those things.”

One Comment

  1. Carol

    July 23, 2019 at 7:56 am

    My 9 year old dyslexic son going into 4th grade still at 2nd grade level .. the stanly county school systems are not teaching children to read in a way they understand. Something different needs to be done

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