New legislation requires phonics-based approach to teaching children to read

State Senate leader Phil Berger unveiled new reading comprehension legislation Monday that would require K-12 schools to use a phonics-based approach to teaching children to read.

Teachers would receive training in the “science of reading” under the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021. The “science of reading” is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

Teaching reading requires phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension, most experts agree.

“The data shows that reading comprehension by third-grade has major impacts on a child’s future career and post education prospects,” Berger said during a Monday press conference.

The Senate will receive the bill by Tuesday.

The new legislation mirrors Senate Bill 438 filed in 2019 to address deficiencies in “Read to Achieve,” which is the state’s signature education initiative. “Read to Achieve” was signed into law in 2012 to ensure children in North Carolina can read by third grade.

State Senate leader Phil Berger

“The bill in 2019 was the foundation for this bill, but this bill does take it a step further and fortunately some of the dollars we’ve received from the federal government we’ll be able to utilize in training teachers in moving forward in the science of reading,” Berger said.

Like its predecessor, SB 438 would require individual reading plans for K-3 students not reading at grade level. The state’s universities and colleges would also train student teachers in the science of reading.

Berger said the new bill also recognizes the importance of training Pre-K teachers who begin the process of teaching children to read.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said the data show that North Carolina must change its approach to reading instruction.

“Before COVID, our data show that two-thirds of eighth graders in North Carolina do not read proficiently when they start high school,” Truitt said. “We know already that the slide will have occurred post-COVID. We’ve seen it already with our third-grade data.”

Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Truitt said that by the 1990s, the “Look and Say” approach to teaching reading became the dominant method in American classrooms.

“That is the idea that I point to a picture and I tell you it’s a cat, I show you the word cat, and you memorize the word cat because of the picture,” she explained.

The approach is not grounded in research, Truitt said.

“And now, three-quarters of teachers in the U.S. use this method to teach students how to read,” Truitt said.

In 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed SB 438, arguing that “Read to Achieve” is “ineffective and costly.”

“This legislation tries to put a Band-Aid on a program where implementation has clearly failed,” Cooper said at the time.

An evaluation of “Read to Achieve” showed reading scores did not improve after the state spent more than $150 million on the program. More than 43% of third graders tested during the 2017-18 school year did not demonstrate reading proficiency.

Berger believes the new version of  the bill will have enough Democratic support to win Cooper’s signature. He said all Senate Democrats and a significant number of Democrats in the House supported the previous version.

“I do believe this is one of those things that should not have a political component to it,” Berger said. “Philosophically, I think we all want to make sure that our kids have the opportunity and the best chance to gain the skill of reading.”

He said the results from other states using the approach are compelling. In 2019, Berger cited initiatives in Florida and Mississippi as two states experiencing success with early childhood literacy efforts.

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