Bill requiring phonics-based approach to teaching reading becomes law

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Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law a controversial bill requiring a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.

Despite his veto of similar legislation in 2019, Cooper said in a statement that Senate Bill 387 will help students and teachers.

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading,” the governor said. “But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham County) sponsored SB 387. It is supposed to fix deficiencies in the state’s “Read to Achieve” law he championed in 2012 to ensure all students read on grade level by the end of third grade.

But after spending more than $150 million on the initiative, reading scores have not improved.

“I’m skeptical of any approach from Phil Berger after his first Read to Achieve bill resulted in third grade reading being the only EOG [end-of-grade] subject where test scores have actually fallen,” said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with NC Justice Center’s Education Law Project. “We know that depriving schools of resources and just threatening 8 and 9-year-old children with retention is a failed strategy. Yet this bill retains those core, failed strategies.”

Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.

The new law requires teachers to receive training in the “science of reading,” which is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

Teaching reading requires phonics, associating sounds with letters, in addition to  phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension, some experts agree.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said last month that 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.”

Other experts are critical of relying heavily on phonics to teach reading.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Editorial Board.

Cooper also signed House Bill 82 into law. The Summer Learning Choice for NC Families law requires school districts to create summer learning recovery and enrichment programs to address learning loss students experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic has challenged students and teachers like never before,” Cooper said. “Providing a summer opportunity for academic growth plus mental and physical health will help schools begin to address those challenges.”

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