Phonics Push Quiet Win of Session

For years, teachers’ unions and even officials at state colleges of education have resisted efforts to improve reading instruction in Oklahoma public schools. That’s why this year’s passage of legislation focused on reading instruction is such a significant victory.

Senate Bill 362, the Strong Readers Act, requires that Oklahoma teachers be trained in “the science of reading to provide explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, encoding, writing, and comprehension and implement reading strategies that research has shown to be successful in improving reading among students with reading difficulties.”

Unfortunately, many teachers today have not received valid, robust training in how to best teach reading.

When the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed teacher-training programs at 12 Oklahoma colleges and universities, none of the programs received an A, meaning none instructed future teachers on all five components of reading.

The council even found five Oklahoma teacher-degree programs taught future educators to use multiple techniques that are contrary to research-based practices, including techniques that can inhibit reading progress.

Officials have long known that phonics-based reading instruction is highly effective and puts kids on the path to educational success. That phonics will now be emphasized in Oklahoma schools is a big win.

It’s also worth celebrating that the bill prohibits Oklahoma public-school teachers from “using the three-cueing system model of teaching students to read” starting in the 2027-2028 school year.

The three-cueing method of reading instruction basically encourages kids to guess what a word is based on associated pictures or the context provided by other words in a sentence rather than sound out a word.

That method has come under increasing fire as researchers have demonstrated, repeatedly, that it does not work. In 2019, APM Reports noted that three-cueing is a theory of instruction “that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked.”

As recently as 2015, Oklahoma was notable for achieving significant improvement in reading outcomes. But that improvement was due to requiring students to repeat the third grade if they were more than a year below grade level in reading and providing significant interventions for struggling readers. School officials balked and succeeded in watering down the retention law, putting an end to Oklahoma’s rise in literacy rankings and generating rapid decline.

During the tenure of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who served from 2015 to January 2023 and opposed the retention law, Oklahoma’s fourth grade National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading score plummeted. Today, Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading NAEP score outranks only three states and the District of Columbia.

Oklahoma children deserve better, and lawmakers are right to view phonics instruction as the key to reversing current bad trends.

About the author: Jonathan Small is president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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