Reading experts and brain scientists agree nearly every child can learn to read if they are taught using explicit, systematic, research-based instruction. 

So why aren’t all teachers and schools using this method? 

Many Oklahoma students struggle to read. Only 29% of Oklahoma fourth graders – and 26% of eighth graders – were at or above proficiency in reading in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 34% and 32% nationally. The problem is especially acute among low-income children.

Yet state officials say many teachers still use reading-instruction theories that brain research has shown don’t work and can be detrimental. That problem could become more severe in the fall, when school resumes and teachers must deal with students who fell behind during the pandemic.

Interviews with state education officials, college educators and teachers suggest the reason for the disconnect lies in a combination of factors, including lack of awareness, adherence to tradition and limited resources. 

Underlying all of this is that responsibility for teaching kids to read belongs to many entities. No single body in Oklahoma is charged with overseeing the entire enterprise, which makes it difficult to ensure everyone understands the best teaching practices and how to use them.  

Improving outcomes will require aligning every level of the process in the science of reading, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.  “The science has outpaced some of our teaching practices,” she said.  

Second graders use magnetic letters to practice spelling and reading in Tisha Wertzberger’s classroom Feb. 11 at Nichols Hills Enterprise Elementary School. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Local Decision-Making  

Oklahoma Academic Standards outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The reading standards, updated in 2016, identify the five essential components of early reading instruction identified by decades of research – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension. 

State law requires that teacher candidates learn these components, K-3 teachers incorporate them into their instruction and students be assessed on them. But the law and the standards do not mandate a specific curriculum or dictate how teachers should teach. That is left to the school district, the building principal and the teacher. 

“We’re very big on local control in Oklahoma,” said Michelle Keiper, an educator and advocate for phonics-based reading instruction from Sand Springs. “Local control only works well if you are in a district that is well-funded, and your educators are well-educated on best practices.” 

The issue is that many teachers don’t use systematic phonics instruction, which research shows is better. They teach the whole-language approach that uses a “three-cueing system” where students are told to memorize words, to use pictures on a page to decipher a word, and to skip words they don’t know until later.

Keiper learned to teach reading using the whole-language method – teaching children to recognize words as whole pieces of language – and didn’t learn about the phonics-based method until her youngest child struggled to read and she couldn’t help him. 

She discovered Sam had dyslexia and needed to be taught reading using the systematic phonics approach. Today he is a high school senior and his mother, the founder of Decoding Dyslexia Oklahoma, advocates for teaching the strategic phonics method in public schools. 

The method works not only for the nearly one in five students with dyslexia, but for all students learning to read, said Hofmeister. She saw it during her 15 years as the owner of a math and reading center before she became superintendent in 2015.  

The National Reading Panel, created by Congress in the late 1990s, affirmed the phonics-focused reading method in a 2000 report, but getting it into elementary classrooms has gone slowly. 

Today, most teachers in Oklahoma and the United States use curricula that combine phonics with whole language – an approach called balanced literacy. 

“Balanced literacy is being taught in every district across the state,” said Keiper, whose group includes parents and teachers throughout Oklahoma. 

“A handful of districts have really switched their attention to the science of reading,” she said. “But what we end up finding is just a hodgepodge. There’s a divide between the science and the classroom.” 

Laura Gautreaux, a certified academic language therapist in Oklahoma City, said parents are seeking private instruction using more scientifically established methods so their children can learn to decode words.  

“They feel like their kids aren’t getting taught in a way they can learn,” Gautreaux said.  

Families that cannot afford private instruction are left with whatever method is being taught in their school. 

Many parents complain about the three-cueing system, which teaches early readers strategies to guess words rather than attending to the letters on the page, Gautreaux said. 

“Good readers don’t guess,” she said. 

Lotonja Lott, a paraprofessional who helps beginning readers at Nichols Hills Enterprise Elementary School, works with kindergartner Jeremiah Martin on Feb. 11. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Teacher Awareness 

When it comes to the science of reading, teachers often ask, “Why didn’t I learn this in college?” said Melissa Ahlgrim, reading sufficiency director for the state Education Department.  

“Maybe they weren’t taught. Maybe they weren’t ready to hear it,” Ahlgrim said.  

At the University of Central Oklahoma, elementary education majors are required to take five reading/literacy courses that include the five essential components, said professor Julie Collins, a reading specialist and expert in literacy instruction.  

Those five courses account for 15 hours of the 124 hours required for graduation. Students also must learn to teach mathematics, science, history, government and other subjects. 

“My feeling is that there’s an awful lot an elementary teacher has to know and be able to do,” Collins said. Their education and certification is for all grades through eighth grade.  

A teacher may do her student teaching in a fourth-grade classroom – where reading instruction is at a more advanced level – and then be hired to teach first grade, where some students may not know any letters and others may be able to read some words.  

“They may become overwhelmed with the variety of needs of the children in their class,” Collins said.  

Bryan Duke, associate dean and director of educator preparation at UCO, said he believes colleges across the state are doing a good job of teacher preparation in literacy, but the state doesn’t track their success. 

“It’s hard to get good data on how graduates perform in the classroom,” Duke said.  

Funding for a Teacher Residency Program, which paid mentor teachers a stipend to coach new teachers, was cut in 2010. Today the quality of support and training from mentor teachers and principals varies widely depending on the school, Duke said. 

A student uses her finger to follow along as she reads aloud in class. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Even more concerning, is the number of teachers in classrooms who are not university-trained to be teachers, Duke said.

A report from the Oklahoma Association of Colleges for Teacher Preparation showed that 1,233 graduates of university programs were certified for the 2018-19 school year. During the year’s first 10 months, 3,034 non-teachers were given emergency teacher certification.

The state now requires every emergency-certified teacher to complete the LETRS professional development training. LETRS stands for Language Essentials for the Teachers of Reading and Spelling, which state officials said is the best curriculum to prepare educators to teach literacy. 

The free training is optional for veteran teachers who, like Ahlgrim and Hofmeister, attended college when whole language instruction was taught.  

Some teachers are defensive “when they hear the way they’ve been doing it is wrong,” Ahlgrim said. But overall teachers’ response is “help us learn how to help our kids,” she said.  

Every school in the state is teaching phonics, she said, but the key is how they teach it.  

Force of Law 

Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, filed four bills this session aimed at improving literacy rates among Oklahoma students. 

Conley said the science of reading is “what we’re going to have to use to move the needle.” As a teacher in the Moore, Norman and Oklahoma City school districts, she encountered many fifth-grade students who weren’t reading at grade level. 

Conley said offering optional training isn’t good enough. She wants the state Board of Education to adopt a science of reading curriculum and every school district to train all teachers to use it. 

Second-grader Crew Hankinson reads aloud to his teacher, Tisha Wertzberger, during class Feb. 11 at Nichols Hills Enterprise Elementary School. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

That would follow the lead of states like Arkansas – which passed the Right to Read Act in 2017 with new requirements for each part of the state’s reading-instruction pipeline – and Mississippi, a leader in science-based literacy instruction. 

Mississippi was the only state in the nation to make significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test in the 2019 NAEP report, sparking a new national focus on the science of reading. 

All teachers in Mississippi take research-based early literacy courses and the state appropriates $15 million each year to support 80 literacy coaches who help teachers in schools where students struggle the most in reading.  

State education officials in Oklahoma are focused on helping teachers and superintendents “understand there is a better way to teach reading,” Hofmeister said. But they aren’t pushing a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

This school year officials learned more students are struggling with reading than they thought.  

Under the Reading Sufficiency Act, every student enrolled in first, second and third grade is assessed at the beginning, middle and end of each school year. A screening process approved by the State Board of Education is used.  

The board narrowed the choices districts can use for screening beginning this year, and the results are showing more students struggling than in the past, Hofmeister said.  

“We see that struggle persist year after year,” she said. “We can overcome dyslexia and other struggles only through explicit systematic phonics instruction.” 

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