Like pretty much any middle school kid, Greyson Chavez of Beaverton just wants to fit in with his classmates.
When they’d go out to eat, he’d always ask for the same thing— a cheeseburger, say – because he didn’t want anyone to know that he couldn’t read the menu.
In school, he crossed his fingers that he wouldn’t have to read aloud, because his classmates would hear him stumbling over hard words. And he tried his best to be inconspicuous whenever he got pulled out for special education sessions with an online program that was supposed to help catch him up — but didn’t.
By seventh grade, Greyson only read at a second-grade level. The transportive joy of reading for pleasure feels permanently beyond reach. “I don’t really see a world where I enjoy reading,” he said.
Greyson has spent a lot of time feeling ashamed and like the odd man out. But he has plenty of company in Oregon, judging by the most recent test scores. A staggering 61% of third graders and 54% of seventh graders aren’t fully proficient at reading, including 30% of seventh-graders found to be substantially below grade level.
Brain research that was brought to light more than 20 years ago – but is now getting increased attention — suggests schools’ failure to teach children to read using scientifically based methods is a key factor in the dismal scores. Still, districts in Oregon, including Greyson’s, have continued to rely on now-discredited core curriculum materials to teach reading in the primary grades — and The Oregon Department of Education is fine with that. That hands-off approach has left Oregon increasingly an outlier.
Nationally, this year’s scores on the only achievement test given to a representative sample of students in every state found only one of every three eighth graders is proficient at reading, meaning they are on track for college and higher-paying jobs.
Against that backdrop — and driven by decades of data-driven research — 29 states have moved to overhaul how children are taught to read. The new techniques focus squarely on phonics – how sounds look in writing – and its cousin, phonemics — the series of sounds that make up a word. Essentially, those states mandate strategies aimed at helping children understand how letters and sounds fit together and how to use that knowledge to decode words.
Colorado, Connecticut and North Carolina are among those that passed laws between 2019 and 2022 to require local districts to use a reading curriculum rooted in such methods. California passed a law in 2021 to require college and university elementary teacher preparation programs to show that their graduates have been trained in “foundational reading skills” instruction.
Oregon has no such requirements.
Instead, every one of the state’s 197 school districts is given the leeway to adopt its own core curriculum. The Oregon Department of Education has a list of approved curricula for teaching early reading and writing, and districts who want to deviate from that list are supposed to choose materials that include the concepts of phonics and phonemic awareness. But districts that want to choose other options may do so without penalty, and, since 2011, have not been required to notify the state.
That’s left plenty of districts, including a handful of the Portland metro area’s largest, using early literacy curricula that aren’t on the state’s approved list and that legitimize guessing words based on pictures over sounding out each letter.
>> See which core early literacy curriculum is in use at 15 metro-area school districts <<
Such curricula are frequently termed “balanced literacy”— meaning they balance a so-called whole language approach along with some phonics instruction. The theory is that with high-quality books at hand, children can intuit patterns and learn to read without having to sit through repetitive, reductive phonics lessons. As part of whole language, children are taught to guess at unfamiliar words by looking at pictures, the surrounding words they know and perhaps the word’s first letter. It’s like Field of Dreams for reading: Provide kids with engaging books and they’ll be inspired and motivated to develop into passionate readers.
Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest, relied substantially on this kind of curriculum until this school year. North Clackamas, West Linn-Wilsonville, Sherwood, Riverdale and Greyson’s district, Beaverton, still do, though all but North Clackamas are in the midst of curriculum reviews that could yield new materials by fall 2023 or 2024. (North Clackamas renewed its use of a balanced literacy curriculum in 2022; it’s not slated to consider a new one until 2029.)
All of these districts have added supplementary phonics instruction in recent years. And some, like Beaverton, have trained specialists in phonics-heavy remedial reading methods proven to help children with dyslexia, a change that was spurred by decades of increasingly insistent parent activism. The parent advocates have been joined in some cases by teachers and reading specialists who’ve called instead for top-to-bottom curriculum overhauls. Their claim: A generation of pandemic-scarred students won’t ever get back on track if they aren’t properly taught to read.
RHYME TO LEARN
Roughly 2 1/2 miles from Greyson’s former elementary school, 22 pairs of eyes are fixed on Beaverton kindergarten teacher Christine Davenport. The veteran teacher was such a balanced literacy true believer, she even spent her own money to go to New York City for multiple training sessions with the movement’s patron saint, Lucy Calkins of Teachers College at Columbia University.
Calkins’ curriculum, titled Units of Study, remains at the core of reading instruction in Beaverton, West Linn-Wilsonville and Sherwood.
And yet, on a bright early December morning, Davenport and her students are playing a which-one-of-these-is-not-like-the-other game. The goal: Listen for the rhymes, a sneaky-fun way of getting students to clock individual sounds and letter blends. It proves a master class in how to get kids hooked on phonics.
“You. Land. Sand,” Davenport chirps to her class, “Think!”
“You … land,” they repeat back to her, trailing off a little at the end. They’d noticed it wasn’t quite right.
“Wait: you land?” Davenport asks. “OK: You. Land. Sand.”
This time, the chorus comes back loud and proud: “Land. Sand!”
Next up: Davenport makes two sounds and directs her students to turn them into a word. Rrr and amp become ramp; wh and ale whale.
It’s not the way she taught when she first started out, when she worked at a higher needs school in Salem, Davenport says. As a child, she herself struggled to learn to read; she knows exactly how much it matters.
“So, I panicked. I had no idea how to teach reading,” she said. “I went to the reading specialist. She had been an Oregon Teacher of the Year, back in 2001. And she gave me some videos and a book by Fountas and Pinnell.
Along with Calkins, those two professors, one based at Ohio State and one at Lesley University in Massachusetts, are some of the most influential producers of whole language curriculum materials.
“I found a lot of the teaching practice in there very freeing,” Davenport continued, “because it left it up to the teacher to get to know kids and understand what each reader needed.”
Lots of teachers feel the same way, it turns out. Science of reading programs can be highly prescriptive, dictating down to the minute what a teacher should do and say. That’s true even for joyous teachers like Davenport, who nevertheless manages to use silly voices, a glasses-wearing stuffed elephant named Mabel and some serious dance moves to keep her students engaged.
Balanced literacy, by contrast, allows students to build book boxes full of “just right” books they’ve picked out, to settle down on a bean bag or in a quiet corner, or to talk together about the motivations of that hapless hat hawker in Caps for Sale, say.
That’s magical, but being able to process text into meaning doesn’t happen by osmosis, says Lisa Lyon, the founder and outreach director of Decoding Dyslexia Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy group. To make it happen, she says, kids have to actually know how to read.
MATTER OF EQUITY
An early December meeting of the interim House Education Committee was running behind schedule, and Kathy Helgeson, a seasoned reading interventionist from southern Oregon, felt rattled. She was there to make an impassioned pitch: Set Oregon on the path to join other states that have mandated and funded science-based reading instruction.
Instead, she had to shorten her testimony on the fly, with no time for questions or answers. Helgeson nevertheless gave it her all, barely pausing for breath.
“Students do not naturally learn to read,” Helgeson told the panel. “Some students are lucky to have a great memory and a brain that easily picks up patterns … Because some students become readers, it creates the illusion that the teaching is effective.”
Children who don’t learn to read easily often shoulder the blame, along with their families, Helgeson said. “In reality,” Helgeson continued, “most students need explicit, systematic instruction over multiple years to become a proficient reader.”
Greyson is one example. His mother, Kim Harley, said she trusted his teachers and loved his school but recalls being told that her son wasn’t trying hard enough and perhaps needed to read more at home or possibly had an attention-deficit disorder.
Helgeson said lawmakers must understand that science-based reading instruction — and the continuum of training teachers need to make sure it is well-implemented — isn’t a fad and shouldn’t be a political football. It’s fundamentally about equity, she said, giving every child an equal shot at learning to read, no matter their teacher, neighborhood or demographics.
Without a systematic, statewide approach, she and others said, many frantic parents will eventually pay out of pocket for phonics-based home tutoring programs or expensive private tutors, if they can find one. Harley used an online phonics program to help get Greyson’s reading level up three grade levels in a matter of months. Now, seven adults in his family pitch in to help pay for an $80 an hour tutor who has helped get him even closer to grade level.
West Linn resident Julie Frazier also hired a tutor when she realized how much her son was struggling. When he was in fourth grade, he wouldn’t write more than three or four words at a time. He’d come home and explode, she said — crying and falling apart after holding it together in class all day.
Getting explicit phonics instruction from outside the district helped her son, she said. “But all that was stuck in my head was, ‘What about all the people who can’t afford this?’”
Frazier, a special education teacher, said she knows the answer: They’ll almost all keep struggling. Students who can’t read by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school on time than their peers, for example. And low literacy rates have also been linked with a higher probability of incarceration in later life.
FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES?
Making change happen will take substantial outlays of taxpayer money, Helgeson said, along with commitment from school administrators, school boards, principals and, especially, teachers.
Portland Public Schools, for example, spent $5 million over three years to overhaul its elementary literacy curriculum between 2019 and 2022 and train teachers how to use the new materials. Continuing professional development adds to the price.
PPS ramped up instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness starting in 2020 by adding two robust science-of-reading programs into daily lessons. The district has cited that switch as part of what helped elementary students’ reading skills stay steady during pandemic-era building closures, while many other districts reported precipitous declines.
Without training and follow-up — and without widespread educator buy-in — curriculum materials can wind up gathering dust on a shelf, Helgeson says.
In Oregon, the science of reading movement has some powerful champions. Stand for Children, the nonprofit advocacy group that has substantial political capital after giving Gov.-elect Tina Kotek around $1 million in 2022, says it plans a major early literacy push in the upcoming legislative session.
“Research shows we need policy and statewide direction,” said Sarah Pope, the organization’s executive director and a former chief of staff at the Oregon Department of Education. “We’re going to need to really update the core instructional strategies, what’s happening day in and day out in our classrooms.”
Her organization will push lawmakers to invest in training and ongoing mentoring for early elementary teachers in the science of reading and provide high-quality tutoring for kids who continue to struggle, Pope said. It’s also seeking funding for summer reading programs and money for districts that need to update or supplement their curricula to add phonics and phonemic awareness materials.
One major question: What kind of support can the movement expect from the state teachers union, another major campaign donor to Kotek and the Democrats in control of the Legislature?
Historically, teachers have been wary of mandates that curb their autonomy and creativity.
But at its annual assembly in Portland last spring, union members added language to their public policy positions to expressly support reading instruction based on the science of reading, citing the impacts of “ineffective reading programs that focus solely on meaning making and teach students to guess words rather than decode.”
Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association union and a Spanish teacher in the Centennial School District spanning Southeast Portland and Gresham said the union would support funding increased training and professional development opportunities for early literacy educators in the science of reading “in a way that respects the expertise people already have.” She singled out the difference that phonics instruction can make for students of color in particular.
But she stopped short of supporting a state crackdown on which curricula districts are allowed to adopt, saying she’s wary of mandates.
“We believe that the science of reading shows that students learn in a multitude of ways, and we want curriculum to be flexible to meet multiple student needs,” Scott-Schwalbach added.
READER BY READER
Davenport’s snug Beaverton classroom is a different world from a Salem committee hearing. But she knows the work she’s doing there, along with the work of thousands of other teachers statewide, is under an exacting microscope, particularly post-pandemic.
A panel of educators, students, parents, and administrators in her district is reviewing the literacy curriculum, with an eye toward a potential adoption of new core materials by 2024. Already, in 2021-2022, the district phased in two supplemental phonics and phonemic awareness curricula, Secret Stories and Heggerty Phonemic Awareness, which Davenport says she “absolutely loves.”
“We call it listening exercises,” she said. “We just say that it helps us take words apart and put them back together. I’m really challenging myself to do a lot more decoding earlier, like from day one. As soon as we’ve learned three letters, we’re starting to use those sounds.”
As a result, instead of asking children to simply memorize high frequency words like you and the, she said, the new approach is to unlock the decodable sounds in them: the th in the, for example.
Still, Davenport would like to see a blend of approaches that leaves room for teacher decision-making and collaboration, to respond to ever-changing student needs and to allow teachers to build on knowledge gleaned from leading their classrooms.
“I think the balanced literacy practices can be merged beautifully with the science of reading,” she said.
Greyson’s mother says that for years, she wanted to believe in the balanced literacy approach, which Beaverton embraced through its StoryTown curriculum when Greyson was in kindergarten and first grade. She even has a picture of her son at about age 6, tucked into a bathtub they’d filled with pillows, a lamp and a stack of picture books, in an attempt to create the school-recommended “cozy nook” to nourish his love of reading.
It didn’t take, not for Greyson or for his older brother, now a junior at a Beaverton area high school who also reads far below his grade level. Last summer, he applied in person for a dishwashing job at a McMenamins and came home defeated, after being unable to read the mission statement upon his would-be manager’s request, his mother Harley said.
She said her older son is now starting an online phonics tutoring program she purchased, though it has taken some persuading for him to believe that it’s not too late. In the meantime, she’s attended listening sessions held by her district and urged officials to choose wisely for the next generation.
“Parents don’t get to pick curriculum. That’s what they tell me, which I completely understand,” she said. “But when you have a curriculum that’s sending 60% of our students out not able to read, what are we missing? It’s not the teachers. We’ve had the best teachers and the best staff, they are so patient and they work with us. Someone higher up is choosing a curriculum that is failing our kids.”
When he first learned to decode the letters and sounds that underpin words many months ago, Greyson said, something clicked into place in his brain.
“I was getting every word right,” he said. “And it felt great.”
—Julia Silverman, @jrlsilverman, firstname.lastname@example.org