Despite being such a fundamental part of our daily lives, reading is not a natural function of the brain. While our brains are wired for speaking, they are not for reading, which means the connections between multiple lobes and regions that allow for comprehension of the written word must be built through systematic instruction and practice.
For generations, most children have been taught to read using what’s called a whole language approach that emphasizes memorization of words to create comprehension over time. But recent studies using brain imaging technology and other research indicate that the whole language method may not be the best way to teach reading.
“We’ve learned so much more than we once did,” says Phil Howell, associate head of school at the DePaul School in Louisville. “A lot of what we thought we knew turned out to be myth.”
Instead of whole words, brain researchers say a phonics approach is more effective. It encourages children to break down words and sound them out letter by letter. Educators who use this so-called “structured literacy” approach to reading say it’s a game-changer for children, especially those who struggled to read under the traditional “balanced literacy” approach.
“It has just made such a difference with kids and how quickly they learn,” says Shelly Gray, a kindergarten teacher at North Hancock Elementary School in Lewisport. “It gets kids excited.”
Read to Succeed Act Brings a New Approach to Literacy Instruction
Hancock County, Monroe County, and Corbin Independent Schools were among the first districts in the state to implement structured literacy instruction, according to Christie Biggerstaff, director of early literacy with the Kentucky Department of Education Office of Teaching and Learning. She says teachers who use the new phonics approach are thrilled by how quickly a child’s reading skills can improve.
“Educators want what’s best for students,” says Biggerstaff. “Sometimes we don’t know what that is, but when we’re pointed in that right direction, we absolutely want to do what’s best for our students in Kentucky.”
In 2022, the General Assembly passed the Read to Succeed Act, which calls for a new approach to literacy instruction in the commonwealth. In addition to phonics-based teaching, Senate Bill 9 calls for screening of a child’s reading skills, customized supports for students who have difficulty reading, and more training for teachers on evidence-based reading instruction methods that all students will receive.
Passage of Read to Succeed came in the wake of a steady decline in reading scores among the state’s fourth graders from 2015 to 2022. Those scores indicated that more than half of Kentucky children are not proficient readers.
While those numbers are troubling, the outlook for those students is even worse. National studies show that one in six children who can’t read well by the end of third grade don’t graduate high school. Among those who can’t read proficiently by the end of fourth grade, two-thirds will wind up in jail or on welfare as adults.
“We knew something had to change,” says State Sen. Stephen West (R-Paris), chair of the Senate Education Committee and primary sponsor of SB 9. He says the legislation was inspired by changes the state of Mississippi made to reading instruction over the past decade, which moved students there from 49th in the nation in reading to 21st. West says he wanted to bring that “Mississippi miracle” to Kentucky.
“Naively we thought... this is going to be easy. We’ll get it through the legislature and we’ll all live happily ever after, but that’s not what happened,” says West. “It took us three or four years of hard work.”
The bipartisan legislation finally passed last year, making Kentucky one of 19 states to move to a phonics-based approach to reading. State Rep. James Tipton (R-Taylorsville), who is chair of the House Education Committee, cautions that it will take time to implement all the student supports and teacher training required by the bill and then see that work reflected in greater reading proficiency.
“This is a process, it takes time,” says Tipton. “The rewards will come down the road, I’m confident of that.”
Providing Young Readers the Supports They Need
Matt and Nicole Willet-Jones have already seen the benefits of phonics-based instruction for their daughter Mila, who struggled with reading when she started school. Nicole says Mila saw letters as hieroglyphs and had no idea what sound they represented. The first grader quickly grew frustrated as she realized she wasn’t advancing with reading as quickly as her classmates.
After Mila was diagnosed with dyslexia, the Joneses transferred their daughter to Louisville’s DePaul School, which specializes in instruction for children who learn differently. With phonics-based instruction and specialized supports, Mila soon flourished.
“Within a week of her being here she was back to being happy,” says Nicole. “It’s like having our kid back and she can read, which is amazing.”
“We’re very thankful for the school here,” says Matt, “the way that they’re able to teach differently here to meet the children where they are.”
Phil Howell of the DePaul School says it’s not just dyslexic students who prosper under this type of instruction. He says any child can benefit from a phonics-based approach. But when a child does struggle to read, Howell says traditional literacy instruction can leave the student feeling like reading is a mystery.
“If it’s difficult and they’re not successful, they don’t enjoy it and so they avoid it,” says Howell. “That avoidance of course means they’re not practicing to get better while their peers who are good readers love it and read as much as they can. So, they’re being set up by the system to avoid something that they desperately need.”
Lindsay Brooks teaches first grade at Chancey Elementary School in Louisville. She’s witnessed the transformation of students learning with the phonics approach.
“You can just see so much more growth because kids are getting such intentional instruction,” she says.
Another change, according to Brooks, involves how teachers organize young readers in the classroom. Instead of grouping them by overall skill level, which Brooks says can stigmatize children who aren’t proficient readers and exacerbate their learning deficit, they now group them based on a specific skill that needs work, like articulating vowel sounds. Students can rotate from group to group depending on what specific skill may need work at that point in their instruction.
The screening and diagnostic tests required under SB 9 will help teachers better understand the specific reading challenges a child faces. From there, teachers can create a reading improvement plan for the child.
“So, it’s not just a cookie-cutter approach to instruction and intervention,” says Micki Ray, chief academic officer with the Kentucky Department of Education Office of Teaching and Learning. “It is tailored specifically to the needs of that individual student.”
That improvement plan goes beyond classroom instruction to engage children in reading outside of school.
“So that parents can also provide some extra support at home in a way that is manageable for them but also narrowed down to the specific skills that the student would need to practice,” says Ray.
Teaching the Teachers
As part of this new literacy push in the commonwealth, thousands of educators from kindergarten through grade five are receiving training called LETRS, which stands for Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling. The training explains the multidisciplinary research behind how children learn to read and write, why some students struggle with these skills, and how teachers can provide more effective instruction.
“It’s teaching them how to teach reading,” says Biggerstaff
Among those getting LETRS training this summer was state Rep. Tina Bojanowski, a Louisville Democrat and elementary school teacher. She says about 60 percent of children learn to read no matter what. But she says those who struggle with reading are at risk of falling farther and farther behind.
“I think that the more teachers who have trained in the LETRS program, and more children who gain these foundational skills, the stronger readers they will be as they go through 3rd, 4th, 5th, and higher grades,” says Bojanowski.
In Jefferson County, even substitute teachers are getting LETRS training, according to Terra Greenwell, chief academic officer for the public school district there. She says that creating a common focus on literacy across grade levels will finally address the skills gaps students have experienced for years.
“The goal is everyone will have access to high quality instructional resources to support literacy,” says Greenwell.
Along with professional development for current teachers, Senate Bill 9 requires the state’s colleges and universities that offer teacher preparation programs to include training on the science of reading and phonics-based instruction. Murray State University, which has about 850 pre-service teachers in training, is combining classroom instruction on the science of reading with 200 hours of practicum experience.
“Every student that graduates either in interdisciplinary early childhood education or elementary education is required to take and pass an exit exam that tests them on reading and literacy,” says David Whaley, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at MSU.
The Kentucky Department of Education has also hired more than two dozen literacy coaches who will work with schools that have the highest percentage of novice readers. Biggerstaff says they will model the new instructional techniques for those teachers and help the schools improve their students’ reading scores.
“They are motivated, passionate, very skilled educators that we have hired throughout the entire state of Kentucky to help us implement the changes,” says Biggerstaff. “Change does take time and sometimes you just need somebody to come in and say, ‘This is the way, this is what research says is best practice, let me show you how.’”
While she applauds the new focus on literacy, the additional teacher training, and the $10 million in annual funding the legislature has allocated for the effort, Bojanowski says she hopes her fellow lawmakers will take an additional step to overhaul school accountability testing to better measure the kinds of reading skills the new approach emphasizes.
“If we really hunker down and work explicitly on the foundational skills but we’re measuring only reading comprehension, we’re not going to see that growth for a while,” says Bojanowski. “We need to make sure that we measure what we’re putting our emphasis on... Right now, our end-of-the-year tests don’t measure foundational skills.”
Legislators West and Tipton say lawmakers understand it will take time to see the results of this work reflected in student test scores. They say the state and its children will benefit from the new approach for years to come.
“This is such crucial work because what we’re talking about is making a difference in the lives of these children that will last a lifetime,” says Tipton.