HICKORY, N.C. — “Mmm, ah, tuh.” Maria Creger gestured at the letters on a small whiteboard as two of her second grade students sounded out the word “mat.”

Normally, she would observe the way their mouths move to form the letters. But this fall, everyone at Viewmont Elementary School is in masks, so she has to listen more intently than usual.

She erased the “m” and jotted down a “p.”

 “Cat,” a boy in a Lego shirt said.

“Did you just say ‘cuh?’” Creger asked him. “I heard you say ‘cuh.’ What sound is this?” She pointed to the “p” again.

“Puh,” he enunciated. “Pat.”

Creger was showing the students how to read by using phonics, which teaches children the relationships between letters and sounds. It is a research-based approach that experts say is essential for helping children — especially those who struggle — learn to read.

“Reading Remedies” is a special reporting series examining the challenges and solutions in K-12 literacy across the U.S. The series was produced by The Seattle Times in partnership with  The Christian Science Monitor, The Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, and The Fresno Bee.

Reading Remedies: New policies and practices to boost literacy

Across the U.S., students are struggling to read at grade level. But new state policies and classroom practices are helping some kids catch up. The Seattle Times published this series of stories about new challenges and solutions in literacy in partnership with The Christian Science MonitorThe Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.comThe Dallas Morning News, and The Fresno Bee.

Some teachers in Hickory Public Schools, where Viewmont Elementary is located, have been focusing more on the science of reading in recent years, spurred in part by the influence of a local education college. It is paying off: Over a five-year span ending in 2019, the number of students reading at grade level in the district grew at a rate that outpaced the state as a whole.

Elsewhere in North Carolina, or in any other state in the nation, if you step into an elementary school, you might find three different classrooms teaching students three different ways to read. For decades, administrators and teacher preparation programs have trained teachers in a patchwork of approaches that experts say is one of the main reasons American students are behind in literacy.

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In North Carolina, reading scores barely budged in the five years between 2015 and 2019. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed one-third of fourth graders in the state performing below the basic reading level in 2019.

A new law in North Carolina aims to fix the problem by bringing uniformity to reading instruction. The law, which passed this spring, will require educators in elementary schools and students and faculty in higher education programs to learn how to teach reading the way Maria Creger does.

Hickory’s scores improved from 52% of students reading at grade level in 2015 to 59% in 2019, compared with an increase from 56% to 57% for the state as a whole.

The state will be retraining teachers with a program called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, a method used by the one state that saw significant gains on the last NAEP tests: Mississippi.

In 2019, Mississippi made headlines when results from standardized tests showed it was No. 1 in the nation for growth in reading. In 2013, Mississippi passed a law to use science-based instruction to ensure students read at or above grade level by the end of third grade. Students in the state improved year after year after that, even as the nation’s average reading scores declined.

Legislators are hoping to emulate Mississippi’s success, at a time when early data shows the school disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made North Carolina’s reading problem worse.

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Hank Weddington, dean of the college of education at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, calls the effort “a civil rights issue.”

Forty percent of Black students and 44% of Hispanic students in North Carolina performed at grade level in English language arts and reading in 2019, compared with 70% of white students.

“We know that African American and Latinx students are performing worse in reading on end-of-grade test measures,” Weddington said. “That gap still exists here, and one of the reasons we believe the gap exists is because we have not been true to the science of reading.”

Reading instruction needs to be explicit

Teaching students to read is one of the most difficult tasks for an early elementary school teacher.

The latest data shows only 35% of fourth graders in the United States were proficient in reading in 2019. After fourth grade, students have a much harder time staying on track in school if they are not reading at grade level, because by that point, they are primarily reading to learn rather than learning to read.

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The science of reading is a decades-old approach that says instruction should be extremely explicit because reading is not instinctive, like speech.

Reading experts now widely acknowledge that before students can learn to connect sounds with written symbols, they must learn how to identify and manipulate those sounds with their mouths — an ability called phonemic awareness. Only then can students master phonics. From there, students must learn vocabulary and how to recognize words by sight — called orthographic mapping — as well as comprehend the meaning of the words they’re reading.

It sounds complicated because it is. Educators can be good at teaching and bad at teaching reading, said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), an advocacy group that studies teacher preparation.

There are several reasons for this, Walsh said. Some educators think they are teaching science-based approaches when they are not. Others have been taught a different approach, known as whole language, which focuses more on context and meaning and exposing students to books rather than teaching phonics.

More commonly, teachers learn a method called balanced literacy, which combines both approaches. But balanced literacy often lacks enough explicit, rigorous phonemic instruction and can include strategies that hurt struggling readers rather than help them, such as teaching them to use pictures to figure out words they don’t know.

Walsh put it this way: In whole language and balanced literacy, a student could see the word “horse” under a photo and still get the exercise correct by calling it a pony.

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“When you have entire generations of teachers who have been taught that that’s OK, it is no wonder that kids leave third grade still unable to decode a word,” Walsh said.

Whether educators can effectively teach reading often depends on how they were taught in college. It’s more important than the curriculum they use, said Shawn Clemons, the director of accountability at Hickory Public Schools.

“Institutions of higher education don’t always teach the students how to teach reading,” Clemons said.

Of the roughly 1,100 teacher preparation programs in early reading NCTQ studies, only 18 do it right, according to Walsh. Lenoir-Rhyne University is one of them.

Lenoir-Rhyne, a small school with about 100 undergraduate education students, has been teaching the science of reading for decades, according to Weddington, dean of the college of education.

But in recent years, that focus has expanded. As a result, Lenoir-Rhyne was among the schools receiving the highest mark in 2020 in NCTQ’s rating system for teacher prep programs in early reading.

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Students at Lenoir-Rhyne now spend three semesters learning about the science of reading rather than one, and professors have started teaching the neuroscience behind the research to give students a better understanding of why it is incredibly difficult for many children to learn to read.

“It is such a complex task, and for our students to understand why that is so complex and what the brain does is extremely important,” said Monica Campbell, who runs the reading program in Lenoir-Rhyne’s elementary education department.

Tutoring helps

During the three semesters when Lenoir-Rhyne students get instruction on teaching reading, they are also inside local elementary schools tutoring young children. Administrators said the tutoring — which was going on even before the lab opened — is part of why some schools in Hickory are seeing more success in reading.

Two years ago, the university created a literacy lab at Southwest Primary School, a few miles down the road from Viewmont Elementary in Hickory. Early education juniors and seniors go there twice a week for two of their courses.

Southwest Primary is a diverse school. About 30% of students are white, 26% are Black, 24% are Hispanic, and 12% are Asian. More than 90% of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Southwest Primary was an elementary school until 2017, when the district converted it to serve pre-K through second grade students, at the same time turning nearby Longview Elementary into a school for third through fifth grades only. The purpose of the change was to improve dismal reading scores.

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At the same time, Southwest started using the science of reading approach, because balanced literacy was not working for its students, said Erin Roberts, a teacher leadership specialist at the school.

“What we have learned with our kids is we have to be incredibly explicit with everything we do,” Roberts said.

Last year, Lenoir-Rhyne students worked with 14 kindergartners at the school to improve their reading scores. By the end of the tutoring sessions, 12 reached or exceeded grade level on their reading benchmark tests.

Those improvements persist even when the students leave Southwest Primary after second grade and head to Longview Elementary for third grade. Longview’s state rating went from a D in 2015 to a B in 2019, during the same time period Southwest started intensifying its reading instruction. Students reading at grade level rose from 44% to nearly 55%, according to state test results.

“A school like Longview, which has a lot of students that are economically disadvantaged, high-needs students, you don’t often see those schools with a performance grade that high,” said Clemons, the Hickory schools director of accountability. “That is a testament to what is done here, and it continues on to that next school.”

Campbell, who runs the Lenoir-Rhyne literacy lab, said partnering with local schools does not always work as well as it has with Southwest.

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Even in Hickory, not all schools have committed to the science of reading. The district’s official approach is balanced literacy.

When Lenoir-Rhyne placed early education students in schools in Hickory and other North Carolina districts in the past, they quickly learned not everyone teaches reading the same way. “That’s very confusing when they’re learning something in college, but they’re not seeing it practiced in the schools,” Campbell said.

But next year, state law is forcing Hickory and every other district in the state to jettison other ways of teaching reading in favor of science-based methods.

It will not be an easy process.

The law requires all early education teachers, future educators and professors in teacher preparation programs to be retrained in reading instruction grounded in the science of reading.

The training will take between 138 and 168 hours over the span of two years, which will equal a few hours a week. In order to complete the herculean task of retraining thousands of teachers across the state, the initiative is being rolled out in three phases — phase one started this fall. Hickory Public Schools is in phase three, which is set to start next summer.

The mandate comes at a particularly difficult time for schools. With a shortage of teachers, substitutes and bus drivers, districts in the first phase are already reporting challenges with the time-intensive training. Teachers can either complete it during the workday, which is hard when there are not enough substitutes to cover classes, or they can do it at home.

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After the pressures teachers experienced from the pandemic, administrators are worried teachers will quit, said Timothy Sims, director of federal programs in Hickory Public Schools.

“The training is going to be a good thing for our teachers. Getting through it is going to be really tough,” Sims said.

But advocates for the changes believe it will be worth it in the long run for the 35,000 North Carolina third graders who ended last school year reading below grade level, and the thousands of younger children coming up behind them.

Campbell knows it will be a lot of work for schools and universities, but she’s hopeful about the end result.

“It’s going to be a wonderful thing when everyone is on the same page,” Campbell said.

Ed Lab Live: Register for a live webinar about “Reading Remedies”

Across the U.S., students are struggling to learn how to read. But new state policies and classroom practices are showing success in helping kids catch up.

Hear from a classroom teacher and curriculum specialist from Texas, a Washington state district superintendent, and a key architect of Mississippi’s statewide reading plan.

In this free webinar on Tuesday, Nov. 16, at 4 p.m. PDT, they’ll discuss how systemic obstacles might be removed so we can better reach and teach struggling readers. Click here to register and submit a question to the experts.

This story about the science of reading was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, as part of the project “Reading Remedies,” a collaboration with The Christian Science Monitor and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee, The Post and Courier, and The Seattle Times. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.