Literacy unlocks opportunity. With nearly half the state’s public-school students reading below grade level, there’s no excuse for Washington schools not to use research-backed, effective teaching methods to encourage reading success.

But as The Seattle Times Education Lab recently reported, few of the state’s public-school districts have replaced traditional reading lessons with structured literacy ⁠— a science-based method that systematically teaches reading’s essential components. If schools aren’t voluntarily overhauling literacy programs and training teachers in proven strategies, state lawmakers should force their hands.

Structured literacy teaches students to recognize words’ parts and patterns rather than develop reading fluency through rote memorization and guesswork. It is especially effective for students with dyslexia, English-language learners and other students who struggle with reading. But all early readers can benefit from, and should have access to, this cutting-edge approach.

In Wenatchee, more than half the district’s kindergartners were reading at grade level after a semester of structured literacy instruction, up from 20% in the fall, according to Ed Lab reporting. Impact public charter school students, including low-income, multilingual learners and students in special education programs, averaged more than a year of reading growth during the 2020-21 school year, despite the impacts of the pandemic, according to school officials.

But while the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction recommends structured literacy for all young learners, state law only requires it as part of early screening and intervention for indications of dyslexia. That is not enough.

Despite significant investments in public education, Washington has made little progress in increasing young students’ reading proficiency over the past two decades, according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Public-school fourth graders’ reading scores have averaged between 220-226 out of a possible 500 points since 2002.

Clearly, current methods are failing far too many Washington students. State lawmakers should raise the bar for teaching literacy for all.