Eliza Moore/Eliza Moore/Georgia Public Broadcasting
It was summer outside, but inside John Lewis Elementary School in Macon, Georgia, Quantesha Pittman taught third graders how to construct words.
« What’s that first sound again? » she asked the room of about twenty children.
« SHHHHHH…. », they replied. Pittmann continued.
« Nice work! And then right after that ‘SH’ sound what do you hear? »
“RR UH BUH,” came the next sounds. Pittman then asked the students to put those little pieces of sound called phonemes back together.
« What’s the word again? »
« Shrub! » they said in unison before moving on to other sounds.
Going forward, 30 to 45 minutes of every reading class in Bibb County will be spent doing this, building phonemic awareness, a critical skill in what’s called structured literacy, or the science of reading generally.
That’s because there’s perhaps no better predictor of how well a child will succeed in school than how well they can read around the third grade. Research has shown that if students don’t learn at that point, they are much more likely to fall dangerously behind.
There is now good reason to believe that one of the most popular methods of teaching reading has left many children without basic reading skills.
Grant Blankenship/Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting.
What follows is called the Science of Reading movement. In Georgia this has inspired new laws in the hope of radically changing literacy.
When Missy Purcell taught reading in Georgia’s largest school district in Gwinnett County several years ago, that was not the case. She used Balanced Literacy, like most schools in the country.
« I mean, I’ll be the first to admit and I always say, I was a level-headed fangirl of literacy, » Purcell said.
She’s not alone. For three decades a Balanced Literacy publishing industry worth billions has been centered around a Columbia teachers’ college professor in New York named Lucy Calkins.
The idea was to make reading fun by giving students special books where the pictures are linked to the text.
« We call them patterned books, » Purcell said. « And so it’s like, you know, the fence is purple, the door is purple, the swing is purple… »
And there in the text, unbeknownst to a beginning reader, would be the word « Purple ».
But instead of breaking down the word (PUH UHR PUH UHL), the student was told to look at the picture and the word and guess what it was.
This technique is called cueing, and that’s how Purcell’s son was taught.
« But he never got to read the last page, that didn’t follow the pattern, » she said.
With no purple cue on the last page, it was lost. He couldn’t guess. Purcell said when he saw that he knew Balanced Literacy hadn’t taught his son to read.
What followed was a brief exposure to Structure Literacy, to learn how to decode words through phonemic awareness. Purcell saw that it worked.
« But I also started to realize the number of kids who were sitting in class whose parents hadn’t run into a random group of knowledgeable people, which is what happened to me, » she said.
In the four years that followed, Purcell joined a community that would lobby for reading science laws for all children who needed a more deliberate instruction in reading but were not getting it in school.
Georgia lawmakers have listened to lobbyists and seen the statistics. Last year, nearly 40 percent of Georgia’s third graders read below grade.
So this year lawmakers passed two state laws mandating the science of reading and structured literacy. This month, Governor Brian Kemp appointed a state director of literacy, Amy Denty, to lead the implementation of those standards in every school district in the state.
Ellen Register teaches in Grady County, on the Florida border, where teachers are in the second year of the Reading Science class. She said she was shocked that her material was new to her.
« Because I have a master’s degree, I have a reading endorsement, and I didn’t even know all of this. »
For the past year, Register has been using Structured Literacy in small groups with children who have difficulty learning to read.
« I can see it working. I can see it being useful and helping light bulb shooting for kids, » Register said.
What teachers call « word work » is actually teaching students to decode words, transforming their physical symbolism into component sounds. Register said learning what those sounds are supposed to mean is the last step in the process.
This is reading.
« Only then do we finally get to read the words, » she said. « Some days. »
Not everyone is convinced that Structured Literacy works or, for people like Lisa Morgan, that it’s even new.
« Yes, we all need some phonetics, » said Morgan. « Every child needs to learn phonics. »
Morgan teaches kindergarten and is the president of the Georgia Association of Educators. He fears that the focus on the science of reading goes too far, that he takes the fun out of reading.
« Teaching children to read is not just a science, it’s also an art, » said Morgan. « I want them to want to read and to love to read. »
Lobbyist, teacher, and mom Missy Purcell said this is the classic defense of balanced literacy.
« That would be great, but really, what’s going to make you love something is that you succeed at it, » Purcell said.
There is an increasing consensus that for reading, success follows explicit and structured work. Most states have at least some Science of Reading standards now.
For proof, Purcell points to what many have called the Mississippi miraclethe leap not only in reading proficiency but also in all subjects which followed their statewide adoption of Structured Literacy.
« You know, this is not a revolutionary thing, » Purcell said. « Georgia is actually trying to catch up with a lot of places that have already gone before us.«
Georgia plans to complete implementation of the Science of Reading standards by 2025.