Educators in Illinois have a January deadline to draft a plan for improving how reading is taught in the state.
This comes as average reading test scores remain low. This year’s scores are due out next week.
The effort by the Illinois State Board of Education is part of a national movement to update reading instruction. A main goal is to match what science says about the way kids learn.
To learn more, WBEZ talked to Tinaya York, a former Chicago Public Schools leader who now coaches school administrators. York worked with other educators around the state to write the first draft of Illinois’ literacy plan.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Why does Illinois need this literacy plan?
The children in Illinois aren’t reading well at all, particularly Black and brown children.
And it’s the same picture in every state. It’s a national issue. So that is really the driving force for why Illinois needed to revamp how schools were addressing reading instruction.
What’s the issue with the way reading is taught now?
Across many classrooms in the state of Illinois we use a method of teaching which some call whole language, where there wasn’t really a methodical way of teaching letter sounds, words, spelling patterns. That was missing in the instruction that children were receiving.
Is the change needed in literacy instruction because whole language instruction wasn’t working for all students?
Absolutely. It is really that most children, most of us, need to learn how to read in a very methodical way. There are some folks who can learn whole words, but most of us need [methodical instruction]. And learning in a more methodical, systematic way doesn’t hurt anybody. So that was one of those things that was really, really missing in our reading instruction.
A lot of us might be familiar with phonics. It teaches reading based on the sounds that the letters represent. How does phonics fit into the way that things might be changing?
That is the shift that we need to make. Of course, there are lots of components and ways that we need to learn how to read: books need to be read aloud, they need vocabulary instruction, fluency and phonemic awareness. They need to be able to manipulate the sounds and the smallest units of sounds and words.
But the phonics component is just one area that the state of Illinois is saying, “you know what, there’s a lot of evidence that we need to make sure that this component is taught very explicitly, very direct instruction and very systematically.” So it would be very important that it gets reintegrated into the way we want children to learn how to read here in the state of Illinois.
With any change, there tends to be pushback. What are people concerned about with this effort to change the blueprint for reading instruction?
What you will hear most, and what I’ve heard most, is that if we bring up phonics sometimes what folks kind of envision is classrooms with children just sitting there getting kill and drill, tons of worksheets. [They worry] that we end up missing some of the pieces that are really critical, like environmental print and kids playing with language. That’s not what we’re talking about at all. Some of the push[back] comes from [concern] that the ways that we’re asking folks to teach reading may impact some of our English learners.
Everyone [drafting the literacy report] are all on the same page, saying “Hey, our children need to learn how to read.” But people are a little concerned with the how, and that’s always going to be the case.
This plan is a blueprint. It’s not mandated. Are you hopeful it can make an impact and improve reading instruction without it being required?
I’m hopeful because this is not just an Illinois issue. There are several states that are saying ‘This is in our locus of control, we can really start to think about what evidence-based instruction is, and how we begin to support our folks in teaching in ways that will give us the best outcomes.”
And I’m hopeful [because] from the state superintendent [of Illinois] on down, they are behind the work. And I’m hopeful because there are tons of literacy advocates, stakeholders who are invested in this work.
There is a loud voice, and the right voices [on this]. And, just to be quite frank, lots of children weren’t reading for a long time, especially Black children. But there are a lot of white voices who got behind this and this started to move. So, with a lot of voices, mixed voices, voices that had been there a long time but nobody was listening, we now have a way to move. I’m hopeful because of that as well.