NC lawmakers seek to address ‘crisis in literacy’ by shifting to phonics-based education

Lawmakers looking to boost student literacy

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - State leaders have introduced a bill in an effort to improve reading literacy scores in North Carolina students.

The News&Observer reports that GOP Senate leaders filed the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 on Monday. The bill would require pre-k and elementary school educators to be trained in the instruction of phonics in teaching vital reading skills.

Republican legislators have proposed the act in an effort to address reading scores that have significantly dropped in the state, even after efforts such as the Read to Achieve program that was introduced to help students’ proficiency in reading skills.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said that a shift from phonics-based teaching to “balanced literacy” has proven to be more of a detriment to teaching adequate reading skills, even though the method is used in 75 percent of the nation’s schools.

“We are hardwired to learn how to speak; we are not hardwired to learn how to read,” said Truitt. “The brain has to work...various places in the brain have to be firing and working at the same time in order for reading to take place. It’s not a visual activity; it’s a language activity. And that is why we have to get back to a phonics based approach of early literacy instruction.”

The balanced literacy method focuses on memorization and associating pictures with words. A nation-wide shift was made in the late 1990s/early 2000s from phonics-based learning, which hones in on a child’s ability to associate sounds with letters.

However, education leaders say it has led to this alarming trend. For example, in 2019, just 36 percent of North Carolina fourth graders scored “proficient” in reading. Truitt also highlighted that over half of 8th graders were reading below grade level before entering post-secondary schooling.

The concerning trend was highlighted even before the coronavirus pandemic, which state education leaders say significantly exacerbated the issue.

Truitt says phonics has been backed by research as being highly effective, particularly toward low-income students who -Truitt admits- have been disproportionately impacted by this shift in teaching reading skills.

According to the News&Observer, the new bill would use federal coronavirus relief dollars to train PreK-5 teachers on the “science of reading”, which heavily relies on phonics. It would also include signing and performance bonuses for teachers working at reading camps and for those who, for example, lead students to passing exam scores.

Senate leader Phil Berger, who is one of the bill’s primary sponsors, says the Senate will act on legislation passed by the House that will require a summer school program to assist students needing extra help after this past school year.

News&Observer quotes Berger as saying, “So many of our students have been struggling with virtual school. They are falling behind and we need to do something to help them.”

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