Lawmakers seek ‘science of reading’ to improve literacy rates
Determined to enact legislation that helps improve students’ lagging reading skills, Indiana lawmakers are throwing support behind a bill to require “science of reading” curricula in Hoosier schools.
The reading method incorporates phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Education experts say it gives students the skills to “decode” any word they don’t recognize.
The structured literacy approach is gaining traction nationwide — including in neighboring Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has proposed spending $162 million to require science of reading to be adopted in every school district.
In Indiana, the push is largely a response to the state’s dismal literacy rates, which last spring showed one in five Hoosier third graders can’t read proficiently.
Newly proposed literacy efforts have culminated in House Bill 1558, authored by Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend. The bill codifies the definition of the science of reading in state law and requires schools to adopt such curriculum.
It additionally creates a science of reading grant fund and includes teacher preparation and licensing requirements for the approach.
“The future is bleak for kids who can’t read,” Teshka said last month in the Senate education committee. The bill previously passed the House 91-0.
“When you look at the long-term outcomes of underperforming, as it comes to reading, you look at things like the average enrollee in the Indiana Department of Corrections only reading at a sixth grade level,” he continued. “You look at the fact that students who struggle with literacy drop out of school at exponentially higher rates, which leads to worse public health outcomes, with more strain on our economy.”
The bill combines elements from Senate Bill 402 and House Bill 1590, which also deal with the science of reading.
If Teshka’s legislation — which is now under consideration in the Senate Appropriations Committee — becomes law, it would go into effect for the 2024-25 school year.
Getting on board with “science of reading”
The “science of reading” is defined in the bill as the successful integration of concepts such as phonics, vocabulary and comprehension in reading.
The measure requires that starting in the 2024-2025 school year, the State Board of Education and Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) would be required to adopt academic standards for reading that are based on the science of reading.
The bill also requires teachers to show proficiency in science of reading instruction and to obtain a science of reading certification in order to be licensed to teach in an elementary school.
Trained literacy coaches would specifically be tasked with helping teachers at schools to get kids up to par for the IREAD exam.
Currently, school districts across the state can decide which core reading program to use.
Teshka said he’s eager to get all Indiana schools on board with the science of reading, however.
“I think (the bill) is purposely aggressive because we’re in the middle of a crisis and we don’t have time to wait,” he said.
Many states that have already implemented the curriculum have shown significant improvements in reading rates.
For example, fourth graders in Mississippi ranked 49th in the nation for reading proficiency in 2013. But by 2019 — after the state hired literacy coaches and focused instruction around the science of reading — it ranked first in the nation for reading gains.
Last August, Indiana announced a $111 million investment in literacy through a partnership with the Lilly Endowment — the state’s largest-ever financial investment in literacy.
The funding is intended to support science of reading training for teachers, as well as incorporating science of reading methods into undergraduate teacher preparation programs.
IDOE also launched a partnership to place reading coaches in schools across the state to support K-2 teachers as they put science of reading instruction to use.
Already, more than four dozen schools across the state have piloted Science of Reading instructional coaching, according to the education department. IDOE expects to expand the optional trainings to 60% of Indiana elementary schools by the end of the 2025-2026 school year.
What are the best solutions to poor Hoosier literacy rates?
Still, some skeptics argue that the science of reading method doesn’t do enough to provoke the kind of thinking that enables deep comprehension in realistic reading situations.
“We must teach comprehension as a multidimensional experience,” wrote educators Jessica Hahn and Mia Hood in Education Week. “We want children to comprehend what’s happening literally in the text (who did what when), but we also want them to be able to analyze how parts of the text (literary devices, figurative language, structural choices) work together to develop ideas. And we want them to interpret the purpose and significance of the text in relation to their lives and to society.”
Indiana has recorded a declining literacy rate since 2013.
Literacy fell considerably more during the pandemic. Just 81.6% out of the 65,000 third graders at public and private schools in Indiana passed the 2022 exam. The state education department’s goal is that 95% of students in third grade can read proficiently by 2027.
Seeking help, the IDOE requested the new legislation. Indiana Education Secretary Katie Jenner has maintained that the latest state data demands a response from lawmakers.
Many GOP lawmakers said they, too, believe more districts should now embrace the science of reading method. That includes Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, who has been outspoken in the current legislative session about making it mandatory in all Hoosier schools.
“Our teachers are doing everything they can. They’ve just been given the wrong product to teach our kids,” Freeman said in February. “It’s time the state adopts what is called the science of reading.”
Freeman alluded to a simultaneous effort by state lawmakers to eradicate a teaching method that has recently drawn criticism from academics and education experts.
The “three-cueing model,” which encourages students to make educated guesses at words using context clues, has been largely disproven by cognitive scientists but is still used by schools in Indiana around the country.
Teshka’s measure would prohibit schools from using the three-cueing model and instead require them to adopt a curriculum based on the science of reading.
“We got off the track. We got off sounding words out. We got out of phonics. We got out of breaking words down, knowing how to sound those words out. And we started doing something else. We started guessing,” Freeman said of three-cueing. “The most important thing we’re going to do is teach kids to read, and we need to give them the appropriate tools to do it.”
Sen. Andrea Hunley, D-Indianapolis, a former school principal, said she agrees the science of reading model is most effective, but she emphasized that state schools should be better-funded, overall, before adding new literacy requirements.
The Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA), the state’s largest teachers union, said they also support statewide science of reading requirements, as long as schools have the money to make it happen and credentialing for teachers is clarified.
Budget writers are still weighing how much state funding to appropriate for the science of reading overhaul.
“The questions remain .. will it be enough and to satisfy the demand for implementation? At some point, will all the districts need to have a coach? If so, will there be enough money to pay for all those coaches? And how will they sustain paying for this in the long term?” said Roni Embry, representing ISTA. “We think it’s a good idea — we just want to make sure it’s funded.”
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that covers state government, policy and elections.