AN 11-YEAR-OLD BOY writing a fifth-grade book report on “The Cat in the Hat,” a book meant for kindergartners. A second-grade girl stuck at a preschool reading level. Students who break down in tears when asked to read aloud in class.

While some might blame teachers or schools for such woeful reading skills, the attorneys who represented these children in the groundbreaking 2017 lawsuit known as the Ella T. case blamed the state of California. They argued that the state had long known of the literacy crisis, and its grim impact on the lives of children, but had done little to solve it, essentially denying these children their civil right to literacy under the state constitution.

“Tragically, the state of California fought us,” said Mark Rosenbaum, lead counsel on the case. “They blamed the kids as opposed to the system itself.”

The state eventually agreed to a 2020 settlement that created $50 million in Early Literacy Support Block (ELSB) grants for 75 of the state’s lowest-performing schools, those with the lowest scores on Smarter Balanced tests administered in the spring of 2019. At some of these high-poverty California schools, fewer than 10% of the children were reading at grade level.

Despite the literacy crisis, California has yet to embrace a comprehensive strategy that will get all students statewide reading by third grade. While California Department of Education officials are tracking outcomes in the block grant schools to inform their “legislative analysis of bills,” there appear to be no plans to use the data to shape a statewide literacy push.

Some are skeptical that the state will use the results to craft the kind of deep and nuanced statewide policy that the literacy crisis demands. Patchwork solutions leave too much to chance, some fear, amid mounting evidence of the need for urgent reform.

“We have 1,000 school districts, each with its own leadership,” said Todd Collins, a Palo Alto school board member and an organizer of the California Reading Coalition, a literacy advocacy group. “If we have a statewide reading problem, it will be very hard to get all, or even most of them, to make it a sustained priority, unless state leaders make a major statewide push, and keep it, for years. We need to get moving as a state, not 1,000 disconnected districts.”

Advocates for literacy reform in California have high hopes that the block grant schools could become a kind of model for the rest of the state as it rethinks reading instruction. If the lowest performing schools can pull this off during the worst time period for American education amid a pandemic, some say, this is proof positive, especially since research shows that reading problems cut across all socioeconomic groups.

“This is a proven model for the state. So why wouldn’t you jump on it? Why wouldn’t you expand it, refine it and make sure every kid gets a chance to learn to read,” said Rosenbaum.

Others take a more measured stance, citing the potential for missteps.

“It’s a phenomenal opportunity, but there are so many points of failure for the schools and the state to mess it up,” said Jessica Reid Sliwerski, a literacy expert and founder of Open Up Resources, a nonprofit that offers accessible curricula. “Sadly, I have very little confidence.”

A literacy experiment

In an era of deepening economic inequality and widening achievement gaps, many see literacy as an issue of equity, the baseline in a functioning democracy.

Rosenbaum views the block grant program as a wide-ranging literacy experiment, an ongoing test case in how best to teach reading in the early grades, TK-3, that may hold lessons for the rest of California. It is a microcosm of the myriad challenges facing the state as a whole, from the lack of consistency created by local control policies, to the stresses of poverty, the pandemic and teacher burnout.

One of the richest states in the nation, California is nevertheless a place where less than half of all third graders scored at grade level in 2019, before the pandemic derailed schooling. The numbers are even more dismal for children of color, with two-thirds of Black children and 61 percent of Latino children unable to read at grade level.

School closures took a heavy toll on test scores, especially among vulnerable students, fueling the largest decline in 30 years on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, or NAEP, dubbed “the nation’s report card.” California schools were among the last in the nation to bring students back to campus.

“These results show that this gap widened further during the pandemic,” said Martin West, a member of the NAEP governing board and dean at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “Supporting the academic recovery of lower-performing students should be a top priority for educators and policymakers nationwide.”

Closing the equity gap

BREAKING DOWN A WAR OF WORDS: A GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Phonics instruction teaches the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language, correlating sounds with letters to sound out the word on the page.  

Phonemic awareness is the ability to detect, identify and manipulate phonemes, a distinct unit of sound, in spoken words. It is one component of phonological awareness, an umbrella term that includes the awareness of the larger parts of spoken language, such as words and syllables, as well as smaller parts such as phonemes.   

Balanced literacy, a variation of the whole-language approach that emphasizes exploring literature organically but includes the explicit instruction of phonics in small doses.

Science of reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically based research about reading that includes the five fundamental pillars: phonics (connecting letters to sounds,) phonemic awareness (identifying distinct units of sound,) fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Decoding means translating a printed word to speech and identifying unfamiliar words by sounding them out. This is a foundation of phonics instruction.

Three-cueing uses context such as pictures and syntax to guess the meaning of words that a student is stumbling on. It is urged primarily in balanced literacy and has become a focus of controversy.

Structured literacy emphasizes the highly explicit and systematic teaching of all important components of literacy including foundational skills (phonics, spelling) and higher-level literacy skills (reading comprehension). The origins of this phonics-based approach go back to the 1920s, when Samuel T. Orton and Anna Gillingham created a program that was systematic, explicit and highly structured, known as the Orton-Gillingham method, to reach struggling readers.

Closing that equity gap is the mission of the block grant. While it is still early days for this herculean effort to teach 15,000 students at the state’s lowest-scoring schools how to read, organizers say the three-year project has logged some promising preliminary results at the one-year mark.

Bear in mind that COVID learning loss is layered on top of pre-existing conditions such as insufficient teacher training, shoddy curriculum, incoherent assessments, high staff turnover and tight budgets that plague many high-poverty schools.

At some of these schools, all the students in the early grades scored so low on initial reading assessments that they needed interventions. Turning the tide will not come easily. 

“We have made significant gains in student growth, building teacher knowledge, and building the instructional leadership capacity,” said Becky Sullivan, the literacy expert at the Sacramento County Office of Education who is overseeing the block grant program. “We are not yet where we want to be in terms of achievement, so we are celebrating these wins and moving forward into our next year of implementation.” 

While 75 schools qualified, some closed, leaving 70 in the three-year effort to reform their early reading instruction under Sullivan’s guidance. She is a proponent of the science of reading and structured literacy, an approach that’s more methodical in its reading fundamentals, such as phonics and vocabulary, than balanced literacy, a commonly used approach.

The long-waged battle between these instructional philosophies, while unknown to most parents and caregivers, has been described as “the reading wars.” For the record, in keeping with the state’s local control policies, the schools in this project are free to choose whichever approach to curriculum and assessments they think best suits their needs.

Sullivan and her team provide ongoing training, coaching and guidance but no dictates. That freedom means there are often conflicting approaches used within a single district, which echoes the local control ethos of the state as a whole.

“They’re not being told what to do,” she said. “We are providing guideposts for them, and they are making good decisions with the information they’re learning.” 

Turning what has long been known about how children learn and how the brain works into useful classroom practice is the key. Phonics and other reading fundamentals help rewire the circuitry of the brain, experts say, forging roads between the parts of the brain that interpret what we see and what we hear.  Without these critical pathways, children often struggle connecting letters to sounds.

Despite an extensive body of research, and the fact that the science of reading is now ascendant in many circles, many teachers believe that most children will learn by osmosis in a print-rich environment. This is not the case, experts say.

A learning gap for teachers

“We knew they were going to need a lot of professional development because one of the issues out there is a knowledge gap,” said Sullivan. “How students learn how to read is settled science, but we have a gap between the science and the implementation of that knowledge.”

That’s why many of the schools are using their grants to pay for literacy coaches, teacher assistants, teacher training, and instructional materials targeted at the early grades, TK-3. Teachers and administrators are undergoing multiple types of ongoing education, from access to literacy coaches and classes in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LTRS, and online training in the science of reading through the Online Elementary Reading Academy.

Third grade is a critical time for learning. The rule of thumb is that around third grade children should switch from learning to read to reading to learn.

If children can’t make that leap in time, research suggests, they quickly fall behind in all subjects, from science and history to math. Children who can’t read well by third grade are also more likely to drop out of school, data shows. That means the stakes are high, particularly in a state that fails to teach half of its students to read.

“How students learn how to read is settled science, but we have a gap between the science and the implementation of that knowledge.”

Becky Sullivan, literacy expert at the Sacramento County Office of Education

“If half the kids can’t read without paying for outside tutors, you don’t have an intervention problem,” said Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and co-founder of the literacy advocacy group FULCRUM, “you have a core instruction problem.”

For the record, state testing doesn’t begin until third grade, which partly explains why struggling readers often fly under the radar until then. 

Many experts would place the reading benchmark much earlier than third grade. Sullivan targets the end of first grade, which gives teachers only two years, kindergarten and first grade, to get children up to speed.  They have to move fast.

“If you want to move the needle, you’ve got to have a laser focus on those fundamental skills,” said Julie McCalmont, coordinator of Expanded Learning Programs at Oakland Unified. 

Last year, at Ethel I. Baker Elementary in Sacramento, a fourth grade boy was in danger of being held back because he was reading at a kindergarten level, but the new literacy push has already helped him move up two reading levels in one year.

“Most or all of our students are making progress,” said principal Nathan McGill whose school is one of seven block grant schools in Sacramento County. “What is surprising and encouraging is that it’s not just reading that is improving.” They are also seeing improvements in listening and speaking even among students who are learning English. 

Breaking down the words

During a reading lesson at Nystrom Elementary in Richmond, one of seven block grant schools in West Contra Costa Unified School District, a group of third-graders huddled around teacher Dylan Fairweather, sounding out words she pointed to like “next, N-ext” and “choice, Ch-oice.”

The school saw a 15 percent bump over the last school year in the number of K-3 students reading at or above grade level and a 17 percent decrease in the number of K-3 students who needed “intensive support.”

Make no mistake, these gains have been hard won. The first step has been defining the causes of their low reading scores and proposing solutions in a literacy action plan.

“Increasing reading achievement takes time as it’s about systemic change,” said Sullivan. “There is no magic, overnight bullet. The ELSB schools are seeing growth on their early literacy indicators and heading in the right direction. They need to stay focused.”

For Lorraine Zapata, the principal at Joshua Elementary in Lancaster, the grant has been a godsend, giving her the resources to better train her teachers. Joshua, like Nystrom, switched from balanced to structured literacy, a strategy that emphasizes fundamentals such as phonics and vocabulary, as part of this project.

Kids excited to learn

“The biggest challenge is breaking through misconceptions around the science of reading,” said Leslie Zoroya, project director at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “There is this notion that it is only about phonics and drill-and-kill boredom for kids. That is in no way true. We see amazing things in our classrooms, kids excited about learning to read, singing, laughing, dancing.”

That’s why Briana Hernandez, a second-grade teacher at Oakland’s Acorn Woodland Elementary while teaching in a summer literacy hub, illustrated how to keep her lessons light and fun. (Acorn draws from several block grant schools.) She often has children sit in a circle and sing a song before they read words on flash cards. The goal is to instill a sense of joy in reading.

“You really need to know your students and know what they need and then you need a lot of different strategies in your pocket so you can pull them as you need them,” said Hernandez. “I need to keep them engaged so they can see that reading is fun.”

Choosing the correct curriculum and training the teachers is half the battle. But making sure the school’s literacy plan is nimble, and shifting to meet student needs, can be harder than it sounds. Many of these schools organize literacy classes by reading level instead of by grade, for instance, and move students up or down as needed.

Many of the block grant schools also have a high number of bilingual students. Flexibility is crucial.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all curriculum,” says Sullivan. “You have to think about the needs of your students in your district. Sometimes you have to supplement. You have to look at your data and you have to make adjustments as you go, so you’re trending in the right direction.” That’s what Sullivan helps them to do.

Needs of English learners

English language learners have specific needs that Rosa Diaz, a literacy tutor at Acorn, knows all too well. She wishes she had phonics lessons when she was a child.

“My parents didn’t speak English. I had teachers who didn’t speak Spanish. I had to do it all on my own,” said Diaz, her voice thick with emotion. “It was very difficult.”

At Acorn, she helped small groups of children sound out the words in a sentence and then write them down during short lessons. The little girl in one group focused on the work while one of the little boys just listened. Diaz checked their whiteboards one by one, making sure they learned the correct spellings of hard words like chair. Blended sounds are a common hurdle for bilingual children, she noted.

“You need a lot of support as you move from Spanish to English,” said Diaz, “which is something I didn’t have growing up.”

Nearly half of the students at Sacramento’s Baker Elementary are also English learners and all were eligible for free-and reduced-priced lunches last school year. After a year of daily 45-minute phonics and phonemics exercises, one class of third and fourth graders progressed from a second-grade level to a third-grade level.

“It’s fast. It’s at their level. It’s approachable,” said teacher Jennifer Dare Sparks of the curriculum. “We are giving them the support they need to learn, so they are comfortable learning.” 

Getting all the administrators on board is also critical. 

“Principals need to understand the research and best practices so they can ensure that teachers are doing what they should be doing,” said Zoroya. “An entire system needs to be built around the instruction. In order to sustain the work, the system needs to run despite staff coming and going.” 

Enthusiasm is also key to success, experts say. Reading has to be a value within daily life that parents model for children at home, leading some principals to plan for family literacy nights.

“The biggest surprise has been our students. They are so excited about learning to read,” said Zapata. “Their enthusiasm is why we must address their needs through the science of reading. The brain pathways must be developed regardless of the economic status of our learners. We are on our way.”

A solvable crisis

From a wider lens, some fear that the reading wars will continue to sabotage progress in most California classrooms. Change has already been far too long coming, they say. Learning from the journey of the block grant schools could be the first step, they say.

“After all these years, finally the debate is coming back to where it should be and what a lot of us were talking about in 2000,” said Ruth Green, former president of the California State Board of Education. “This is a solvable crisis. We need leadership from the state legislators, state superintendent and the State Board of Education all pulling in the same direction.”

EdSource reporters contributed to this story: Ali Tadayon, Diana Lambert and Kate Sequeira.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.