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OPINION: How our youngest, neediest learners benefit from deeper phonics and other reforms

'Struggles with early literacy are often devastating'

In this file photo, kindergarten students listen as teacher Amy Holland reads on the first day of school at Nancy Ryles Elementary School in Beaverton, Ore.

By all accounts, I wasn’t supposed to succeed in life. I was raised by my grandmother in a poor Philadelphia neighborhood after being orphaned at birth by teenage parents who were unable to care for me. I attended high-poverty neighborhood public schools.

But my grandmother, a loving woman with a third-grade education who could read and write only her name, created a space in our small house where I could study and read. My teachers made me love reading, and my grandmother backed up their work with her constant support of my academic pursuits.

We must ensure that our youngest learners are taught how to read. The research is clear: Children who struggle to read in the early grades rarely catch up with their peers. They are far more likely to suffer low self-esteem, they increasingly fall behind in other subjects and they likely won’t graduate from high school. For children who live in poverty, struggles with early literacy are often devastating.

Research shows that low-income children who cannot read at grade-level by third grade are six times more likely to drop out of high school than their more affluent peers. On the flip side, research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that children who read proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely to graduate from high school and to be economically successful in adulthood.

Related: When reading a book means more than just looking at text on a page

When I became a teacher — and eventually a principal and chief academic officer in Philadelphia schools — I knew that early literacy had to be one of my top priorities. It is the underpinning of so much of what we do in schools. I still remember my excitement to borrow books from the school library so that I could better understand life beyond my poverty-stricken world.

Five years ago, I took the helm of eight struggling schools educating 5,000 students in Philadelphia’s Universal Schools, a group of charter schools with lagging academic scores, high principal and teacher turnover and nonexistent parental involvement. Like most new school chiefs, I immediately dug into the data to find out what was happening. While all of it was troubling, I was thunderstruck: Only about a third of our third-graders could read on grade-level. Why couldn’t we teach our students to read proficiently by the end of third grade?

Related: Four tips from a high-poverty school where kindergartners excel at reading

For me, this challenge was as much personal as it was professional. With my grandmother’s voice in my head, I launched the Universal Early Literacy Initiative with the support of a five-year grant from the William Penn Foundation. We partnered with the Philadelphia-based Children’s Literacy Initiative to provide K-3 teachers with professional development on high-quality literacy and instructional strategies, as well as individualized coaching.

We saw great results. Third-grade reading proficiency rates improved across most Universal schools from 10 to 20 percentage points during the five years of the initiative. What’s more, classroom instruction improved because of the personalized training that each teacher received in high-quality literacy and instructional strategies.

But our improvements, while important, were simply not enough. We didn’t see the systematic changes that would lead to long-term improvement. There were many missed opportunities, and many of our students made it out of third grade still unable to read proficiently. We realized quickly that early literacy requires a much more comprehensive approach from schools than just professional development and instructional coaches for teachers. Those are important, but they alone can’t solve this stubborn issue. Here’s what we are doing in the second phase of our work:

 1. It truly takes a village: Our approach needed to go even deeper on parental and community engagement. For our students, as it was for me, it’s not just about good teachers or a caring family — it’s the two parts of students’ lives working in tandem to ensure success. So, we have brought in volunteers from community partners in our neighborhoods to work with students and families on reading. In one school, the partner is a local church that many families attend, which means students are getting encouragement during the week and on Sunday, too.

2. Leadership is key: It can’t just be about the central office dictating what’s happening — principals must have buy-in and a strong commitment to this very difficult work of ensuring every student can read on grade-level. In phase two, our principals are leading the literacy work with staff that was previously done by outside coaches. Principals also get extra professional development around literacy instruction. We added a reading specialist to the staff of every school to work directly with the principal.

3. Curriculum matters: We updated our literacy curriculum in phase one, but we needed to do more, based on our data analysis. In the second phase of our initiative, we have added deeper phonics to our instruction so that students can better master the basics of reading.

We will continue this mission with a greater understanding of what it takes to be successful and the difficult work that goes into ensuring all students are successful. I know that we have a tall mountain to climb, but I see the hope and promise every day when I look in the mirror. We can win this fight for all children.

This story about early education and literacy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Dr. Penny Nixon is superintendent and senior executive vice president of the Universal Companies charter school network in Philadelphia and a member of the Chiefs for Change Future Chiefs program, which aims to build a pipeline of talented, diverse future leaders of America’s school systems.

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Penny Nixon

Dr. Penny Nixon is Superintendent/Senior Executive Vice President for Universal Companies charter school network in Philadelphia and a member of the Chiefs for Change Future… See Archive

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Re: “Deeper phonics and other reforms.” [https://hechingerreport.org/opinion-phonics-and-other-ways/]

When we argue for increased phonics instruction, we need to distinguish between heavy phonics instruction (“systematic, intensive”) and “basic phonics.” Systematic intensive phonics means teaching all the rules relating spelling to pronunciation to all students in a strict sequence. This is impossible: Specialists admit that they haven’t yet described all the rules, and many rules are much too complicated to teach, and even remember. Also, many of the rules don’t work very well: For example, in one study the famous rule, “when two vowels go walking the first does the talking” (say the letter name of the first vowel, as in “bead) held in less than half of the cases. Most instances of two vowels back to back were exceptions (e.g. “chief”, “captain”).

Teaching the basic rules can be useful in helping children understand texts, but it is limited to the simpler rules, eg initial consonants and a few vowel rules. Basic Phonics appears to be the position of authors of Becoming a Nation of Readers, a book widely considered to provide strong support for phonics instruction:

“…phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships … once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive” (Anderson, Hiebert, Scott and Wilkinson, 1985, p.38).

- from Stephen Krashen, Mar 22, 2019