Fairfax County NAACP Gets to the Point on Literacy Instruction

Courtesy Success Academy

by James C. Sherlock

I spend a lot of ink here writing about improving the education of poor kids.  I am not alone.

In April of 2021, the Fairfax County NAACP wrote a letter to the Superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools asking that FCPS switch from Balanced Literacy to Structured Literacy in reading instruction in grades K-3.

In light of the specific learning losses of this last year and the urgency to move quickly and decisively to correct the course, the Fairfax County NAACP demands that FCPS switch to an evidence-based structured literacy methodology. This must be implemented with fidelity, division wide, in the general education classroom starting in Kindergarten and continuing through 3rd grade.

Their point is well taken.

My search of the science-based reports on reading instruction overwhelmingly favor structured literacy, to the point that supporters of balanced literacy are hard to find in print in recent years with the exception of those who defensively point out that balanced literacy has a structured literacy component.

What are the differences? For a primer on the scientific evidence favoring structured reading, see Balanced Literacy vs. Direct Instruction by Dr. John Russell from 2014.

The Iowa Reading Research Center followed that in 2019 with an influential report comparing the two systems of K-3 literacy instruction.

Structured literacy.

Structured Literacy instruction is the umbrella term used by the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) to unify and encompass evidence-based programs and approaches that are aligned to the Knowledge and Practice Standards (KPS; Cowen, 2016). IDA defines KPS as “the knowledge and skills that all teachers of reading should possess to teach all students to read proficiently.” Structured Literacy approaches are effective at helping students with learning disabilities in the area of reading, such as dyslexia, learn to read and write (Spear-Swerling, 2019). Put simply, Structured Literacy is explicit, systematic teaching that focuses on phonological awareness, word recognition, phonics and decoding, spelling, and syntax at the sentence and paragraph levels.

Balanced Literacy.

Balanced Literacy is a “philosophical orientation that assumes that reading and writing achievement are developed through instruction and support in multiple environments using various approaches that differ by level of teacher support and child control” (Fountas & Pinnell, 1996). Although phonics, decoding, and spelling may be taught in word study lessons, the skills typically are not emphasized and rarely taught systematically (Spear-Swearling, 2019). Rather, students are encouraged to use word analogies and pictures or context to identify words. Balanced Literacy instruction is focused on shared reading (e.g., the teacher reads aloud to students and asks questions about the text), guided reading (e.g., students read texts at their current ability level and discuss them with the teacher in homogeneous groups), and independent reading (e.g., students self-select books to read on their own). (emphasis added)

There are critics and supporters of both methods, and the Iowa Reading Research Center offers a balanced report, but it picks Structured Literacy as the best method for the largest number of students.

Utilizing a Structured Literacy approach is best because it avoids making potentially erroneous assumptions about what students are naturally capable of implicitly learning. By explicitly teaching all concepts, students who readily internalize the patterns of language will learn quickly and easily, and those who otherwise may struggle will get the instruction they need for success. Moreover, these students are more likely to be identified if specific weaknesses arise in their foundational language skills.

Interestingly, the current defenders of Balanced Literacy, seeing the scientific results, emphasize the “structured learning can occur within a balanced literacy framework.” They treat balanced literacy as a buffet. A teacher can use as much structured learning as she wishes. That gives away the game by borrowing terms from structured literacy in defense of a method that has proven less effective.

I am not now and have never been a reading teacher. I support the NAACP and the Iowa Reading Research Center report for one reason.

Success Academy. Structured reading is the methodology used with spectacular results for students, 94% poor minority children, in early grades by Success Academy (S/A). See the Elementary School Curriculum Guide of S/A.  Go to page 8.

“Success for All (Gr K–1)”

In kindergarten and first grade, scholars learn phonemic awareness and phonics — the foundation of reading development—through a research-based phonics program, success for all. In daily direct instruction that is fast paced and engaging, scholars build phonemic awareness and decoding skills that strengthen oral language and build reading fluency and comprehension.

Success for All is a structured reading approach. A 1996 report from Australia concluded (page 4) that:

In the early years of schooling, the curriculum area of greatest importance and the one to which most class time is devoted is that of literacy. Moreover,  it is particularly in the area of literacy that early instructional variables appear to be most. If the whole class literacy curriculum is not specifically geared to include hard to teach children, we may be condemning a significant minority of our youngsters, from the beginning of their school career, to a negative spiral of cumulative educational disadvantage. It is thus essential that we provide all children, as soon as they start school, with the semantic, syntactic, phonological and orthographic structures which research data has indicated are critical to literary success.

Thus the Fairfax County NAACP’s letter. And my endorsement of that letter, based entirely on my part on the use of structured reading by Success Academy.

Virginia Standards of Learning for Grade 1 Reading. The Virginia Standards of Learning Grade 1 Reading collectively match the description of Balanced Literacy. It clearly represents the buffet of that methodology.

That would easily explain FCPS policy.

It is the job of the Virginia Board of Education to prescribe Standards of Learning. If a change is to be made in introductory reading education, it will have to be endorsed there.

 Colorado prescribes structure literacy.  The web page is self explanatory.  A key sentence:

“Unfortunately, typically employed reading approaches such as guided reading or balanced literacy are not in and of themselves sufficient for struggling readers and not at all effective for students with dyslexia.”

So does Rhode Island,

Education week reported in October of 2021 that 18 states and the District of Columbia were using COVID money to support teacher training or instruction in evidence-based approaches to early literacy.  That is code for structured literacy.

From that same publication immediately before COVID.

The “science of reading” generally refers to the body of research that’s piled up over decades on how children learn to read. The National Reading Panel Report, in 2000, articulated what have come to be known as the “big five” essential components of effective reading instruction for young children. The federally funded panel found that most children will become better readers with explicit, systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, as well as instruction in fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

Those findings have been reaffirmed in so many studies that they’re widely considered settled science. But many elementary schools and teacher-preparation programs still favor a balanced-literacy approach, which draws from the “whole language” movement popular in the ’90s, and is based on the idea that children learn to read if they’re given good books and the right supports and strategies. Some phonics instruction is generally included, but it’s not necessarily systematic.

Balanced literacy is increasingly coming under attack, however, as educators notice stubborn reading problems, mirrored in national reading scores. The 2019 National Assessment for Educational Progress showed that 4th and 8th grade students have made no progress in reading in the past decade, and between 2017 and 2019, reading performance actually declined. Barely one-third of those students are proficient readers.

Action. I recommend that VDOE execute a pilot program in advance of any SOL change recommendation to the BOE. The current Grade One Reading SOL is dated January 2010.

It can’t hurt to take a look at the dismal reading proficiency of poor and minority children educated in Virginia’s public schools and assess whether a standards change in the way children are taught to read can help. Teacher training will be required. Do it.

But I, and pretty much anyone else who reads this blog, can offer suggestions of where to consider piloting such a program if a pilot is considered necessary.

Target some of the Virginia elementary schools identified for ESSA support funding — the bottom 5% — along with some of the highest performing schools as a control group.

A pilot to inform a BOE decision may not even need permission. If it does, get it. We should take the NAACP’s advice and give structured reading a try.

Based on current results with balanced reading, it would be hard to underperform that standard in Virginia’s least successful schools.

Updated July 23 at 11:26