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

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31 responses to “Fairfax County NAACP Gets to the Point on Literacy Instruction”

  1. Regarding this: “IDA defines KPS as “the knowledge and skills that all teachers of reading should possess to teach all students to read proficiently.””

    Given that so-called reading proficiency requires an undefined array of complex logical inferences I doubt this knowledge exists, or that all students can be proficient. Thus the standard is doubly impossible. This suggests it may not be a useful approach.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Yet the structured literacy method is successfully taught all over the world.

  2. WayneS Avatar

    Doesn’t anybody respectfully request anything anymore?

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Not in this case. It isn’t right, and it is not likely to get the best results, but “demands” are part of the conversation more than they used to be. Started with the student riots at Berkley in the 60’s. Against all reason, the University of California caved. Been done ever since.

      1. Lefty665 Avatar

        Hey, Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio. UC “caved” to the First Amendment, you have a problem with that?

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          WayneS is referring to the increasing coarseness of public discourse.

          My reference was to a genesis of the change from requests, “wants,” to “demands” in public debate. Savio was both right in what he wanted and combative in his way of expressing it.

          BTW, he was a brilliant physicist.

  3. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    Great post. Schools should couple change in teaching methodology with the elimination of social promotion for kids k-3 who cannot read at grade level. It’s easier to hold back a 5-year-old than a 16-year-old. Will require resources. But what we’re doing now is an abject failure that can’t be fixed with spending more dollars on the same people delivering the same programs. We need additional people. New programs. And we need to make it clear that a 50 percent reading proficiency failure rate doesn’t cut it.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      That is, of course, the core point. It would be pretty tough for structured literacy to have worse results than what we see in many Virginia schools with poor children today.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      The list below is about 1/2 the schools in Henrico. These are the SOL reading scores for 2019.

      I’m willing to wager if you put them on a map, many would be in low income neighborhoods near the border with Richmond.

      We don’t know (I don’t think) what method Henrico uses as a district and/or per school:

      Glen Lea Elementary 41.97
      Laburnum Elementary 45.53
      Highland Springs Elementary 46
      L. Douglas Wilder Middle 49.42
      Charles M. Johnson Elementary 52.07
      Cashell Donahoe Elementary 53.31
      Fair Oaks Elementary 53.93
      Elizabeth Holladay Elementary 54.83
      John Rolfe Middle 55.92
      Elko Middle 56.28
      Brookland Middle 56.75
      Harold Macon Ratcliffe Elementary 57.14
      Longdale Elementary 59.09
      Arthur Ashe Jr. Elementary 60
      Chamberlayne Elementary 62.37
      Dumbarton Elementary 62.37
      Montrose Elementary 62.71
      Lakeside Elementary 63.46
      Varina Elementary 64.13
      Fairfield Middle 65.02
      Jacob L. Adams Elementary 65.57

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I have long supported, and expressed this view on this blog, the use of phonics teaching of reading. I became hooked on phonics as I watched my wife use phonics to teach our daughter to read at a very young age (around 3 or earlier).

    Lately, I have softened in that view in the face of arguments put forth by Matt Hurt, one of our unofficial education experts on this blog. He has argued that, in comparison to the rest of the country, Virginia students do quite well on reading assessments. He also argues that there is no magic bullet for the teaching of reading and that the “reading wars” have been waged for many years and are likely to continue.



    Then there is the Virginia Literacy Act, passed by the General Assembly this year, which requires:

    “Each local school board shall provide a program of literacy instruction that is aligned with science-based reading research and provides evidenced-based literacy instruction to students in kindergarten through grade three….”


    So, which method is “aligned with science-based research and provides evidence-based literacy instruction”, structured literacy, balanced literacy or both?

    1. James Kiser Avatar
      James Kiser

      Loudoun County switched to the so called Balance literacy method back in the late 80’s except parents called it the speak and say method. It was crap, it took 3 years of intensive schooling by my wife and I to teach phonetics and enable her to read. She struggles to this day to read well.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      When my daughter was younger than two, she was a Sesame St. addict. Late one afternoon she walked up to the coffee table and began shouting, “Up! Up!”

      I stood to pick her up, and she wriggled away, pointing to a catalog on the table, an Upton’s catalog.

      By any means possible. “One batty bat. Two batty bats. …”

      I should mention that after two years of Sesame St. she wrote her first two full sentences, “Free the masses! Proletariat arise!”

      And Bacon thinks it’s UVa.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        I remember that song by the Count! My mind went numb from endless hours of Sess St. Then I convinced Doodlebug that the Muppet Show was better. The script writers were brilliant. They could keep the parents and the kids entertained at the same time.

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          I preferred the Muppets when they were on Saturday Night Live.

    3. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      Always a complex answer. In most conversation among educators, “science-based literacy instruction” means structured literacy. But proponents of balanced literacy will quickly defend themselves by pointing out that balanced literacy has elements of phonics in it as well as so-called whole-word instruction. If Virginia wants to slay balanced literacy, it will have to call it out by name.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    I agree and am a little puzzled why Fairfax does balanced.
    At all schools? Do some schools with larger numbers of economically disadvantaged and/or ESL use structured?

    I would think structured literacy is better for kids that are struggling and/or may not have as much home support.

    I give Sherlock credit on this – good post! thank you!

    Makes me wonder what other school districts do but also whether or not each school within a district may be one or the other – and more to the point perhaps – what the schools that are on the VDOE “needs improvement” list are doing – and what approach does VDOE use in their improvement specs.

    But another thing this really points out – is the idea that we’d just give a voucher to a parent and let them “choose” where to send their kid. I’m willing to bet that on this issue and many others like it, most parents have no idea and likely will not make an informed choice.

    It’s also illustrative of the necessity for teachers that have professional skills.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      It is not only Fairfax that uses use balanced literacy, Larry. I tried to get across in the article that balanced literacy is the standardized approach for all public schools in Virginia. That does not mean that some reading specialists may not use structured literacy, but that is unlikely to be widespread.

  6. Lefty665 Avatar

    You got this one on the nose, thank you.

    Structure and Phonics are proven to be effective methods to teach kids to read. “Balance” leaves up to a quarter of Virginia’s students unable to read, and a majority as less than proficient readers.

    Changing to Structure and Phonics is a way for the Gov to radically improve the prospects for Virginia’s children who are currently condemned to a marginal life at best due to illiteracy. That would be a profound benefit for all of the Commonwealth in addition to the individual kids.

    It is bizarre that Virginia is on the wrong side of what has been a well studied issue. Phonics teach kids to read. period.

  7. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    NY’s Success Academies certify their own teachers. The operation has 10 schools in Harlem NY, a dense Black and Hispanic neighborhood. According to one research report the schools provide 137 days of reading instruction far above the norm. Together these factors affect reading success scores and require professional consideration and evaluation before being duplicated in schools elsewhere.

  8. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    It’s going to take more than a letter from so and so to turn a big ship like public education. This is a good place to start.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Nice picture. Is that the Exxon Valdez on a better day?

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          I’m certain that I don’t wish to see the other 14.

  9. It’s encouraging to see that the Fairfax NAACP is advocating an educational reform that is not premised on the need to combat “systemic racism.” Early-grade reading is fundamental to educational success. Structural Literacy sounds like a good place to focus our energies and efforts. As Sherlock suggests, set up pilot programs, measure the results, and tweak the programs as needed. if the pilot programs fail, try something else. If they succeed, expand them. The surest path to achieving social justice is finding out what works in the real world.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m also hearing that it’s not necessarily Either/OR that it can be blended according to the needs of the kid as an individual and as kids in a reading group.

    I’m also hearing that not every teacher, not every principal may know and understand how and when to do one or the other or a blend. It requires a teacher who has been educated on both techniques – again, not something you’re gonna get hastily hired replacements for professionals who have retired or quit or gone to another school system.

    And once again, I wonder in the case of competitors to public schools – how they operate on issues like this.

    Seems pretty clear if the Charter/Voucher competitor is truly targeting kids who are economically disadvantaged, that structure (like Success) is good approach but if the charter/voucher is targeting higher income demographics, they may hew more to “balanced”.

    But again, it boils down to the classroom teacher assessing the makeup of the kids in his/her class , doing the PALS assessments, and other diagnostics to determine what is the right “fit” for that class.

    1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
      James C. Sherlock

      I am not concerned about rich kids learning to read unless they are dyslexic. Dyslexic kids can only learn to read with structured literacy techniques..

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        agree. But what happens when there is one kid who is that way and 20 who are not in the same classroom?

        If the other 20 would be better with balanced….

        that’s the issue in all the schools not only with dyslexic but the other learning disabled and economically disadvantaged.

        You said that OECD schools use structured.. right? I cannot find any source that confirms that.

        1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
          James C. Sherlock

          No, the science says the other 20 will not be better with balanced.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    for those also concerned about discipline:

    ” Students who struggle to read are often labeled as behavior problems. They get frustrated easily because they can’t figure out the code that unlocks words and produces meaning. Whole language and guided reading approaches to reading instruction make their problems worse.”


    And the kids that fail to overcome this can go on to become discipline problems in the higher grades.

    We spend a lot of time talking about how discipline is an issue that is not being addressed and almost nothing about how kids become discipline problems to start with. Is it a conveyor belt?

  12. Lefty665 Avatar

    Here’s a hint on why we are not teaching kids to read:

    Those who take teacher licensure tests for elementary education are typically in the bottom 30 percent of their college peers, and their licensure exams are often set at a fifth-grade level. Fifth-grade-level reading is one step past being merely able to sound out the words on the page. The reason licensure passing standards are set so low, writes former Massachusetts education commissioner Dr. Sandra Stotsky, is that if states raised them, most teachers would not pass.

    Education majors in 2021 scored below average on the SAT, answering fewer questions correctly than the average English major on math and lower than the average math major on evidence-based reading and writing. (This is also the latest version of the SAT, which is of lower quality than previous versions of the SAT, meaning the truth is worse than these data suggest.)


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