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Governor wants to mandate back-to-basics reading methods for New York's schoolchildren

Gov. Kathy Hochul announces plans to modernize reading instruction at the Watervliet Elementary School on Jan. 3, 2024.
Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio
Gov. Kathy Hochul announces plans to modernize reading instruction at the Watervliet Elementary School on Jan. 3, 2024.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday announced what she called fundamental changes in how reading is taught in New York that she said will help more children succeed.

The governor, speaking to fourth-graders at the Watervliet Elementary School outside Albany, said if lawmakers accept her proposal, all schools in the state would teach young children to read using evidence-based, scientifically proven techniques.

The “new” method is similar to the older phonics-based system that teaches reading by decoding the letters and the sounds in the words first. That fell out of favor about two decades ago as more educators adopted the whole language approach, which teaches the entire word based on its context.

Hochul said the newer method has resulted in poorer reading comprehension skills for children. She wants to return to what she called the “back-to-basics” initiative.

“There was this idea about 20 years ago. They thought, ‘Hey, there's a whole different way of learning. Why don't we just put kids in a room with books? And they'll figure it out,’” Hochul said. “Let's teach the kids what they mean. And that's the difference that has not been taught.”

If the Legislature approves the plan and the state education department carries it out, New York would join about 30 other states that have already mandated the switch. New York ranks in the lowest third of all of the states in fourth-grade reading proficiency.

Jeanne Lance has taught elementary school for over three decades, and her students attended Hochul’s announcement. She said her district has already implemented the change, and it’s made a difference in teaching a fundamental life skill to the students.

“We know the work that we do to teach them to read empowers them to do great things in our society,” Lance said. “Literacy is the bridge that connects us in so many ways.”

Hochul said the changes could be implemented as early as the fall of 2025.

She said the plan includes expanding State and City University of New York microcredential programs for teachers focusing on the science of reading. 

The governor also announced a proposal for a $10 million teacher training program to help with the changes. She said the money could support the training of up to 20,000 additional teachers and elementary school teaching assistants.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.