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A new way of teaching kids to read in Georgia

In structured literacy, students spend a lot of time learning how to break words down into bits of sound called phonemes.
Eliza Moore
Eliza Moore/Georgia Public Broadcasting
In structured literacy, students spend a lot of time learning how to break words down into bits of sound called phonemes.

Outside, it was summer, but inside John Lewis Elementary School in Macon, Ga. Quantesha Pittman was teaching third graders to build words.

"What's that first sound again?" she asked the room of about twenty kids.

"SHHHHHH....," they responded. Pittman continued.

"Good job! And then right after that 'SH' sound what do you hear?"

"RR UH BUH," came the next sounds. Then Pittman had the students put those little chunks of sound called phonemes back together again.

"What's the word again?"

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"Shrub!" they said in unison before moving on to more sounds.

Going forward, 30 or 45 minutes of every reading class in Bibb County will be spent like this, building phonemic awareness, a core skill in what's called Structured Literacy or, broadly, the Science of Reading.

That's because there's perhaps no greater predictor of how a child will succeed in school than how well they can read by about the third grade. Research has shown that if students don't learn by then, they're far more likely to fall dangerously behind .

Now there's good reason to believe that one of the most popular methods of teaching reading has left many children without the basic skills for reading.

Quantesha Pittman explains blends, or sounds made when two or more letters are put next to each other, to third grade students at John R. Lewis Elementary School in Macon, Ga. recently.
Grant Blankenship / Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Quantesha Pittman explains blends, or sounds made when two or more letters are put next to each other, to third grade students at John R. Lewis Elementary School in Macon, Ga., recently.

What's followed is called the Science of Reading movement. In Georgia that's inspired new laws in hopes of a literacy sea change.

When Missy Purcell taught reading in Georgia's largest school district in Gwinnett County several years ago , it was not like this. She used Balanced Literacy, as did most schools in the country.

"I mean, I'll be the first to admit and I say this all the time, I was a balanced literacy fangirl," Purcell said.

She's not alone. For three decades a Balanced Literacy publishing industry worth billions has been centered around a professor from teachers college Columbia in New York named Lucy Calkins.

The idea was to make reading fun by giving students special books where pictures are tied to text.

"We call them patterned books," Purcell said. "And so it's like, you know, the fence is purple, the door is purple, the swing is purple...."

And there in the text, unbeknownst to a beginning reader, would be the word "Purple."

But instead of breaking down the word (PUH UHR PUH UHL), the student would be told to look at the picture and the word and guess what it was.

This technique is called cueing, and it's how Purcell's own son was taught.

"But he never could read the last page, which didn't follow the pattern," she said.

With no purple cue on the last page, he was lost. He couldn't guess. Purcell said when she saw that she knew Balanced Literacy hadn't taught her son to read.

What followed was a brief exposure to Structure Literacy, of learning to decode words through phonemic awareness. Purcell saw it worked.

"But also it just began to dawn on me the number of kids who were sitting in classrooms whose parents just hadn't stumbled into some random group of knowledgeable people, which is what happened to me," she said.

In the four years that followed, Purcell joined a community who would lobby for Science of Reading laws for all the kids who needed more deliberate instruction in reading but who weren't getting it at school.

Georgia legislators heard the lobbyists and saw the statistics. Last year, almost 40% of Georgia third graders read below grade level.

So this year legislators passed two state laws mandating Science of Reading and Structured Literacy. This month Governor Brian Kemp appointed a state Director of Literacy, Amy Denty, to steer the application of those standards in every school district in the state.

Ellen Register teaches in Grady County, on the Florida border, where teachers are in year two of Science of Reading training. She said she was shocked the material was new to her.

"Because I have a master's degree, I have a reading endorsement, and I didn't even know all of this."

Over the last year, Register has been using Structured Literacy in small groups with kids who have the toughest time learning to read.

"I can see it working. I can see it being beneficial and helping the light bulb click for the kids," Register said.

What teachers call "Word Work" is really about teaching students to decode words--rendering their physical symbolism into component sounds. Register said learning what those sounds are supposed to mean is the last step in the process.

That is reading.

"Only then at the very end do we get to reading the words," she said. "Some days."

Not everyone is convinced Structured Literacy works or, for people like Lisa Morgan, that it's even new.

"Yes, we all need some phonics," Morgan said. "Every child needs to learn phonics."

Morgan teaches kindergarten and is the president of the Georgia Association of Educators. She worries the focus on the Science of reading goes too far, that it takes the fun out of reading.

"Teaching children to read is not just a science, it's also an art," Morgan said. "I want them to want to read and to love to read."

Lobbyist, teacher and mom Missy Purcell said that is the classic defense of Balanced Literacy.

"That would be great, but really, what's going to get you to love something is that you're successful at it," Purcell said.

Increasingly, the consensus is that for reading, success follows explicit, structured, work. Most states have at least some Science of Reading standards now.

For proof, Purcell points to what many have called the Mississippi Miracle, the leap not only in reading proficiency but also across all subject matter that followed their statewide adoption of Structured Literacy.

"You know, this is not a revolutionary thing," Purcell said. "It's actually Georgia is playing catch up to a lot of places that have already gone before us."

Georgia plans to complete its rollout of Science of Reading standards by 2025.

Copyright 2023 Georgia Public Broadcasting

Grant came to public media after a career spent in newspaper photojournalism. As an all platform journalist he seeks to wed the values of public radio storytelling and the best of photojournalism online.