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Senate leader, NC superintendent back phonics in schools to boost literacy

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    RALEIGH, North Carolina (WRAL) — Elementary school teachers will be retrained to teach phonics in early grades to help improve literacy among North Carolina youngsters, under a bill filed Monday that is backed by top lawmakers and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt.

The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021 is set for its first Senate hearing Tuesday afternoon, and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said it could be before the full Senate later this week.

“The importance of this initiative cannot be overstated,” Berger, R-Rockingham, said at a Monday afternoon news conference.

Truitt noted that phonics dominated education through the 1800s but gradually lost out to the whole-word method – teachers would show students a picture and the word and have them memorize the word – over the course of the 20th century.

“This is how our country has reached this crisis, which is tantamount to illiteracy,” she said, noting three-fourths of teachers nationwide now use the whole-word method “despite the fact that it is not grounded in research.”

Two-thirds of North Carolina eighth-graders didn’t read proficiently before the pandemic, she said, and that figure is likely higher now because of difficulties students have had after months of virtual classes.

Truitt and Berger want North Carolina to shift to the “science of reading,” which they say is “evidence-based reading instruction practices” that are based on phonics.

“We are hard-wired to learn how to speak. We are not hard-wired to learn how to read,” Truitt said. “Various places in the brain have to be firing and working at the same time in order for reading to take place. It’s not a visual activity; it’s a language activity.”

Berger has pushed for improved literacy for most of the past decade, starting with his Read to Achieve program that strove to have students reading at grade level by the end of the third grade. The new bill builds on that program and on a 2019 bill that Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed because of questions over Read to Achieve’s success and costs.

The latest proposal calls for individualized reading plans for struggling students in kindergarten through third grade and the creation of an online resource that parents can use to reinforce the lessons at home. Districts also would hold summer reading camps to help students and would provide bonus pay for the best reading teachers to staff them.

Elementary school teachers would have to undergo “science of reading” training as part of the continuing education requirements of their teaching licenses. Federal money from pandemic relief programs will be used to pay for the training.

“Training teachers in the science of reading is a crucial strategy for literacy improvement,” Berger said.

Education programs in the University of North Carolina System have committed to supporting the shift to phonics, Truitt said.

The bill also calls for the State Board of Education to adopt new literacy standards by the end of this year, and school districts to revise their curricula to meet the new standards and implement literacy intervention programs in early 2022. The Department of Public Instruction also would have to develop a literacy initiative for the state’s pre-kindergarten program.

“The point here is to ensure that best practices proliferate throughout the state,” Berger said.

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