Reading & Literacy

4 More States Pass ‘Science of Reading’ Mandates

By Sarah Schwartz — May 10, 2023 4 min read
Latasha Johnson teaches reading skills to a kindergarten classroom at Walnut Creek Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C. on May 25, 2022.
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Four states have passed new laws so far this legislative session to change how early reading is taught, showing the continuing national momentum to shift teaching in line with research on how young children learn to read.

The new laws mandate shifts in school curriculum, teacher training, and reading intervention approaches. And in other states, legislators are still debating reading measures—including some that would move beyond recommending evidence-based practices to explicitly ban teaching methods that don’t have the same research backing.

Over the past decade, 31 states and the District of Columbia have passed new laws or implemented other policies designed to bring early reading instruction in line with what psychology and cognitive science research have shown about how children learn to read.

What Is the 'Science of Reading'?

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. ...

At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.

Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.

Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

This spring, Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, and Virginia passed new legislation. Lawmakers in Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota are still considering proposals on the issue.

Outside of statehouses, some big city districts are also mandating changes. The New York City school system announced this week that it will require all of the system’s elementary schools to use one of three approved curriculum series to teach early reading, a sharp turn away from the autonomy that individual schools in the city have long held to choose their own materials.

Georgia’s new legislation touches on almost every aspect of teaching and learning, from how educators are trained to what materials students use in the classroom.

It requires the state board of education to approve a list of curricula for teaching reading in grades K-3 and instructs districts to adopt materials from that list—or certify that the programs they’re already using meet the same standards for quality as those recommended by the state. The Department of Education must provide a free screening tool for districts to identify students who are struggling with reading, and districts are required to take steps to support these students.

Finally, the law instructs the state education department to develop or purchase literacy training for in-service K-3 teachers, and requires that teacher-certification exams be aligned with evidence-based literacy instruction.

Other new laws extend the reach of previous early literacy mandates. New Mexico created a state fund for school districts seeking to adopt evidence-based materials. In Virginia, legislators expanded requirements that districts provide reading intervention for struggling students through 8th grade.

State lawmakers passed the Virginia Literacy Act last year, which instructed schools to provide these supports in grades K-3. But after the disruptions of the pandemic, older students need these interventions too, Carrie Coyner, a Republican state delegate who co-sponsored the bipartisan bill, told Education Week in April.

“Our data showed us that our COVID children, who were in those youngest levels of learning in their COVID years, they’re in the lowest level of reading. And yet our literacy laws that were just passed aren’t going to impact them,” Coyner said.

‘Cueing’ becomes a flashpoint

State legislation on reading instruction varies widely—some states have prioritized certain components of reading instruction, mandating targeted changes to intervention practices or teacher training. Others have implemented more comprehensive overhauls of reading instruction.

Recent research has shown a connection between these broader laws and better student outcomes. A new study from researchers at Michigan State University found that students in states with legislation that provided comprehensive support, including training and funding for instructional change in addition to 3rd grade retention policies, had larger gains on state test scores and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress than their peers in states with narrower policies.

Most of these laws promote the adoption of evidence-based practices. But some legislation also bans methods that researchers have called into question. The new Indiana law takes aim at one particular instructional practice—a technique often referred to as “three cueing.”

The term refers to one method for reading instruction and assessment that’s included in popular curriculum materials and often taught to teachers in preparation programs. It teaches that students can rely on multiple sources of information, or cues, to figure out words. They might look at the letters to sound the word out, but they could also rely on context or pictures to make a guess.

Many reading researchers have warned against the practice, saying that it can discourage children from putting their phonics knowledge into practice and teach them to rely on ineffective strategies.

This spring, Indiana became the latest state to ban the method and materials that rely on it. Recently passed legislation also requires that districts publicly list the reading materials used in schools on their websites.

Cueing emerged as a flashpoint in debates over reading legislation this session, with some state teachers’ unions speaking out against proposals to ban the practice. Prohibiting specific instructional decisions could set a “dangerous” precedent, Scott DiMauro, the president of the Ohio Education Association, told Education Week in March.

Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine, included a ban on cueing in his budget proposal. The plan would also require training for teachers and adoption of new curricula.

Neither Minnesota nor Illinois, states that are also considering reading bills this session, are aiming to ban cueing. Minnesota’s proposal would mandate new teacher training and require districts to purchase new materials, while Illinois’ would instruct the state’s board of education to adopt a literacy plan.

For now, states that ban cueing are still in the minority—Indiana joins only two others, Arkansas and Louisiana.

For a full list of states that have passed reading legislation over the past decade, see Education Week’s tracker.


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