Reading & Literacy

Curriculum Reviewer EdReports Will Start Evaluating Phonics Programs

By Sarah Schwartz — October 30, 2019 3 min read
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EdReports, the nonprofit curriculum reviewer, is shining a spotlight on early reading—the group announced on Wednesday that it will start releasing evaluations of foundational phonics skills programs. The first set of reviews will be released in November.

This is a departure for the organization, which historically has only reviewed reading and English-language arts materials that are meant to be used as year-long, comprehensive curricula. Along with ELA programs, EdReports also evaluates K-12 math materials and science materials for grades 6-8.

These new reviews will focus on supplemental programs, designed to teach beginning readers how to crack the code that is written language. The list of K-2 materials currently under review teach alphabet knowledge, sound-letter correspondences, decoding written words, and other skills that help readers recognize the words on a page. Programs currently under review include:

  • Express Readers

  • From Phonics to Reading, by William H. Sadlier, Inc.

  • Jolly Phonics, by Jolly Learning

  • Pathways to Reading

  • Puzzle Piece Phonics, by Corwin

  • The Fountas & Pinnell Phonics, Spelling, and Word Study System, by Heinemann

  • Fundations, by Wilson Language Training

“We know that many school districts supplement ELA instruction with a foundational skills program, yet independent analyses of these programs has largely been absent, leaving teachers without reliable information on the quality of their curriculum,” said Liisa Potts, the director of ELA review at the organization, in an emailed announcement on Wednesday. “These reports serve to fill this information gap.”

This announcement from EdReports comes amid renewed attention to how schools are teaching these foundational reading skills—and what materials they’re using to teach them.

Decades of psychology and cognitive science research has shown that explicit, systematic phonics—teaching how written letters represent spoken sounds—leads to the greatest gains in reading accuracy for young students. Of course, there is more to teaching reading than just teaching phonics, but knowing how to decode is an essential step in becoming a reader. You can read more about these findings in our early reading research explainer, here. (It’s part of Education Week’s new ongoing series, Getting Reading Right.)

But this kind of instruction isn’t happening in all schools.

In a series of radio documentaries released over the past year, American Public Media’s Emily Hanford reported that many teachers haven’t been taught, either in their preparation programs or in their districts, how to deliver systematic phonics instruction. When schools use materials that include some phonics, it’s possible they’re delivering mixed messages. The materials may also ask students to guess at words, using pictures or other context clues, which can take their attention away from letter sounds.

Hanford’s reports kicked off a wave of interest in the specifics of early literacy programs, and struck a chord with teachers who felt that their teacher-education programs had fallen short in preparing them to teach reading.

See also: Getting Reading Right

It’s not clear how EdReports will evaluate these foundational skills programs—the group hasn’t yet released its rubric and evidence guides for these specific materials.

Currently, EdReports grades comprehensive ELA materials for grades K-2 in part on their attention to foundational skills. Students need to receive “systematic and explicit” instruction in phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, and phonics, as well as opportunities to practice decoding. And ELA materials have to assess students to determine whether they’ve mastered these foundational skills, and provide supports for students who are below standard.

These criteria account for about a third of the total points that a set of K-2 ELA materials can receive on EdReports’ first “gateway,” which measures alignment to the Common Core State Standards.

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.