Reading & Literacy

Nation’s Second-Largest School System Plans to ‘Embrace’ the Science of Reading

By Sarah Schwartz — November 02, 2022 3 min read
Alberto Carvalho, Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school district, comments on an external cyberattack on the LAUSD information systems during the Labor Day weekend, at a news conference in Los Angeles Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022. Despite the ransomware attack, schools in the nation's second-largest district opened as usual Tuesday morning.
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Los Angeles Unified schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho said that the district is working to “expand our implementation of the science of teaching reading,” emphasizing the need for early elementary teachers to be trained in evidence-based practices and for struggling students to have access to extra support.

“I believe that if we are going to follow science, and we should, then we should really embrace all science, including the science of reading,” Carvalho said. He called on school districts to take action and on educator preparation programs to instruct teachers in evidence-based approaches.

“It is not so easy,” he said. “But it’s not so hard that it cannot be done. Because it works. Because it is, in fact, working.”

Carvalho’s remarks, delivered at the annual California Reading Coalition summit on Wednesday, are significant in a state where many reading advocates have criticized the state education department’s decision not to mandate specific instructional approaches in the subject.

They represent an ongoing shift in some big city school districts, notably New York City, where leaders have expressed support for the “science of reading.”

The term refers to the evidence base behind how children learn to read. Reading is a complex process, involving a lot of different skills. But research has shown that the most effective way to get kids to master the first step, decoding words on the page, is to give them explicit and systematic instruction in the way that letters match up to sounds—to teach them phonics.

More states mandate specific teaching, curricular approaches

Over the past few years, more than a dozen states have passed legislation requiring schools to use this approach, as well as other evidence-based strategies for developing reading proficiency.

California was one state that passed such a law. Last year, the state mandated that colleges and universities demonstrate they’re preparing teachers to deliver “foundational reading skills” instruction.

At Wednesday’s summit, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond noted a new $250 million initiative to bring reading coaches and specialists to high-needs schools and said that the department is currently in the process of hiring a state literacy director.

But some advocates say the changes don’t go far enough. As other states across the country have begun to impose stricter guidelines for ensuring that schools use effective curriculum materials, groups—including the California Reading Coalition—have pushed for the state department of education to do the same in California.

At the summit, Thurmond said that the state department has “cobbled together lots of resources that can be helpful in the effort,” but wants to include more “intentionality” in its approach to reading instruction. Still, he stopped short of announcing any sweeping reforms.

“We’ve got a really big state,” Thurmond said. “And without a state mandate, districts often are doing different things and maybe using different curricula; they may be using different training. We can’t change that overnight.”

One reason why the debate matters so much is because of the state’s history as a bellwether for reading. Its 1987 framework for English/language arts largely embraced the whole language philosophy, which prioritizes meaning and context clues rather than learning how to sound out words. The state’s huge market share encouraged publishers to create materials that use that approach.

The state began to swing back to teaching sound-letter connections the following decade, but many districts continue to use instructional techniques rooted in the older approach.

Carvalho’s remarks also come just a few months after another big city district unveiled changes to how reading is taught.

This past spring, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced plans to implement additional dyslexia screening, more-systematic phonics instruction in early grades, and training for teachers on how to support students with dyslexia and other reading challenges. Adams has said that he struggled with dyslexia himself as a child.

“I know from my own life the challenges that a learning disability creates for a child and how they can be overcome with early diagnosis and the right support,” he said in April.

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