Phonics key to reversing bad Oklahoma trends

Jonathan Small | June 24, 2024

For years, teachers’ unions and even officials at state colleges of education have resisted efforts to improve reading instruction in Oklahoma public schools. That’s why this year’s passage of legislation focused on reading instruction is such a significant victory.

Senate Bill 362, the Strong Readers Act, requires that Oklahoma teachers be trained in “the science of reading to provide explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, encoding, writing, and comprehension and implement reading strategies that research has shown to be successful in improving reading among students with reading difficulties.”

Unfortunately, many teachers today have not received valid, robust training in how to best teach reading.

When the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed teacher-training programs at 12 Oklahoma colleges and universities, none of the programs received an A, meaning none instructed future teachers on all five components of reading.

The council even found five Oklahoma teacher-degree programs taught future educators to use multiple techniques that are contrary to research-based practices, including techniques that can inhibit reading progress.

Officials have long known that phonics-based reading instruction is highly effective and puts kids on the path to educational success. That phonics will now be emphasized in Oklahoma schools is a big win.

It’s also worth celebrating that the bill prohibits Oklahoma public-school teachers from “using the three-cueing system model of teaching students to read” starting in the 2027-2028 school year.

The three-cueing method of reading instruction basically encourages kids to guess what a word is based on associated pictures or the context provided by other words in a sentence rather than sound out a word.

That method has come under increasing fire as researchers have demonstrated, repeatedly, that it does not work. In 2019, APM Reports noted that three-cueing is a theory of instruction “that cognitive scientists have repeatedly debunked.”

As recently as 2015, Oklahoma was notable for achieving significant improvement in reading outcomes. But that improvement was due to requiring students to repeat the third grade if they were more than a year below grade level in reading and providing significant interventions for struggling readers. School officials balked and succeeded in watering down the retention law, putting an end to Oklahoma’s rise in literacy rankings and generating rapid decline.

During the tenure of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who served from 2015 to January 2023 and opposed the retention law, Oklahoma’s fourth-grade National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading score plummeted. Today, Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading NAEP score outranks only three states and the District of Columbia.

Oklahoma children deserve better, and lawmakers are right to view phonics instruction as the key to reversing current bad trends.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

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