Jonathan Small | April 8, 2024

Trust the science (of reading)

Jonathan Small

Reading instruction is receiving lawmakers’ attention this year. That’s good news because Oklahoma has much ground to make up.

In 2011, lawmakers strengthened the state’s reading law, requiring students to retake the third grade if they were reading far below grade level, and providing remediation to struggling students.

That program drew wails from many public-school officials—but it worked. Reading performance improved dramatically from 2011 to 2015 on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests.

By 2015, Oklahoma recorded the third-largest gain in the country on fourth-grade reading scores on NAEP and the state score was above the national average. 

But then lawmakers watered down the state’s third-grade reading law and made social promotion easier.

From 2015 to 2022, Oklahoma’s fourth grade NAEP reading score declined significantly. Oklahoma’s fourth grade students in 2022 had nearly one-and-a-half years less learning than their counterparts in 2015.

Currently, Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading NAEP score outrank only three states and the District of Columbia.

Data showed 71 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders were not proficient in reading in 2022, but only 21 percent lived at or below the federal poverty level and just 35 percent lived in single-parent households. Put simply, the poor literacy rates were not solely the product of income or family demographics.

Now, lawmakers are trying to change the trendlines.

Senate Bill 1906, by state Sen. Adam Pugh and state Rep. Rhonda Baker, creates a Statewide Literacy Revolving Fund to train future teachers in the science of reading at Oklahoma colleges.

The science of reading refers to instructional methods, which include phonics, proven to help students read. Sadly, many Oklahoma teachers gain little exposure to those methods during their college training.

When the National Council on Teacher Quality reviewed teacher-training programs at 12 Oklahoma colleges and universities, none instructed future teachers on all five components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension).

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

SB 1906 would also ban use of the three-cueing system in reading instruction. Three-cueing basically urges students to guess what a word is based on pictures or other clues rather than sound out the word. Research has long shown three-cueing is useless (or worse), yet it is still used in too many classrooms.

Having well-trained teachers will not resolve all of Oklahoma’s challenges with student literacy—but it will obviously help. When students can’t read by third grade, they are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma, and therefore struggle the rest of their lives. Under SB 1906, fewer children would be consigned to that fate.

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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