Oklahoma House votes to mandate phonics, ban ‘three-cueing’

Ray Carter | April 25, 2024

Under legislation advancing from the Oklahoma House of Representatives, teachers could no longer use the discredited “three-cueing” method to teach reading, and more teachers would instead be trained in the “science of reading,” including phonics instruction.

Senate Bill 362, by state Sen. Adam Pugh and state Rep. Rhonda Baker, renames Oklahoma’s existing state Reading Sufficiency Act as the Strong Readers Act and implements several changes to the state reading law.

Among the changes included in the bill, one provision states that Oklahoma public-school teachers “shall be prohibited from using the three-cueing system model of teaching students to read” starting in the 2027-2028 school year.

The bill defines the “three-cueing system” as “any model of teaching students to read based on meaning, structure, syntax, and visual cues, which may also be known as meaning, structure, and visual (MSV), balanced literacy, or whole language.”

The three-cueing method of reading instruction has come under increasing fire in recent years 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.”

ExcelinEd in Action noted that the three-cueing system “can be boiled down to this: Teachers using this method instruct students to guess.”

At least 10 other states have banned the use of the three-cueing system, including Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Even so, SB 362’s ban on three-cueing drew objections from state Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, a Norman Democrat who previously worked as a public-school teacher.

“I know it’s been done in other states, like Texas, but why are we eliminating the three-cueing system or any system that could help children learn to read or any other system, in this case science of reading?” Rosecrants asked.

Baker noted that three-cueing “relied heavily on visual cues and visualization.”

“A child wasn’t really getting the reading knowledge when they could just look at the picture to try and figure out the word,” said Baker, R-Yukon.

SB 362 also 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.”

Many teachers working in Oklahoma classrooms today have not received robust instruction on how to teach reading in ways that are proven to work.

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

Only two programs were found to provide sufficient information to future teachers on phonemic awareness (Cameron University and Northwestern Oklahoma State University).

At schools where more than 20 percent of third-grade students exhibit reading deficiencies, SB 362 requires those districts to complete a district-wide literacy plan and mandate that all kindergarten through eighth grade teachers complete effective literacy instruction training.

The bill also requires teacher candidates seeking degrees in early childhood education or elementary education to pass a comprehensive assessment measuring their teaching skills in reading instruction.

Social Promotion Could Become Worse

However, state Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, raised concern about a provision in the bill that eliminates an existing requirement for children to repeat the third grade if they are far below grade level in reading.

When that provision was first imposed, he noted that Oklahoma “saw our reading scores and our literacy rates increase,” but that as the law was watered down over time “our reading scores and literacy rates declined.”

He noted that prior to the retention mandate, many schools simply chose to socially promote children who were functionally illiterate. With the threat of retention removed entirely by SB 362, Caldwell indicated he worries that social promotion could become even worse.

From 2011 to January 2015, the period in which Oklahoma students were first required to repeat the third grade if reading far below grade level, Oklahoma recorded the third-largest gain in the country on fourth-grade reading scores on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests, and the state score was above the national average. 

But as lawmakers watered down the third-grade reading law and made social promotion easier, those gains were reversed.

During the tenure of former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, who served from 2015 to January 2023, Oklahoma’s fourth grade NAEP reading score declined significantly. Today, Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading NAEP score outranks only three states and the District of Columbia, and Oklahoma’s NAEP reading score indicates that fourth grade students in 2022 had nearly one-and-a-half years less learning than their counterparts in 2015.

Officials have warned it may take years of effort for Oklahoma to regain the ground lost since 2015.

SB 362 passed the Oklahoma House of Representatives on a 78-3 vote. The amended legislation now returns to the Oklahoma Senate.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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