Oklahoma reading instruction, teacher prep, failing students

Ray Carter | October 20, 2023

Despite spending billions of dollars on public schools each year, a strong majority of Oklahoma children are not proficient in reading, according to both state and national testing.

Those statistics are the result of poor policies, inadequate teacher training, and continued use of methods long known to be ineffective or even counterproductive reading instruction, officials told state lawmakers at a recent study on the “science of reading.”

“Our students who are not reading at grade level by the end of fifth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school,” said Mary Dahlgren, president of Tools 4 Reading. “And what does that mean for our society and for our state?”

“We have been promoting students, socially promoting students, for years,” said Sonya Yates, associate policy director for early literacy at ExcelinEd. “We need to make sure that the students have skills that they need to be successful in the next grade level.”

Years of research have indicated that about 40% of students will learn to read regardless of what method is used, Dahlgren noted. The remainder require structured literacy programs.

But in Oklahoma, the share of children proficient in reading is less than the share who can learn to read under any method. According to the results of 2022 NAEP testing, just 34% of Oklahoma fourth graders are reading at a proficient level.

Translated into the real world, Dahlgren said research indicates that one student in a typical class of 24 will learn to read in a seemingly effortless way, while eight more will learn to read relatively easily. But another 11 students will require “code-based, explicit, systematic, and sequential instruction” that incorporates phonics while the other four students will require structured literacy and additional time and instruction to achieve reading proficiency.

The National Reading Panel (NRP) report in 2000 found that explicit, systematic, cumulative instruction in five essential elements is key to reading success: phonemic awareness; phonics; vocabulary; fluency; and comprehension.

But reading instruction that includes all five elements is relatively rare in Oklahoma schools, in part because Oklahoma teachers are not properly trained in reading instruction when they obtain an education degree at Oklahoma colleges.

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 undergraduate programs at Cameron University, Langston University, and the University of Oklahoma all received B grades from the National Council on Teacher Quality, while the teacher programs at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and Southeastern Oklahoma State University received C grades. All other teacher programs at Oklahoma colleges received a D or F.

The council found that 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 in the state were found to provide sufficient information to future teachers on phonemic awareness (Cameron University and Northwestern Oklahoma State University) and only five provided adequate instruction on phonics (Cameron University, Langston University, Northwestern Oklahoma State University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and the University of Oklahoma).

Dahlgren noted a recent national survey conducted by Education Week found 72% of elementary special-education and K-2 teachers said they use literacy instructional methods that incorporate practices “debunked by cognitive scientists decades ago,” such as teaching kids to look at the picture to guess a word or skipping words they do not know.

Yates noted 10 states have passed laws that prohibit the use of “three cueing” in reading instruction, which teaches children to determine a word based on various context “cues.” The three-cueing method is among the reading-instruction models that research has long shown does not work.

“It’s a widespread problem with how early reading instruction is taught,” Yates said. “It teaches kids to look and guess. It teaches kids to use context clues when kids can’t decode the words.”

Yates also urged lawmakers to require assessment of student skills before a child is promoted to the next grade. While state tests can provide that measurement, she said there are multiple ways that can be used to demonstrate proficiency in reading.

When other states have restricted social promotion of students and embraced the science of reading in instruction, outcomes have soared.

Mississippi ranked 49th in fourth-grade reading on National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) tests in 2013. By 2022, it had surged to 21st. Reading proficiency has increased for all demographic groups in Mississippi, including low-income students.

Dahlgren noted that Oklahoma’s fourth-grade reading scores on NAEP tests increased significantly from 2011 to 2015 but have since plummeted and are now at the lowest level recorded in decades. The prior improvement occurred when the state provided reading coaches to help educators at schools across Oklahoma incorporate the science of reading into instruction.

The 2015 success also came when the state’s third-grade reading law required retention for children far below grade level and intervention for struggling students prior to third grade. Lawmakers subsequently gutted much of that law.

Kelli Turney, a teacher at Boone-Apache Elementary School who has taught for 18 years, told lawmakers that better training in reading instruction benefits teachers, noting her own experience with the Language Essentials for the Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training.

“Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to attend the LETRS Training, the science of reading, through the State Department of Education,” Turney said. “I want to tell you, that was a game-changer for me as a teacher.”

State Sen. Adam Pugh, an Edmond Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee who requested the study on the science of reading, noted its benefits are hard to deny.

“There is some systematic way that children’s brains learn how to read and write and understand language,” Pugh said.

Where the science of reading is not used, children are often instead taught to memorize words rather than sound them out phonetically. But Turney noted that provides very little benefit to a child.

If a child memorizes 10 words, then the child can read those 10 words, she noted. But, if a child learns the sounds of ten letters, research shows the child can read 350 three-sound words; 4,320 four-sound words; and 21,650 five-sound words.

“If a child knows all their letters and sounds, they can do whatever they want to in reading,” Turney said.

Literacy has long been a challenge in Oklahoma schools.

Dahlgren began her teaching career in the 1980s and her first job was as a sixth-grade teacher in Guthrie schools.

“I think I had 17 boys and five girls,” Dahlgren said. “And those kids, the majority of them, couldn’t read and I even had students who didn’t know all 26 letters of the alphabet. You guys, that was stunning. And here’s the thing: I knew I didn’t know how to teach them how to read. I had my degree, but I wasn’t prepared to teach them to read.”

She said that began the journey that led her to become an expert in reading instruction.

When teachers know the science of reading, officials said those educators can help students quickly overcome reading challenges.

“The phonological awareness is where I focus on, again, teaching the letters and the sounds,” Turney said. “In my first-grade class this year, I have 19 students and I had 12 of them that came to me that were not proficient in their letters and sounds.”

Today, roughly one-fourth of the way through the school year, just three of those students continue to require additional instruction, she said.

“I’m the first line of defense for my students,” Turney said. “If they don’t have these skills when they’re leaving my first-grade classroom, we’re in trouble.”

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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