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Literacy advocates promote the science of reading in Chicago

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Hilary Muñoz is a special education teacher in Chicago Public Schools who has taught reading to bilingual students in the city’s southwest.

A teacher with a national diploma found that her students, who are native speakers of Spanish, were not making progress in reading before they entered her classroom. After searching in vain for answers and being rejected by administrators, she did her own research and created an approach that allowed her students to thrive. It was based on phonetic learning.

When asked if her students struggled to read because of a language barrier or a reading problem, she said it was a problem with the instruction they had received in the past. At Tuesday night’s panel, Muñoz said that instead of focusing on curriculum, she developed an approach to help her students learn to read and understand what they read.

Muñoz spoke to educators, reading advocates and parents at a literacy panel hosted by the CPS Family Dyslexia Collaborative and the nonprofit group Brightbeam.

Reading advocates across Illinois say students are struggling to read because schools aren’t using the science of reading, including teaching phonics. Now, they say, it’s even more important for schools to use effective methods as they try to catch up with students who aren’t reading at grade level after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted learning for more than two years.

Illinois test scores from The 2021-22 academic year shows that only 29.9% of students grades three through eight met the state standard in reading, down 7.5 percentage points from 2019.

Earlier this year, literacy advocates pushed a bill to standardize reading instruction across the state. The Right to Read Act would require the state to create a list of evidence-based reading programs and develop lists of support, training and grants for interested districts. The bill would also create a statewide online training program for current preschool and elementary school teachers, and would require teachers seeking licensure to demonstrate knowledge of effective reading instruction.

The bill did not pass, but Reading advocates believe it could be revived during the January session or the spring legislative session.

Even with the momentum to change the way schools teach reading, schools across Illinois and the country still follow debunked methods. Some local schools use an approach called ‘balanced literacy’ which blends some phonics into “whole language instruction” that is based on the philosophy that reading is a natural process.

Elsa Cardenas-Hagan, a bilingual speech pathologist, said during a panel discussion Tuesday that schools should adopt an evidence-based approach to teaching reading and that educators should use multiple strategies to help students learn to read.

“To be able to learn to read, you have to have these basic skills, and that includes understanding how the structure of language works,” said Cardenas-Hagan, who is president of the Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Texas. “What are these letters and sounds, how do we put them together, can we process these sounds, can we read them … all the time we’re working on language and this higher level of understanding.”

Maurice Sweeney, a former Chicago Public Schools administrator, said he spent time as a principal trying to figure out how to help his high school students read on grade level.

“One of the missed opportunities that I look back on was that I didn’t focus on how the brain takes in information to create a reading pattern. That means when you start seeing those words all the time, you know what they mean,” Sweeney said. “I think it’s important for teachers to become scientists to understand how the brain works.”

According to the data, if students are not reading well by the end of third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out or not graduate. a national study. Also some prisoners cannot read or have undiagnosed dyslexia.

Some families take action against schools not teaching their children to read. A group from Michigan students sued the state in 2020 for not giving them a proper education. A similar case has been filed in California.

States across the country have passed laws to teach the science of reading in the early grades and states have used federal COVID relief funds to expand reading programs. Some created a statewide curriculum and recommended textbooks, third-grade literacy tests, teacher training, and revamping teacher training programs.

At Tuesday’s panel, an audience member asked how schools can prevent failure and instead help students succeed in reading before they fail.

Kareem Weaver, a national advocate for the science of reading, said, “Prevention looks like early screening. Prevention appears to be a first-level guideline consistent with the consensus of science and research. Prevention means you’re not missing steps,” said Weaver, co-founder of Oakland, Calif.-based literacy group Fulcrum. “Prevention means you have a solid program that includes phonemic awareness, so we can monitor the sounds that children are hearing.”

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