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How Northeast Ohio school districts are changing the way students are taught to read

Alternative methods phased out as phonics makes a return to the classroom
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Posted at 3:02 PM, Mar 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-15 18:36:15-04

AKRON, Ohio — While Gov. Mike DeWine announced a renewed focus on phonics-based literacy in his recent State of the State address, several Northeast Ohio school districts told News 5 the transition is already underway.

A phonics approach involves breaking down a word letter by letter and a student sounding out the word.

Other methods can teach words as a whole, not individual letters, based on taking context clues such as other words in a sentence or pictures as a way to recognize and remember the word.

RELATED: Gov. DeWine's State of the State—Childcare, education and workforce development

Watch DeWine's full 2023 State of the State Address below:

An Ohio Department of Education report points out that 39.9% of all Ohio 3rd-grade students are not considered proficient in reading.

At Akron Public Schools, Nicole Vitale, executive director of teaching and learning, said the district now utilizes a phonics-based approach after phasing out balanced literacy at the end of the last school year.

"There are too many kids across the country who did not learn to read the proper way," she explained. "If we don’t make a difference early on, this struggle gets bigger and bigger."

RELATED: Is your child having trouble learning to read? Gov. DeWine pushes for more emphasis on phonics

As part of the new science-based program, all classrooms increased their literacy block from 90 minutes to 120 minutes. Additionally, the district implemented a support system for reading, which involves additional phonics instruction to those K-3 who need it.

"After the pandemic, the students demonstrated a need for additional supports in the area of literacy development so APS was responsive to this need and has provided high dosage tutoring to all students who need it," Vitale explained.

A federally funded study published last year from the University of Delaware called the impact done by alternative approaches “significant and negative.”

It showed that 3rd and 4th graders had lower tests scores if they didn’t utilize phonics as a primary teaching approach.

This came after decades of alternative teaching programs that came from places such as Columbia University and Ohio State University.

At Lakewood City Schools, director of teaching and learning Steven Ast admits the regret is there.

"Some of our teachers feel guilty and they feel they let students down and these are some of the most dedicated, hard working individuals in the field," he said. "They had been trusting what colleges and universities had been telling them they should be doing."

Even before DeWine announced his push for phonics, Lakewood City Schools noticed a change was needed. It’s now in its second year with a more phonics-based approach that involves explicit reading instruction.

"Intuitively, I think some teachers thought this cueing method might make sense and this might be the best way to do it," Ast said. "But as we look at brain research, the brain activity has shown us that the science of reading relies on us really understanding each of those sounds, and ultimately that sound-symbol relationship we see in words."

DeWine’s proposed $250 million reading investment in the budget focuses on improving literacy through ideas like expanding preschool, helping train teachers and improving access to instructional resources.

"You have to be able to attack words that you’re not familiar with," Ast explained.

Clay LePard is a special projects reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter @ClayLePard or on Facebook Clay LePard News 5

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