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As the Science Shifts, Lawmakers Consider Changing how Students are Taught to Read

Credit: iStock

by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

This story was updated on Oct. 10 at 11:20 a.m. to correct Rep. Glenn Cordelli’s place of residence.

For decades, children have been taught to read along the “three cueing system.”

When a child comes across a word they don’t know, they are told to use context clues. If there is a picture of an elephant next to the word – or if the story is about an elephant – perhaps the word is “elephant.” If the child recognizes the first letter of the word, they may be told to guess the rest. The process includes three key question prompts: “Does the word look right? Does the word sound right? Does the word make sense in the sentence?” 

But researchers have found the approach to be deeply flawed and inferior to approaches that emphasize sounding out the consonants and vowels until the word is recognized. Now, New Hampshire lawmakers are considering requiring public schools to abandon the old approach and take on a better one.

House Bill 437 would require that all public school districts adopt “measurable, evidence-based” literacy instruction for kindergarten through fifth grade that follows the “science of reading,” a path that emphasizes phonetic instruction over context-based reading. The bill would also require all public school districts to test students from kindergarten through third grade three times a year on their reading proficiency through a standardized assessment. 

The bill comes as concerns about literacy have mounted. Where 54 percent of New Hampshire third graders were found to be proficient in reading in 2018, just 45 percent of third graders were found to be proficient in 2022, and 46 percent in 2023. Teachers are wrestling with learning gaps brought on by disruptions during COVID-19, which some educators say affected elementary-age students the most. 

Literacy has been a focus of the state’s Department of Education, which has launched a program to allow teachers, parents, and caretakers to learn up-to-date techniques on teaching reading. And for schools, the proposed legislation arrives at a time when many are trying to transition away from the “three cueing” approach. 

To Karen LaPlante, a longtime public school reading specialist in the state, that transition is crucial. Oftentimes, she sees evidence of the flaws of the traditional approach in the students she sees.

“I have students that will come in to see me and all they know how to do is guess at words,” she said in a House Education subcommittee meeting held to discuss the bill. “And it is so sad. And it takes so much time for me to turn that around and break those bad habits that they’ve been taught.” 

In LaPlante’s experience, most elementary school teachers know that the research around reading instruction has changed. But they may not know how to overhaul their curriculum to meet it.

“Schools are kind of stuck, and they need that guidance from the state to help them, to know what they should be using, and to help with funding so that they can actually attain these materials,” LaPlante said. 

HB 437 would require schools to adopt a reading approach that emphasizes the “five components of reading,” first established by the National Reading Panel in 2000: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension.

Under the bill, the tests would be administered three times a year to all students below third grade – the first within a month of the start of the school year; the second at a midyear point; and the third at the end of the year. Schools would be required to give additional “reading intervention” to students who exhibited a “substantial deficiency” on those tests. Supporters of the bill say the repetition of testing throughout the year would allow teachers to track the progress of students and try to intervene earlier.

Schools would be required to notify parents if their child was substantially behind in reading, and establish an individual reading plan that outlines how the school would use the five components of reading to help the student. School districts would need to report the percentage of students in each grade performing below their grade level according to the assessments. 

Currently, New Hampshire students are given statewide assessments between grades three and eight, as well as grade 11; the bill would create the first tests of this kind for students in early elementary school.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill, House Bill 377, requiring dyslexia test screenings for all students entering public school. 

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican and the prime sponsor of HB 437, said that measuring and improving the success rate of reading education in New Hampshire is an important next step.

Cordelli added that New Hampshire’s teacher preparation programs should also evolve to the new standards. “We’re behind the eight ball, and students are behind the eight ball to begin with,” he said.

Brenda Peters, a past president of the International Dyslexia Association Northern New England Alliance and a reading specialist, said she has seen for herself that the “structured reading” method that uses phonetics works much better than the context-driven approach that associates words with images and stories. In the past, some teachers favored the “three cueing” approach to make the lessons more interesting by tying the reading instruction to the subject matter itself, introducing students to new topics while also reading the words, Peters said. But she said the results were not as ideal. 

And Peters agreed that the teacher preparation programs need to be improved. 

“I do think that we need to do all we can to make sure that our teachers, who are spending over $100,000 to become teachers, walk out of UNH and can teach any child, including those who struggle to read,” she said. “If they can’t, then what does this degree mean?”

LaPlante said making the evidence-based approaches standard practice for all teachers would make a major difference, especially for reading specialists. 

“I spend so much time and energy and heart and soul into providing good instruction for these struggling readers,” she said. “And they leave my room and they go back to class and they’re told to guess at the words.” 

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.