Why California Might Mandate the ‘Science of Reading’ in All Schools

Students in a sixth-grade class complete classwork at Stege Elementary School in Richmond, on Feb. 6, 2023. (Photo by Shelby Knowles for CalMatters)

By Carolyn Jones, Calmatters

A new Assembly bill introduced today would require all California schools to teach students to read using the “science of reading,” a phonics-based approach that research shows is a more effective way to teach literacy.

The bill, introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, a Democrat from Baldwin Park, is backed by Marshall Tuck, who ran for California superintendent of public instruction in 2018. Tuck, formerly head of a charter school network, is now the chief executive officer of EdVoice, an education policy organization.

Many schools in California have already transitioned to the science of reading approach, but some are still using a method known as balanced literacy or whole language, which emphasizes sight recognition of words in addition to phonics. The battle over the best way to teach children to read has been heated, because the stakes are so high: strong literacy skills are linked to higher graduation rates, better employment opportunities, the chances of being incarcerated and the state’s overall economy.

Although research is clear that phonics is a more effective approach to literacy, the so-called “reading wars” are far from over. Advocates for English learners have sometimes been reluctant to embrace phonics — which focuses on sounding out words, rather than sight memorization — because it may not take into account English learners’ unique language needs and skills. For example, they might need more help with comprehension and spoken English, rather than phonics.

Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, an English learner advocacy group, had no immediate comment on the bill because she hadn’t seen it yet.

Teachers unions also have a history of opposing legislation that requires specific teaching methods, particularly related to literacy. Teachers, they have argued, should have the freedom to use whatever approaches work best with their students. The California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, did not immediately respond to a request for a comment.

The bill would include training for teachers and those in teacher preparation programs, as well as special attention to English learners.

The bill is necessary, advocates said, because of California’s dismal literacy rate. Only 43% of California third graders were reading at grade level last year, according to the most recent Smarter Balanced test results. Low-income students and Black and Latino students had particularly low scores.

Even after the state invested billions in helping students rebound from remote learning, English language arts scores dropped slightly last year. Prior to the pandemic, just over half of California students were at grade level for English language arts.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.


Written by CalMatters

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. (Articles are published in partnership with edhat.com)

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  1. I have worked in many classrooms all levels. It is very true that all children learn at different levels. And then having too many children in one classroom, some who don’t speak English very well, and some who need extra help and some of them misbehave and some that are advanced it’s hard for any teacher to give the attention to everybody. I have found that those that are worked with at home are much more advanced. My cousin is a teacher in Chicago and they are having a very very difficult time now because they are getting hundreds of children from every country in the world put into their schools , we have not started with the influx of immigrants yet here in Santa Barbara so I hope that the unified school district is going to take mine that they will probably get children speaking all languages. I feel very sorry for not only the teachers but the children. in one school we had local Grandparents parents with extra time and they would come in and they would work with children and that was very helpful. I don’t think education could be put solely on teachers anymore. It was very amazing to me how many children in high school could not read.

  2. Early 90’s my son entered kindergarten. I met with his teacher at open house. She gave me an overview of how the year would go, including the Whole Language approach to reading. Although the books were engaging, would encourage children to read, I saw the basic flaw and was thankful I’d though him phonics. My brother used to sit and read his golden books. Although it appeared he was reading, he was simply parroting what had been read to him, cued by the pictures on the page. Sounds like Whole Language.

    Children were not proficient in reading. The state superintendent criticized the schools. Whole language was intended to be included into the curriculum but was no to replace phonics. A coworker had to hire a tutor, which she couldn’t afford, for her son because he couldn’t read. Like my brother, he was parroting the words based on the picture. She suspected as much and pointed to individual words.
    He couldn’t read. I’m appalled that 30 years later this is still an issue. Teaching reading is the job they are paid to do. They need to finally get it together, do it, or find another job they are qualified to do.

    • Look at who? You still can’t seem to reply here correctly.

      I’ll ask again though, since you like to say things and then run away: Are you seriously saying no one has trouble learning to read if they “go to school every day” and their teacher is good at teaching kids to read? Have you ever heard of learning disabilities?

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