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Illinois wants to revamp how reading is taught. Lawmakers want to give it a deadline.

 Kindergartners at Darwin Elementary School in Chicago in 2022.
Manuel Martinez
Kindergartners at Darwin Elementary School in Chicago in 2022.

As a push for reading reform shakes early education, Illinois is taking the first steps toward overhauling its state literacy plan after years of sitting on the sidelines.

The state’s top educators want to align instruction more closely with the way science shows the brain learns to read. Even as brain science has shown what methods are most effective in teaching reading, that research has been slow to inspire change in classrooms and school districts.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, only 1 in 3 third graders in Illinois was reading on grade level, according to state tests. In 2022, it was slightly over 1 in 4.

Under the direction of a new superintendent, Tony Sanders, who started in February, the Illinois State Board of Education earlier this month convened a group of educators to draft a new plan, said Jennifer Kirmes, the executive director of teaching and learning at the state.

“The new state superintendent of education is fully supportive of this work,” Kirmes said.

At the same time, Illinois legislators are weighing a bill, SB2243, that would give the state school board a deadline of January 2024 to devise that plan. Some legislators want to amend the bill — which passed the Senate unanimously and a key House committee on Wednesday 12 to 1 — to give it more teeth and to more specifically detail what would be required in the state’s plan.

The amendment is expected to press the state board of education committee drafting the literacy plan to consider universal literacy screeners for young learners and setting guidelines for vetting curriculum materials. The amendment also would strengthen the content test required of elementary teachers when they graduate from teacher prep programs.

Exactly how far the state would go in requiring districts to adopt new methods was a line of questioning in Wednesday’s House committee hearing. State Rep. Steven Reick, R-Woodstock, pressed advocates on whether the intent of the bill is to dictate which curriculum districts should use — a touchy subject in a state where such matters are largely an issue of local control.

“Does this bill anticipate the establishment of some sort of rule [from the state school board] defining curriculum content?” Reick asked.

“No, it does not,” said Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, who sponsored the measure that would put state pressure on the school board to deliver a plan.

Jessica Handy of Stand for Children, an advocacy group that has supported the bill, jumped in with more detail. “We want to make sure students are getting exposed to all facets of literacy instruction: explicit and sequential phonics instruction, fluency, vocabulary, writing, spelling, grammar. What your school district uses to teach those specific elements, your school district will choose.”

More than two dozen states already have introduced new laws or policies aimed at ensuring evidence-based reading instruction, which builds lessons on phonics, patterns and recipes for learning words, and, in later grades, weaving together word recognition, reading fluency and vocabulary. This is a pendulum swing from years of a “balanced literacy” approach that gave teachers broad leeway in mixing and matching methods to teach children to read and was the preferred approach used in many schools in Chicago and throughout Illinois.

“Balanced literacy” leans heavily on books that some say encourage children to embrace reading through bright pictures, context clues and repetitive texts — not eschewing phonics entirely but quickly moving past it.

The pandemic caused more schoolchildren to fall even further behind and put more urgency into the conversation about what should be done to close basic skills gaps.

Advocacy for ensuring evidence-based instruction also has expanded outside education circles to groups such as the NAACP, which has said the failure of many Black and brown children to read is a civil rights issue.

“We are not OK – for only 11% of Black children [in Illinois] to be proficient in reading is not OK,” Tinaya York, the founder of the group Literacy for Life, reading coach and a former Chicago teacher and principal, told a meeting of Illinois literacy advocates this week. “I can walk into any classroom full of Black children and hear the same struggles with reading I heard 20 years ago.”

Some Illinois legislators have tried, and failed, for years to sponsor reading legislation. In Illinois, there’s resistance to prescribing curriculum selection. There have also been concerns raised by advocates for bilingual students that the “science of reading” approach risks being interpreted too narrowly in classrooms and that it won’t account for the needs of English learners, who make up 14% of public school enrollment in Illinois.

Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, the director of education policy and research at the Latino Policy Forum, said Illinois has an opportunity to draft a plan that puts English learners front and center and that previous iterations of legislation perhaps did not do that. “We are really going to get an opportunity to do that at the forefront versus being an afterthought.”

Cassie Walker Burke