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Illinois approves plan to revamp how reading is taught in schools

A blonde white woman reads a book.
Jeannie Phan
Special to NPR
Amid a national movement to update instruction to match what science says about learning to read, Illinois has adopted a blueprint to improve reading skills among its youth.

From Indiana to New Jersey to New York, states across the country are making boosting literacy rates among students a top priority. The Illinois State Board of Education on Wednesday unanimously passed a comprehensive plan to improve the way students are taught to read.

The nearly 200-page document underscored the need to use “evidence-based” instruction across Illinois that uses a systemic and explicit approach to teaching reading.

The report outlines seven parts of literacy instruction, including comprehension and writing, but highlights the need for teaching phonics — or understanding the relationship between letters and sounds.

This comes as a large body of scientific research details how we learn to read — and that’s through explicitly sounding out words. For some districts, this would represent a shift away from a “balanced literacy,” a broad-swing approach intended to foster a love of reading that includes phonics but doesn’t prioritize it.

Last spring, state lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill requiring the state board of education to come up with a literacy plan by the end of this month. While the state is making this plan a priority, it’s not a mandate for school districts. Curriculum decisions are left up to individual districts.

Nearly 15 months and two statewide listening tours later, Dr. Erica Thieman and Kirsten Parr say they have a plan they’re proud of. Thieman is the director of K-12 curriculum and instruction for the state board, while Parr is with the standards and instruction department. They presented the plan, drafted with help from Illinois educators and literacy advocates, at the board meeting Wednesday, and say they’ve met with many people who are passionate about literacy education.

“The public engagement that has spiraled from the development of this plan has been inspiring and uplifting,” Thieman said. “We have watched educators and advocates with differing perspectives around the state unite behind a common cause.”

And that cause, they say, is making sure kids know how to read. Parr says the COVID-19 pandemic has made that mission difficult. She says the impact of the pandemic is felt the most on younger students.

While students’ English language arts scores increased by nearly 16% from 2022 to 2023, they remain below pre-pandemic levels, according to Illinois School Report Card data. And when comparing student performance in third through eighth grades, the youngest students struggled the most to meet performance levels.

“These learners were just beginning their journey as lifelong readers, when in-person schooling moved to virtual remote learning, with widely varying levels of support in the home,” Parr said. “Illinois education systems must prioritize literacy as a fundamental goal, recognizing it is essential in all aspects of student lives.”

Additionally, reading test scores over the last four years continue to be, on average, lower among Black and Hispanic students, students who are bilingual, experiencing homelessness and in state care.

Vice chair of the board Donna Leak says the data is frightening.

“I look around our table, and all the people around the table with masters and doctorates and degrees,” she said, adding that she then thinks about “where my third graders are. That sense of urgency is tremendous.”

Leak is superintendent of School District 168 in south suburban Chicago. She says, given what’s next for educators to start implementing this plan, the state board could start hosting webinars in the coming months.

“The fire is here, and we’re ready to move on it,” Leak said.

According to the plan, school districts must develop a rubric to evaluate their literacy instruction curriculum by this July.

And by July 2026, in a change that could cause controversy, the state plans to create a new content area test for would-be elementary teachers that would allow for a “language and literacy” subscore.

Then, the number of candidates in each teacher preparation program who takes the test and passes the language and literacy portion for each teacher training program would be published.

Mawa Iqbal is a statehouse reporter, covering the Illinois legislature for WBEZ and Illinois Public Radio.