Louise Dechovitz was at a loss.

Staff at Avoca School District 37 in Wilmette had identified her son as a struggling reader in kindergarten. Four years later, he was still unable to identify words he had not already memorized.

“He loved being read to. But when he would try to read to himself, and I remember this vividly, he would flip through that book, reciting the words he had memorized at school, and then he would throw it across the room in anger,” Dechovitz, a Wilmette parent and school board vice president, told reporters at a virtual news conference on Monday afternoon. “We didn’t understand what was going on, but he did. He wasn’t really reading. He couldn’t decode those words. At the earliest age, he knew he wasn’t getting it like the other kids, and it felt awful.”

Teachers assist students at a Walker Elementary school book fair in March. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Dechovitz isn’t alone. Testing data shows that about one third of Illinois third graders read at grade level before the pandemic hit in 2020. That number dropped to 25% in 2022.

To combat declining literacy, lawmakers in Springfield are currently debating amendments to a proposed education bill (SB2243), that would require the Illinois State Board of Education to establish “a comprehensive literacy plan” by Jan. 31, 2024. The legislation would add more rigorous screening requirements for literacy teachers and for the literacy curriculum chosen by individual school districts.

More than half of all states have passed similar laws requiring “evidence-based reading instruction” or “the science of reading.” Illinois would become the 30th state to do so, at a time when Evanston/Skokie District 65 has also undertaken its own literacy instruction overhaul.

A District 65 school board committee gave initial approval April 19 to purchase a new literacy curriculum and instruction materials.

Evanston and many other districts statewide currently use the Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for literacy instruction, which emphasizes learning to read through context by using big pictures and other clues. But more and more research suggests Calkins’ curriculum works mainly for students who are already successful readers, and not for beginners.

New reading model

At Monday’s news conference, which gave reporters an opportunity to ask questions about the draft bill before a Wednesday committee meeting, state legislators and representatives from organizations like Literacy for Life, Stand for Children Illinois and the Illinois Early Literacy Coalition spoke out in support of new curricula and materials that include teaching children phonics and phonemic awareness.

In that model, students learn to read by identifying words and sounding them out.

“The vast majority of Illinois children who are struggling to read will slip through the cracks,” Dechovitz said. “Learning to read shouldn’t depend on having parents with the time and resources to fight for the right instruction. We can’t remediate our way out of this in a world where two-thirds of our children aren’t reading proficiently. It’s a systemic problem, and it needs a systemic solution.”

Jessica Handy, executive director of the nonprofit Stand for Children Illinois, expressed support for SB2243 and literacy curriculum updates. After several meetings with District 65 Literacy Director Shyla Kinhal, Handy told the RoundTable she was pleased with the changes Evanston is making when it comes to reading instruction.

“Phonics is essential, but it isn’t enough,” Handy said. “The ‘Simple View of Reading’ says reading comprehension is the product of words one recognizes and language one comprehends. That model is really useful to think about how important – but insufficient – it is to teach any individual component of literacy.”

Cost in money, training

New literacy and instructional materials are expected to cost District 65 about $1.1 million and require a significant investment in teacher training over the next year or so. Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley said a higher quality reading plan would save money down the line – for instance, on interventions with struggling readers.

During the House committee hearing Wednesday, some Republican legislators questioned the power the proposed bill would give the state Board of Education to predetermine the literacy curriculum used by local school districts. Handy said the state legislature and the state board want the chance to provide a framework for teaching literacy, while districts themselves retain the freedom to pick and choose materials that fit within that framework.

Tinaya York, a leadership coach with the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success and a longtime Chicago Public Schools teacher, joined Dechovitz in calling for new methods of teaching literacy and elevating the reading skills of all children in Illinois.

“Today, I can still walk in a classroom filled with brilliant Black children at any grade level and hear the same struggles with reading that I heard over 20 years ago,” York said. “Senate Bill 2243 has the potential to disrupt the inequities that exist today by calling on all Illinoisans to look the issue in the eye and create a comprehensive literacy plan that says we are not OK with 11% of Black third through eighth grade children being proficient in reading. We are choosing something different.”

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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