After more than a decade, state issues new recommendations for how reading should be taught

The Oregon Department of Education released new recommendations Tuesday for ensuring all kids can read by the end of third grade, after years of Oregon students demonstrating poor reading proficiency on state and national assessments.

It’s the first time the Early Literacy Framework has been updated in more than a decade. The 100-page framework published Tuesday is not a set of requirements but recommendations from reading experts that Oregon’s 197 school districts can use to inform their own instruction and curriculum adoption and that the state Legislature can use to inform literacy policies and investments.

The department’s outgoing director, Colt Gill, said the Legislature’s commitment to investing $140 million in the Early Literacy Success Initiative will give the latest framework more power than previous versions. If it passes, it will grant districts funding for teacher training and new curricula that reflect the framework’s recommendations.

“I think that we’ll have the carrot in the funds, and we’ll have really strong technical assistance in the framework to have every school in Oregon really review its early literacy program and see if it stands up to what researchers have been saying for more than two decades,” Gill said.

Few Oregon fourth and eighth graders are proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as The Nation’s Report Card. Over the last 25 years, nearly two in five Oregon fourth graders and one in five Oregon eighth graders have scored “below basic” on the test, meaning they struggle to read and understand simple words.

The previous 220-page framework was written in 2009 by state education department literacy experts and special education and literacy experts from the University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning. The two frameworks have much in common, but the latest — written with the input of education department experts, professors at Portland State University, Oregon State University, the University of Oregon, Eastern Oregon University and Stanford University, focus groups, a federally funded regional educational lab and several education consultancy companies — is the first in which the state recommends schools base reading instructional methods on the “science of reading.”

The science of reading refers to decades of cognitive and neuroscience research showing how the brain learns to read written language and to write and how most people need to be taught. The science of reading has shown that kids in the earliest grades need consistent, structured lessons in what’s known broadly as phonics: how to decode written language and map speech sounds to letters so they can read and write. 

Learning to read, and the science of reading, encompasses much more than those decoding skills, but without mastering them early, learning to read fluently and to gain meaning from text gets increasingly difficult, the science has found. It also informs what not to teach, including strategies that have been popularized in the last few decades that encourage kids to guess at words using context clues from surrounding words and pictures. 

The term “science of reading” is an old one, but it has resurged in popularity following national reporting on widely-used reading curricula and instructional methods that rely on those guessing strategies and that have been found ineffective and even detrimental to learning to read in the long run.

Some Oregon districts, teachers and colleges have relied on those curricula and methods for years and are beginning to change, according to dozens of interviews by the Capital Chronicle with college professors, school teachers and administrators. Others are doubling down on such methods and curricula, framing the science of reading as a return to rote, technical instruction that focuses too heavily on sounding out letters and words, and learning the rules of written language, at the expense of time spent comprehending words and gaining meaning from text. 

The education department’s latest framework acknowledges the ire the term can bring up. 

“Ultimately, the term science of reading can be interpreted in divisive ways or in informative ways,” it reads. 

The Department of Education has tried to get schools to adopt scientifically proven literacy methods for decades.

In 2002, the Oregon Department of Education even submitted a seven-point plan to the federal government as part of a larger package for federal funding titled: “Oregon Plan to Connect the Science of Reading to Schools and Classrooms.”

The latest statewide framework goes into detail about reading models teachers should know, along with how to incorporate texts that reflect the diversity of students in Oregon schools and how to make students feel included and supported as they learn to read, especially for students who are learning English as a second or third language. 

The framework does not condone any methods of instruction or include recommendations that districts discontinue teaching methods that have come under scrutiny in the past few years.

Stan Paine, an author of the 2009 framework and a former interim director of the University of Oregon’s Center on Teaching and Learning, said the updated framework is similar to the previous one but praised the renewed call for scientifically based reading instruction. 

“I think the new framework is very good. It’s very comprehensive, and probably adds some new things that weren’t there before,” he said. “I think, generally, it’s very consistent with the previous framework.” 

Paine recommended the department push districts to take the updated recommendations seriously. He said he felt that the months he and other experts spent working on the 2009 framework didn’t lead to any significant change in reading instruction in the state.

“If it’s allowed to just sort of slide into oblivion, then anything goes,” he said.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: [email protected]. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.