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Some states are adopting a new form of reading instruction to combat falling scores


K through 12 reading scores in the U.S. are at the lowest level in decades, and schools and lawmakers are taking action. The last five years have seen a surge of new state laws and policies encouraging schools to adopt an evidence-based approach to reading instruction. It's known as the science of reading, and it's changing what happens inside classrooms. Juma Sei with member station WABE visited a school in suburban Atlanta to see what that looks like.

JUMA SEI, BYLINE: A.L. Burruss Elementary School is hidden in the trees of Marietta, Ga.

What a great playground.

JILLIAN JOHNSON: Isn't it awesome? It's like a park.

SEI: On an early spring day, I joined Jillian Johnson, the school's principal, for her morning rounds. In the kindergarten classroom, Lauri Bruton is teaching her students to read.

LAURI BRUTON: Beginning of the sentence has to have a...


BRUTON: Oh, making my heart so full.

SEI: They're digging into punctuation. She's given them a sentence and asked them how to end it.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Because it's a telling sentence.

JOHNSON: It's a telling sentence. Do you remember that big name we learned? D - do it with me - declarative.

SEI: So this is an age-appropriate lesson for kindergarteners. But often kids this age just aren't there yet. That's not the case at Marietta City schools like Burruss. Here's Principal Johnson.

JOHNSON: We changed every single practice in how we teach children to read. It is a total 180.

SEI: And it's not just for the kindergarteners. Johnson says the teachers at Burruss used to use a method called balanced literacy. The easiest way to describe it is you kind of just let a kid figure things out by giving them context clues for the words they see, like pictures. But...

JOHNSON: Our reading data was terrible. We didn't have the data to back up what we were doing.

SEI: So today, the teachers at Burruss use a method called structured literacy or the science of reading.

JOHNSON: Structured literacy is explicit instruction. Like, no, let's teach them the code, teach them what the letters mean and how the letters represent sounds. And how the sounds come together to make words and, like, explicit instruction.

SEI: With national K-12 reading scores lower than they've been in decades, schools across the country are making the same transition to structured literacy. And those changes are being enshrined in legislation. Last year, 17 states passed new laws or implemented new policies encouraging schools to adopt the science of reading. That's according to an analysis by Education Week. Georgia was one of those states.

RAMONA BROWN: Words are stored in memory through blank and blank.

SEI: Part of the secret sauce to getting reading right is retraining teachers. Ramona Brown is leading a workshop for teacher literacy coaches in Southern Georgia.

BROWN: It is a lot of information. So no worries. We'll get there together.

SEI: Brown works for the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, which is partnered with the Georgia Department of Education. She says the best part of her job is hearing about the results.

BROWN: Another principal stopped me, and she's like, we got to have a data meeting because my data has improved, and I'm like, yes.

SEI: Yes, because it means that more kids can read. That excitement is familiar to Principal Jillian Johnson and her staff back at Burruss in Marietta. She says her district switch to structured literacy has been transformational.

JOHNSON: It's magic, truly. Like, it has impacted not just like the literacy block of our day. It's impacted the climate and the culture in the building.

SEI: And the results are clear. Last year, the third graders at Burruss had some of the highest gains in the statewide Georgia Milestones test. Third grade is actually the final stop of Principal Johnson's tour.

KELLY HOBBY: A, apple, ah.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: A, apple, ah.

SEI: Here's what their literacy lesson, led by teacher Kelly Hobby, sounds like.

HOBBY: OK, which one is it?


HOBBY: Spell it.


HOBBY: Good. Which one of our words...

SEI: Back in her office, Johnson reflects on how far Burruss has come. She says it's hard thinking back on all those years when Burruss' literacy scores were stubbornly stagnant because it meant that a lot of kids were struggling to read.

JOHNSON: That's been a really hard thing, too, for me and my staff of, like, the guilt of how we used to do it. And, like, we've really had to kind of wrestle with just guilt of how wrong we did it for so long.

SEI: But Johnson's team has turned a new leaf. Today, Johnson's district in Marietta is the blueprint for schools across the state. Georgia's new literacy plan, passed last year, was made to get the rest of Georgia's students on the same track as those at Burruss.

HOBBY: I, E, thief, E...


HOBBY: O, I, boil, oi.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: O, I, boil, oi.

SEI: For NPR News, I'm Juma Sei in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.