C-R-O-S-S-F-I-R-E: The Battle Over Literacy Education in Ohio

In July 2023, Ohio’s Gov. Mike DeWine released a new budget bill proposal, including some major educational reforms. The reforms were both a reflection of and catalyst for nationwide literacy education debates. Educators, academics and politicians have had varied responses. Cover graphic by Caitlin Evans for Midstory.

As of 2022, 40% of Ohio’s third graders were not reading proficiently. 

Research has revealed that literacy also impacts development, poverty, health, behavior and community. In response, educators have called for systematic reforms. 

In July 2023, Gov. Mike Dewine released a new budget proposal outlining the steps Ohio will take to enhance educational experience and success for the next fiscal year.

“What the legislature did with this state budget was really attack one area very specifically, which was reading curriculum in the early grades,” Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said.

Previously, school districts across the state were able to freely select reading curricula. The new bill emphasizes “science of reading” phonics curricula, and requires that from fall 2024 schools will no longer be allowed to teach “three-cueing” contextual reading strategies. This makes Ohio one of 13 states (and counting) to enact a reading curriculum ban.

Educators, academics and politicians have had varied responses to the ban — ranging from supportive celebration to critique and even a lawsuit.

Debates about literacy education and the best strategy for teaching children how to read have polarized educators for more than a century. But how did reading instruction become such a controversial issue? And what is the difference between the contested methods?

In early American schooling, “phonics” education appeared to be the norm, before the 1920s ushered in a holistic strategy called “whole language” or “three-cueing.” Later, when instructors realized the greater efficacy of phonics, a new method combined both and emerged as “balanced literacy.” Throughout the 20th century, teachers swayed between methods as education trends waxed and waned. 

A literacy chart exemplifying both phonics learning and meaning cues. Image courtesy of Jolly Phonics Reading via Wikimedia Commons.

The three-cueing model focuses on words as a complete whole, and uses cues to help students interpret meaning. It encourages children to read by inferring the next word through semantic, grammatical and contextual cues, and often includes word repetition and memorization.

The phonics model, on the other hand, breaks down words into their component parts and teaches children to read syllabically before understanding the whole word. This method is now called the “science of reading,” referring to research conducted in the late 20th century. It revealed the importance of phonics in orthographic mapping — the process by which words are committed to memory as the brain links sounds within the word to their visual spellings. 

Cueing methods, including whole language and balanced literacy, have been critiqued for omitting the sounding-out process. In skipping that step, the orthographic mapping process is neglected too.

“We believe that teachers should be following the science and adjusting accordingly,” Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, said. “Whenever research shows that something is working or not working, then teachers should be following that science.”

Debates around reading strategies were happening largely behind the curtain until education journalist Emily Hanford produced a podcast series in 2022 investigating the usage of both methods. The podcast reopened the discussion and kick-started a policy drive to effect change across America, including Ohio.

Ohio’s response was fast, publishing their budget bill in July 2023 to remove three-cueing and uplift the science of reading.

“I think what Ohio is doing is bold, and we are a front runner,” Rebecca Tolson, chair of the Ohio Dyslexia Committee and appointed representative for the Northern Ohio branch of the International Dyslexia Association, said.

But they didn’t act alone, having drawn inspiration from other successful states like Mississippi to shape their own plan of action. According to Churchill, Mississippi has been a model for literacy education reforms since altering their policy toward the science of reading in 2013.

“Their national assessment results have skyrocketed over the past decade,” Churchill said. “Mississippi isn’t known as being the education capital of the nation, but they have made tremendous progress.”

Ohio, however, has already banned the three-cueing method altogether — something that Mississippi did not do until 2022.

According to Cropper, many of Ohio’s schools were using three-cueing methods, but others were already using the science of reading method.

“What was lacking in Ohio, and still is lacking in Ohio, is any kind of actual information about who was using which type of strategies, which districts are using what strategies, and making any connections between those and the test scores,” Cropper said. 

She said that the OFT is working with The Ohio State University (which is still running three-cueing literacy training programs) to survey members of the federation on what their teaching methods have been, and will follow up again to see how things have changed post-reform.

“I think it will be a few years before we actually start seeing any kind of serious change — if we actually do see any kind of serious movement in this,” Cropper said. 

The IDA is optimistic about the changes, particularly in light of their continued concern for students with dyslexia. In fact, many reading strategy movements have been led by individuals from the dyslexia community.

“One thing we know is that if it works for a student with dyslexia, it’s going to work for everybody,” Kerry Agins, special education attorney and treasurer of the Northern Ohio branch of the IDA, said. “So we are encouraged that the needs of dyslexic readers are being properly considered in this legislation.”

Dyslexia is a neurobiological learning disability which, according to Tolson, manifests as a weakness in phonological processing and inaccurate word recognition. It can also have secondary consequences such as low vocabulary and comprehension. 

For students with dyslexia, literacy education can be particularly challenging.

“Dyslexia is also a general education concern, and so all teachers should be empowered with the knowledge of how to teach children with dyslexia,” Tolson said. 

Ensuring that every teacher knows how to teach reading with a specific method is not an easy feat. Radical changes in policy require support and proper implementation.

“I think there’s going to be a tremendous amount of retraining teachers — elementary school teachers especially — to use new curricula,” Churchill said. “Moving to a completely different curriculum is going to be a big change.”

The bill includes a requirement for state-mandated hours of reading strategy training, and the state now offers a list of professional development courses in science of reading teaching — which teachers must complete before June 30, 2025.

While teacher retraining is one practical challenge, the policy is further complicated by the fact that not every teacher is on board with the changes.

Gov. DeWine is currently facing a lawsuit from the Reading Recovery Council, a literacy organization and one of the major proponents of holistic reading methods. As their program for struggling young readers relies on a balanced literacy curriculum, their services in Ohio will take a hit under the new ban.

Cropper said that many members of the OFT are also against the ban, despite generally supporting the science of reading methods.

“We’ve had professional development around [the science of reading approach] for several years, so we weren’t opposed to the bill itself. We were opposed to the banning of the three-cueing methods,” Cropper said. “We really think that districts and teachers should have the autonomy to use those strategies when needed. … It’s taking decisions out of the hands of educators.”

But Churchill said there are still multiple avenues for educators to be engaged in their schools’ education choices that are within the guidelines of evidence-based intervention.

“There’s a lot of great curricula out there, so this isn’t the state saying, ‘You must pick one single curricula and scope,’” Churchill said. “They’re still going to have a number of different choices they can choose from.”

Above all, experts say it is paramount to ensure that each educator in the reading strategy discussion has their students’ interests at the forefront.

“Accountability and implementation support is our main area of focus,” Tolson said. “The main thing [is] the students and their needs, and that’s where we want to focus our attention.”

Although DeWine is confident that the strategy shift will increase educational outcomes for Ohio’s students, it is not a guarantee. For Cropper, the reading strategy issue is one thread in a tapestry of problems factoring into children’s educational success. She said that while students still have educational barriers, reading strategy changes may not make a significant difference in lowering the 40% of children who cannot read by third grade.

“There’s so many issues that go into education that are non-education,” Cropper said. “Money needs to be invested in some of these community problems and really change the situation of families if we’re serious about how we’re going to have better education outcomes for our students.”

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