Gov. Bill Lee backs phonics-based approach to reading in latest education battle royale

By: - January 19, 2021 5:01 am
(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Fresh off a voucher law that was struck down by the courts, Gov. Bill Lee’s administration is wading back into the controversial waters of public education policy, this time taking sides in the decades-old war over how best to teach reading to young children.

Lee’s education commissioner Penny Schwinn announced last week the rollout of a new campaign to improve the state’s lagging reading proficiency scores. The new program, Reading 360, will leverage $100 million in federal funding, including $60 million in pandemic relief aid, to provide teacher training, at-home reading resources for parents and online curriculum supplements.

Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo:
Penny Schwinn, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education (Photo:

Reading 360 is optional for school districts, making it uncontroversial in and of itself. But, the program comes in tandem with a new literacy bill, which will be considered by the General Assembly at a special session convened by Lee beginning Tuesday.

Taken together, Reading 360 and the literacy bill demonstrate a dramatic shift in state education policy toward a focus on a phonics-based approach called the science of reading. The new initiatives have been celebrated by grassroots advocates of the science of reading strategy, many of whom are parents of dyslexic children. Grassroots advocacy of the phonics-based approach to reading has been gaining steam in Nashville and across Tennessee.

The debate about how to teach children reading has raged across America for decades.

On one side are champions of the traditional whole language approach to reading, which emphasizes teaching children the context of a sentence to draw its meaning, including looking at pictures and understanding the intent of a sentence. In part because the whole language strategy is the way most teachers learned how to teach reading, it is the preferred method of experienced educators and their advocates. On the other side of the issue are advocates who argue the science of reading – teaching children phonics and how to decode the structure of a word in order to read it correctly – should be the strategy utilized by school districts because a treasure trove of academic studies support it.

In Nashville, the debate has taken on the tone of a partisan political battle not unlike the charter school wars from the last decade.

At stake is how to improve literacy rates in a state where only about 30 percent of third graders are reading at grade level.

Schwinn told the Tennessee Lookout that the already urgent need to improve the state’s reading proficiency levels has been exacerbated by learning loss suffered by students during the pandemic.

“We know that over the course, especially of the pandemic, our schools have been working incredibly hard,” said Schwinn, herself a former classroom teacher. “Teaching reading is very hard. I’ve done it. But it has been made a lot harder as a result of COVID.

“We also know from the state and across the country that when students are not proficient by third grade in reading, they’re four-times more likely to drop out. And when they are proficient they have significantly better life outcomes, and are more likely to enter and complete post-secondary programs, which we know is important for their economic future, as well as physical health.”

Reading 360 offers incentive to districts and teachers

To tackle the difficult task of improving proficiency and addressing learning loss, Schwinn’s department announced Reading 360 earlier this month. The program will be funded with $60 million in remaining CARES Act funds as well as two $20 million literacy grants from the U.S. Department of Education, making Tennessee the most-awarded state in the country.

“We have this one moment in time and the opportunity to invest in the entirety of the reading continuum,” Schwinn said. “Our approach has been to leave no stone unturned, make sure that across the board – vertical as well as horizontal – we have really tackled early reading.”

 The traditional whole language approach to reading emphasizes teaching children the context of a sentence to draw its meaning, including looking at pictures and understanding the intent of a sentence. The science of reading is simply described as  teaching children phonics and how to decode the structure of a word in order to read it correctly.

Schwinn calls Reading 360 a comprehensive approach to addressing literacy. Districts, teachers, families, public school communities and higher education institutions could all benefit from different aspects of the program, Schwinn said.

Reading 360 will provide training and coaching for teachers, materials for districts, online resources for families and grants for tutoring and remediation for children most affected by the pandemic. The program will also provide preparatory training for new teachers to help acquire the specialized skill of teaching reading their first year on the job.

Schwinn said she is especially excited about the materials for families, including a smart phone app. Families will get access to programming provided through PBS as well.

“I’ve got three very young children at home, and when I think about literacy and reading I actually think about my role as a parent before I think about the classroom,” she said.

Reading 360 also will provide businesses and other community stakeholders with a list of resources for how they can help improve literacy in their communities, Schwinn said, guiding groups on how to plan book drives, sign up employees for tutoring and other programs.

We have this one moment in time and the opportunity to invest in the entirety of the reading continuum. Our approach has been to leave no stone unturned, make sure that across the board we have really tackled early reading.

– Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn

From the tutoring materials to the microgrants for teachers, Reading 360 will emphasize the phonics-based approach to teaching reading.

It’s the most emphatic investment in the science of reading strategy by the state to date. Although the program is optional for districts and teachers, and not a top-down mandate, the expectation is the vast majority of districts will choose to participate. Similarly, teachers can access the grants and materials even if their districts don’t choose to more broadly.

“I’m hopeful that the local control, the flexible nature of it means that it can fit districts when, where and how it makes sense at the local level,” Schwinn said, adding that she hasn’t heard from any districts that have indicated they don’t want to be part of the program at all.

Schwinn acknowledged that Reading 360 will be well received by science of reading champions. She describes herself “100 percent supportive” of phonics based learning.

“In looking at the research – and having read thousands of pages of that – and what has worked for all students, we know that at the end of the day we all need to know our letter names, know what sounds they make and know what happens to them when we put them together,” Schwinn said, adding that the department is saying “foundationally, every child needs be able to sound out words. They should not need to rely on pictures or context clues. They should know what the words say, how to pronounce them and what those words mean.”

Legislation backed by Lee would ensure phonics-based approach

If the Reading 360 program is a proverbial carrot encouraging districts and teachers to opt in to the phonics-based approach, a bill filed on Thursday by Lee’s administration is viewed as the stick. The legislation would ensure that all school districts use a phonics-based approach for teaching reading in kindergarten through third grade. The bill would also establish a reading screener for parents and teachers to identify when students need help prior to third grade and provide training and support for educators to teach phonics-based reading instruction. School boards and charter schools would have to utilize the phonics-based approach to teaching reading and feature textbooks and literacy materials approved by the state board of education.

Critically, the literacy bill requires phonics-based training as part of a teacher’s licensure requirement. Before 2023, existing teachers in grades kindergarten through fifth grade must complete a “foundational literacy skills” instruction course that will emphasize phonics.

State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said the benchmark of being proficient by third grade is important because the more advanced subjects students tackle in subsequent grades will be incomprehensible if a student can’t read.

State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Cleveland (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
State Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

“The pandemic has exacerbated learning gaps for students who were already behind,” Bell said. “We need immediate action if we implement the changes needed to propel progress with these students.

“The framework needs a foundation in statute moving forward to ensure a clear and sustainable path for school administrators, teachers, parents and students down the road. I look forward to working with my colleagues in enacting legislation that not only responds to the most challenging school year in state history, but puts into place a long-term approach that will help our students succeed.”

Science of learning advocates cheer momentum

Schwinn’s support for the science of reading has been eagerly embraced by grassroots activists like Anna Thorsen.

One of the city’s most active advocates for public schools, Thorsen is an evangelist for the science of reading strategy in part because of the success that approach has had in her own family. Thorsen said she is dyslexic as is one of her children, who is an MNPS student.

Thorsen said that learning the sounds letters and letter combinations make helps people with dyslexia decode words and read them more easily. Thorsen was a leading advocate in pushing the legislature in 2016 to pass Tennessee’s first ever dyslexia law, which led to the recognition of dyslexia as its own learning disability. Although she came to appreciate the science of reading due to dyslexia diagnosis in her own family, Thorsen said the strategy has application for all reading levels.

She describes the science of reading as a body of research about how the human brain learns to read.

After decades of study by educational psychologists, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists, this body of research  provides clear insight that children need certain things to learn to read, including explicitly taught phonics. According to the science of reading research, written language is a code made up of the 44 sounds of the English language that children must be taught to decode. As an example, if a child learns phonetic rules, they can sound out the word “taste” without ever having seen it before. The child learns the phonetic sound each letter makes, and the rule that an “e” on the end of a word creates a hard-A sound.

Although momentum has been building for the phonics-based approach, the issue is also political, and many left-leaning education stakeholders are naturally skeptical of policies pushed by Lee and Republican leadership.

Thorsen, who serves on the Tennessee Dyslexia Advisory Council, pointed out that the 2016 Say Dyslexia law passed with bipartisan support.

“When parents like myself go up to the hill to talk about phonics and reading with legislators, we are enthusiastically supported by legislators on both sides of the aisle,” thorsen said. “However, in the Trump era, I worry that many legislators will vote against the (literacy bill) simply because of current political animosity.

“I completely understand the political divide in our state, but I urge legislators to look deeper to see that this bipartisan work has been building for years through the hard grassroots efforts of advocates, parents,  educators, brain scientists, and journalists repeatedly forcing the conversation about how we are failing to teach the vast majority of our children how to read through the status quo of Balanced Literacy.  I really hope that our policy makers can put politics aside and commit to helping ensure that all our children can learn how to read.”

Thorsen said opponents ignore a trove of research backing phonics-based learning, and entrenched thinking that makes policy makers resistant to change.

Science of reading policy, literacy bill face opposition

But, for all the momentum behind the science of reading, both the policy and the legislation filed on Thursday stand to face substantial opposition. After all, for about the last 40 years, it’s been called the reading “wars” not the reading “polite disagreement.”

Former Metro Nashville Schools Board member Jill Speering. (Photo: Ballotpedia)
Former Metro Nashville Schools Board member Jill Speering. (Photo: Ballotpedia)

Former Nashville school board member Jill Speering helped craft the district’s literacy policy under former schools director Jesse Register. A critical component of that policy was a reading recovery program to help children struggling to read early in elementary school.

Register’s successor Shawn Joseph scrapped the reading recovery program, saying the district was spending too much money for not enough results, and also ended the entire literacy policy backed by Speering.

A career educator with expertise in reading, Speering said science of reading advocates have pushed a “my way or the highway” approach that is too narrow. She described the “balanced literacy” approach she champions with an anecdote of teaching a child to read the sentence, “the lady is tall.” A child struggling to read might initially misread the sentence to say, “the lake is tall.” But with instruction from a trained teacher regarding the subject of the story and perhaps an accompanying photo of a woman, the child can gather the correct context and realize how the sentence actually reads.

Critics of the science of reading say it is too rigid and takes the joy out of reading. Similarly to how Thorsen points to research that phonics-based reading is effective, Speering backs academic studies showing a more comprehensive approach works best.

“The science of reading believes the only way you teach reading is phonics,” Speering said. “I believe, and the whole language approach believes, in balanced literacy – that phonics is one important strategy. It’s one important source of information, but just one source.

“The research is based on what good readers do, and what good readers do is they start recognizing that reading is a thinking process. They ask themselves, ‘Did that make sense?’” Speering said. “Understanding that something isn’t right is how we learn.”

‘We should all be skeptical of any new initiative they bring forth.’

Besides stakeholders who disagree with the science of reading as a policy approach, Lee and Schwinn will confront pushback from skeptics who opposed the voucher bill. That legislation, which provided public funding for families to help pay for tuition at private schools, was deemed illegal by a Nashville judge. A state appeals court upheld the lower court ruling and an end to the legal battle doesn’t appear to be near.

Any teacher who relies on only one way to teach a kid how to read needs to be retrained.”

Any teacher who relies on only one way to teach a kid how to read needs to retrained.

– Abigail Tylor, Metro Nashville Schools Board member

Schwinn has also faced criticism for choosing preferred vendors for state contracts. Schwinn told the Lookout she plans to use a transparent bidding process with various stakeholders, including teachers, helping to pick vendors for Reading 360.

Nashville school board member Abigail Tylor bashed the new literacy initiatives, slamming Lee and Schwinn for continuing to “waste taxpayer dollars on futile appeals” of the voucher lawsuit. Tylor said “we should all be skeptical of any new initiative they bring forth,” and that “there needs to be a full accounting of where every penny will end up, in addition to a thorough vetting by respected public educators.” News Channel 5 reported in 2019 that the FBI was investigating whether improper incentives were offered to lawmakers to pass the voucher bill that year.

Abigail Tylor (Photo:
Abigail Tylor (Photo:

Tylor echoed Speering that the science of reading is presented as the “end all be all” for how reading should be taught.

“It relies heavily on phonics, and while explicit phonics instruction should be included when teaching kids to read, it should only be one part of a larger approach,” Tylor said. “I’ve participated in conducting research on how kids learn to read in addition to continuously reading, studying, and getting training about how children learn how to read. I’ve also spent four years in a first grade classroom teaching kids how to read. Any teacher who relies on only one way to teach a kid how to read needs to be retrained.”

The literacy initiatives also face skepticism from the Nashville teachers union, the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association. That organization’s vice president said the state’s focus should be on supporting community schools and increasing teacher pay.

“While MNEA appreciates the investment in literacy education, we do not support funding yet another program over funding community schools and educators,” MNEA vice president Michele Sheriff said. “Studies show community schools increase student achievement and provide support and resources to schools and the community that are especially critical during this time. We implore the state to provide the necessary monies to pay teachers a living wage to ensure all students have a teacher for every class. Without teachers to provide instruction, new programs and/or initiatives will not improve student achievement.”

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Nate Rau
Nate Rau

Nate Rau has a granular knowledge of Nashville’s government and power brokers, having spent more than a decade with the Tennessean, navigating the ins and outs of government deals as an investigative reporter. During his career at The Tennessean and The City Paper, he covered the music industry and Metro government and won praise for hard-hitting series on concussions in youth sports and deaths at a Tennessee drug rehabilitation center. In a state of Titans and Vols fans, Nate is an unabashed Green Bay Packers and Chicago Cubs fan.