As Illinois children struggle to read, lawmakers want the state to create a literacy plan

A woman in a black jacket helps a young girl as she’s reading a children’s book.
Illinois education advocates are hoping state lawmakers will pass legislation changing how schools teach reading. (Rachel Wisniewski for Chalkbeat)

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Illinois may soon have to create a statewide literacy plan aimed at helping students learn how to read. 

Several bills regarding literacy — backed by a coalition of education advocates, teachers, and parents — are currently moving through the state legislature. The bills would require the state board of education to create a literacy plan for school districts, create a rubric for districts to judge reading curriculum, and provide professional development for educators.

The Illinois Early Literacy Coalition has raised alarms about the lack of science of reading, which include phonics, in schools around the state. Some local schools use an approach called “balanced literacy,” which is based on a philosophy that reading is a natural process and mixes some phonics into “whole language” instruction. 

That approach has come under fire in recent years, with some families and students taking action against school districts for not teaching students how to read. A group of Michigan students sued the state in 2020 for not providing them with a proper education. In recent years, a number of states, including Connecticut, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Delaware, have passed laws requiring phonics. 

Members of the Illinois coalition have spoken at the State Board of Education’s monthly meetings and worked with legislators to create and push bills in Springfield this session. With just a month left of the legislative session, two of the six bills the coalition helped write are moving closer to passage. 

The first bill, which has similar versions in the Senate and House, would require the State Board of Education to adopt a literacy plan for school districts by Jan. 31, 2024. The second bill, called the Literacy and Justice For All Act, would require the state board to create a rubric for districts to evaluate literacy curriculum and create professional development for educators. 

The early literacy coalition and state officials spoke at a press briefing on Monday about the state of literacy in Illinois and how the bills will change how school districts teach literacy. 

State Rep. Laura Faver Dias, a first-year lawmaker representing neighborhoods on the west side of Chicago, said she is sponsoring the Literacy and Justice For All Act in the House because she saw how the lack of science-based reading impacts students. Faver Dias taught high school history in Chicago Public Schools and said her students were not fluent readers. As a young teacher, she struggled with how to support them.

“There’s an ineffective reading curriculum that encourages students to guess from pictures and context clues, rather than decoding the words,” Faver Dias said. “By the time the students had come to me in high school, the words were more complex and the pictures were gone.”

Illinois test scores from the 2021-22 school year show that only 29.9% of students from third to eighth grades met state standards in reading, a 7.5 percentage point drop from 2019. Over the last year, parents, educators, and advocates have been pushing the state to focus on literacy. 

If students are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of school or fail to graduate, according to a national study.

This is a concern for parents such as Louise Dechovitz, a parent in Avoca School District 37. Dechovitz said her son has struggled with reading since kindergarten and required extra help during the school day. Still, Dechovitz said, he wasn’t improving. 

When Dechovitz raised concerns, she said at the press briefing on Monday, she was often told not to worry, she just needed to keep reading to him and find books he liked. When her son was younger he loved story time, she said, but when he tried to read to himself he flipped through the books, simply reciting the words he memorized at school.

“Then he would throw the book across the room in anger,” she said. “He couldn’t decode those words” 

In fourth grade, Dechovitz’s son failed his state exam and was falling further behind in reading, comprehension, spelling, and writing.

Dechovitz, whose family put in a lot of time and money to help her son learn how to read, said her son’s experience has fueled her advocacy around literacy. She wants to ensure that all children have access to effective literacy strategies. 

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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