What Michigan parents need to know about the ‘science of reading’

Three young students work at their desks in a classroom with posters on the back wall.
Many school districts across the country are updating their reading curriculums to methods that use the "science of reading." Some Michigan schools continue to use early literacy programs that are criticized by some as ineffective. (FatCamera / Getty Images)

When Michele Maleszyk’s daughter came home from kindergarten last year, Maleszyk noticed she brought home reading material with letter patterns she hadn’t been taught yet.

“I thought it was odd she was expected to read books with patterns she didn’t know,” Maleszyk said. “I thought, ‘How can a kid sound out what they don’t know?’ The only way would be by looking at the pictures.”

The mother and former elementary school teacher said she found out her daughter’s Troy School District class was using the Lucy Calkins approach to literacy, which includes short lessons and aims to have students practice reading skills on their own by getting them excited about literature. The once widely popular learning model has been criticized by many parents and educators in recent years as ineffective.

Since then, Maleszyk has learned about and become an advocate for the science of reading, a term generally used to describe early literacy learning instruction that emphasizes phonics along with helping students build vocabulary and background knowledge. The approach applies findings from a body of neuroscience research and the study of cognitive psychology.

With more states switching to these curricula — in the last five years, at least 30 states have passed laws requiring reading instruction to be based on the science of reading — here’s an overview of the reading curricula in use in Michigan and what parents can do to advocate for their child’s literacy learning.

How is literacy instruction evolving?

Early literacy skills are important for students’ future success.

“If we think about reading, writing, speaking, and listening, we do those in all subject matters of school,” said Tanya Wright, an associate professor of Language and Literacy in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. “It is really critical to develop those skills in the early childhood years.”

Science on the best ways to teach kids to read is constantly evolving. Current research suggests effective reading instruction should include five core pillars: phonemic awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, oral vocabulary, and text comprehension.

Literacy interventions that emphasize phonics have won out over other approaches in the so-called “Reading Wars” over the years.

The whole language approach, which typically doesn’t include much phonics instruction and was based on the belief that learning to read is an innate process, came first. It included the three-cueing method, which means students are given three cues to decode text: semantic cues that give meaning from context, syntactic cues that give meaning through letters, and grapho-phonic cues that give meaning through spelling patterns.

Then came balanced literacy, which combined the whole language approach with some phonics instruction.

Curricula that are well-regarded by science of reading advocates include Core Knowledge Language Arts (sometimes called CKLA), EL Education, Wit and Wisdom, and Superkids Reading Program.

Curricula that have been evaluated by some education experts as not meeting expectations include Fountas & Pinnell Classroom and Units of Study for Teaching Reading, also known as Lucy Calkins, named for the literacy expert who created the curriculum.

But even for widely respected and popular programs that claim to use methods derived from the science of reading research, there is not much available peer-reviewed research on how effective specific curriculum materials are. And available efficacy studies have yielded mixed results.

Tara Kilbride, the interim associate director of the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University, said it’s important to remember the science of reading is still changing.

“It will continue to evolve as more research happens and we learn more,” she said.

Which literacy curricula does Michigan use?

Michigan, which ranks 43rd in the country for reading, is one of the 26 states that lay out clear standards for reading instruction in teacher preparation programs that include the five core pillars, according to a report released by the National Council on Teacher Quality last month. The state also has standards for how educators should learn to support English learners.

Michigan maintains full authority over approval of teacher preparation programs, reviews syllabi for reading standards and the science of reading, and requires all future elementary teachers to pass a reading licensure test. But it does not require reading specialists or experts in the review of reading instruction for elementary education programs in the program renewal process and it does not use an “acceptable” elementary reading licensure test for teacher candidates, according to the report.

Though the state does provide guidance on using reading programs that align with research-based best practices, there is no one set reading curriculum for Michigan students. The state’s schools operate under local control, and districts decide their own curricula, making it impossible to discern how many districts use outdated or poorly rated core curricula.

Reading instruction materials can vary widely within districts and sometimes even within the same elementary schools, according to a 2022 policy brief by EPIC.

“What that really tells us is that across Michigan classrooms, kids are getting inconsistent instruction,” said Wright.

In a survey of more than 9,000 Michigan K-5 teachers and 192 superintendents, educators reported using more than 450 different English language arts curricula. Many teachers said they used multiple curricula and supplemental materials in their lessons.

The researchers found all participating districts provided guidance on curriculum selection. Despite guidance, teachers within the same district did not all use the same curriculum, and many were using curricula that were poorly rated or unrated.

For example, 31% of teachers in the survey said they used Fountas & Pinell, which did not meet expectations according to EdReports, a website that reviews instructional material.

Kristine Griffor, assistant superintendent for elementary instruction in the Troy School District, said Lucy Calkins has been used by all of the school system’s elementary school teachers for around 15 years, with an updated curriculum adopted nine years ago. A phonics component was to the reading and writing units of study five years ago, she said. A literacy leadership team that included teachers selected the curriculum, said Griffor.

Parents can check whether their school’s curriculum is considered high quality on the EdReports website.

While curricula is a key component that influences instruction, Wright said it’s not the only component. Teachers can use additional materials and their own knowledge to guide lessons.

What about students with dyslexia?

As has been the case nationally, Michigan dyslexia advocates have helped lead the push to adopt science of reading strategies. Though more research is needed, there is evidence the interventions used to identify and help struggling readers in curricula that claim to use the science of reading may hold promise for students with dyslexia, according to a 2021 study.

Some say aspects of a set of Michigan dyslexia bills proposed in October would benefit the overall student population.

One bill would tighten state standards for literacy screeners schools use to identify kids having trouble reading. Another would require school districts to have at least one teacher trained in the Orton-Gillingham method, a highly structured multisensory approach to reading instruction.

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee is set to discuss the dyslexia bill that would tighten screeners and another that would set standards for teacher preparation programs to ensure future educators have the tools they need to support students with dyslexia.

What can parents do to set their kids up for success in learning to read?

Wright suggests parents who want to better understand the best practices for teaching kids to read review the Literacy Essentials resource guide she helped compile with other researchers. The guide includes essential practices for kids in all grade levels, professional learning resources for educators, coaching modules, and more.

“We want kids to learn to look at the symbols and be able to figure out how they translate into words and sentences,” said Wright. “We also want kids, at the same time, to be building knowledge and vocabulary and comprehension skills, so that once they are independent decoders, they have the knowledge they need to comprehend the text.”

For example, Wright said that if her child was not receiving science or social studies instruction in the early grades, she would be concerned.

Parents may also want to get an understanding of how their child is learning literacy by asking teachers about how they approach carving out time for reading and writing during the school day.

They may also ask how teachers screen students for reading difficulties and what interventions are used, said Maleszyk, the parent in Troy.

“Ask them, ‘If my child is falling behind, what steps are you taking to support them?’” she said.

Parents might also ask teachers if they’ve received training in the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (or LETRS), which has been recommended by the state.

Experts and educators suggest taking a collaborative approach to talking with teachers and administrators about concerns with your child’s reading instruction. Everyone’s goal should be achieving student literacy, regardless of the approach.

Maleszyk said if a teacher is not able to answer your questions or address your concerns, you may want to talk with the school’s principal and then the district’s director of curriculum. She has also spoken about her concerns with her daughter’s curriculum at school board meetings.

“We are always learning different ways and practices and we feel the curriculum we selected centers on children,” said Griffor, the Troy School District administrator.

Inequities in Michigan’s literacy proficiency

Maleszyk said she knows her daughter will learn to read – she’s able to pay up to $80 an hour for tutoring. But she worries about students whose families can’t afford the extra support.

Michigan students have long struggled with literacy competency, and experts say inequitable school funding is among the many reasons students from low-income families and students of color have suffered the most from inadequate reading instruction.

A 2016 lawsuit alleged that the state denied students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District a basic education by failing to teach them to read. It was settled for $94.4 million.

In 2022, Michigan ranked 43rd compared to the rest of the nation for 4th grade reading, according to a report by Education Trust-Midwest that used data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The scores from that assessment were seven points lower than they were 20 years prior.

While the rest of the country’s reading scores dropped during the pandemic, Michigan’s plummeted at a faster rate than the national average due to a longtime underinvestment in public education, according to the 2023 State of Michigan Education report.

In an effort to improve early literacy, Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature and then-Gov. Rick Snyder approved the 2016 third-grade reading law, which included a retention rule.

The retention rule took effect in 2021 and other aspects of the law went into effect much earlier. Before the retention rule was repealed in March, Black students and kids from low-income families were more than twice as likely to have to repeat the third grade compared to their white peers and students from wealthier families.

Most districts pushed back against retaining more students, especially during the early stages of the pandemic, when learning loss was widespread and when the rule took effect.

The other aspects of the reading law remain, including the requirement that schools identify struggling readers and provide extra help.

Feb. 13, 2024: A previous version of this story said that Michigan does not maintain full authority to review teacher preparation programs and does not audit them. The state does maintain full authority of the programs and audits their compliance.

Hannah Dellinger covers K-12 education and state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at hdellinger@chalkbeat.org.

The Latest

Here’s an updating list of who is running in Chicago’s school board elections on Nov. 5.

At least three dozen people have shown interest in running for Chicago’s elected school board. Candidates must now submit official paperwork to get on the November ballot.

The Colorado university has opened up FAFSA services for any student or family with college plans, regardless of where they want to go to college.

Rachael Mahmood, the Illinois 2024 Teacher of the Year, focuses on creating lessons that affirm her students’ identities and interests.

The bill bans schools from putting students in classrooms that are 88 degrees or hotter. The impact in NYC could be limited since schools have air conditioning.

Lina Zapta is an educator at North Star Academy’s Washington Park High School, where the English learner turned Spanish teacher works to make her classroom ‘a space of trust and comfort.’