Indiana announces $111 million for phonics-focused reading instruction

A young boy wearing a blue face mask and a gray shirt looks at a book. Next to him a young girl with a yellow face mask and a pink shirt looks at another book. Both are at a lime green desk or table.
Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said reading instruction currently varies not just from school to school but classroom to classroom, where some teachers may already be using components of phonics instruction, while others aren’t. (Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat)

Indiana will spend $111 million to revamp its method of teaching reading to young students by prioritizing phonics, state leaders announced Thursday.

The lion’s share of the funds will go to training teachers in the “science of reading” — a vast body of research on optimal early literacy techniques.

The fund represents the state’s largest-ever investment in literacy, according to the Indiana Department of Education. It comes just a week after the state announced its most recent reading scores for third graders, which remained mostly unchanged from last year, except for drops among English-language learners. Concerns about the pandemic’s impact on literacy in general motivated the state to act. 

“This couldn’t be a more timely response to the last couple of years,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb in a press conference about the fund. 

The bulk of the total money — $85 million — comes from the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation, and will go toward training current and future teachers on phonics-focused literacy instruction.

Another $26 million in federal COVID relief funds for Indiana will support literacy instruction through the University of Indianapolis’ Center of Excellence in Leadership of Learning (CELL) and the Hunt Institute.

“Although we understand that many factors affect reading achievement, we are compelled by the research showing that Science of Reading strategies can help all students learn to read better and address equity gaps in reading,” said Lilly Chairman and CEO N. Clay Robbins in a statement. “Knowing the important contributions teachers make every day in their classrooms, we want to make sure they are fully supported in this important work to help students learn to read well.”

Money for coaching, teacher prep, and oversight

Up to $60 million from Lilly is for the state education department to increase the number of instructional coaches who specialize in phonics-based literacy in elementary schools. 

This school year, 54 elementary schools across the state opted into the instructional coach model, a number that will now grow to around 600 — or 60 percent of elementary schools — by the end of the 2025-26 school year. 

This money will also help pay for stipends of up to $1,200 for teachers who participate in professional development focused on the “science of reading.”

Another $25 million from Lilly is earmarked for colleges and universities to incorporate phonics-based reading instruction into their undergraduate elementary teacher preparation programs. 

Similar instructional approaches relying on phonics have been rolled out in New York City and states like Colorado, which is in the midst of revamping reading instruction in its at the state’s teacher preparation programs.   

In Indiana, no student groups have recovered to their pre-pandemic literacy rates, according to recent state data, which showed just under 82% of all students passed the statewide third grade reading test, the IREAD.

The goal of the new initiative is to have 95% of students pass the IREAD by 2027. 

On the other statewide assessment given in grades 3-8 — the ILEARN — around 41% of all students scored proficient or better on the English/language arts section, with wide disparities among student groups. 

The new reading initiative will further provide “targeted support for students who need the most help improving their reading skills,” according to the education department, as well as fund an oversight center.

Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said reading instruction currently varies not just from school to school but classroom to classroom, where some teachers may already be using components of phonics instruction, while others aren’t.

Schools nationwide have used other approaches to reading instruction — like “balanced literacy” — which has recently drawn criticism for practices like separating reading and writing, and asking students to look for context clues to understand a word. 

Jenner said the shift in reading instruction statewide will continue to be on an opt-in basis for the time being. If there is overwhelming interest in the program, Jenner said the department could earmark more federal funding to expand it to more schools or upper grades, or bring a funding request to the state legislature.

Jenner told an assembly of elementary schoolers and teachers at Eastside Elementary School in Anderson that reading would allow them not only to learn other subjects, but to realize their dreams. 

She flipped through her favorite book from school — a book about oceans — to show students an image of the anglerfish, which fascinated her as a child. 

Eastside Elementary is one of the schools participating in the state’s instructional coaching pilot this year. 

Karen Griner, a literacy instructional coach at Eastside, said coaching helps teachers who may not have had the opportunity to study phonics-based instruction during their teacher preparation programs. 

In the earliest grades, it begins with a focus on phonics, and later turns to fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, Griner said.

She said she hopes the investment from the state will expand the practice to more students affected by COVID. 

“The last few years have been a struggle,” Griner said. “The masking has been a real delay for some of our students because they haven’t been watching the mouth and the articulation of sounds and words. So we’re hoping now we can really move to that piece and help students learn to articulate.”

Aleksandra Appleton covers Indiana education policy and writes about K-12 schools across the state. Contact her at

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