Experts Recommend Phonics Instruction to Improve Literacy


A group of about 75 reading specialists, school administrators, and teachers came together September 8 at the Greencroft Club in Albemarle to view parts of the documentary film “The Right to Read” and to hear from experts discussing the sea change happening this year and next in reading instruction in Virginia. Panelists described the significance of the resurgence of phonics-based literacy programs in schools and the state’s new approach aimed at aligning all facets of the education system in a coordinated effort to boost students’ reading skills.

Emily Solari, director of Virginia Literacy Partnerships at UVA, said that reading and writing are arguably the most studied aspects of human learning, and there is abundant evidence available about how children learn to read. “[But] we have failed to take what we know about the brain and translate that into evidence-based practices in the classroom,” said Solari. “We have not been equipping our teachers with the knowledge they ought to have, we have not been giving them the tools that they deserve. In a recent survey of reading curricula being used across the country, upwards of 60% of districts are using curricula that are not aligned with the current evidence.” 

Emily Solari, director of Virginia Literacy Partnerships at UVA Photo: UC Santa Barbara.

Solari was referring to a mountain of research showing that teachers using phonics-based literacy programs are more successful in teaching children to read proficiently than those using the “whole word” or “balanced literacy” approaches that have been heavily promoted by academics and schools of education for the last several decades. The latter method relies on memorized sight words and picture cues to interpret text rather than the sound-letter matching and systematic decoding strategies of phonics-based instruction.

The 2023 Standards of Learning pass rates for every elementary and middle-school grade in Virginia are behind 2018-19 rates in both reading and in math, and large achievement gaps between demographic groups persist. To address these issues and the disconnect between evidence and practice, the Virginia Literacy Act was passed in bipartisan fashion by the Virginia General Assembly in 2022. The legislation aims to tackle what Solari called a “literacy crisis” by organizing the entire system of learning surrounding students to focus on improving literacy outcomes in grades K-8. 

“Really importantly, you cannot push on one lever and see change,” said Solari. “We need to change the way we are training teachers and getting evidence-aligned curriculum into their hands. This includes partnering with our families to ensure in our communities that everybody understands [what to do] and that there’s a fairness in what’s happening in literacy. I want to be clear is that this is not the fault of teachers—this is the fault of the system around them.”

“It takes a whole system of support around a teacher to fundamentally change the way we teach reading, starting with our families,” agreed Lisa Coons, Virginia’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. “Our families are our children’s first teacher, and they need to understand that those flashcards that teach sight-based reading are not the things we want our families to be doing. We want our families to be doing ‘sounds-first’ work.” Coons was referring to playing with the sounds of words and letters so that kids understand that words are made up of individual phonemes. Phonics then builds on that understanding by linking sounds with letters of the alphabet, so children can eventually read any word by sounding it out.

Lisa Coons, Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction. Photo: Daniel Sangjib Min, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Coons stressed that school divisions must approach literacy instruction holistically. “We’re going to empower our superintendents with knowledge about what it means to be a ‘literacy superintendent,’ partnering with school boards that make investments in resource materials,” she said. “You have to think about things like the structure of the daily schedule, how school leaders will support the teachers, and how the teachers will have enough time to faithfully implement the curriculum and engage with parents.” Coons mentioned one more party that is lagging behind—schools of education. “To prepare great teachers, the higher ed system needs to come along with us.”

Coons gave examples of the “all means all” approach she oversaw in Tennessee, where she served as Chief Academic Officer for the state. “It’s a matter of teachers providing more dosage of high quality materials to students, and having opportunities for collaboration with other teachers like special ed teachers and reading specialists. Everybody has to do the work. I was really proud of Haywood County in very impoverished West Tennessee. They brought in their secretaries, their bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, and they all did reading training. They did tutoring and they did small group supplemental instruction, because everyone was supporting a high level in that community. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Seth Kennard, principal at Mountain View Elementary, reiterated that the right curriculum is central to any improvement. “I can tell you as a building leader, you can do everything you want with relationship-building, and Professional Learning Communities, and [classroom] walkthroughs, and all these things that are supposed to move students,” he said, “but if you’re not teaching them the right way, you’re not going to see improvement. What we’ve realized over time is to not trust the publisher’s program … but to trust the research. We’re all equally to blame in being slow to shift, but now that we know, we know, and can change what we’re doing.”

Albemarle Playing Catch-up

Albemarle County Public Schools’ current program for K-5 reading instruction is called Being a Reader. The program touts its combination of literacy and reading comprehension instruction with “social skills instruction and activities that foster students’ growth as responsible, caring, and collaborative people.” Being a Reader is not explicitly phonics-based and is not on the Virginia Department of Education’s list of approved literacy programs. 

Crozet resident Lynda Harrill, a member of the organizing committee for the Right to Read event, is a long-time, staunch advocate for literacy who has worked to expand free and early access to reading materials for disadvantaged children. “I just cannot understand the complete lack of urgency on the part of the school division to solve this crisis,” she said. “Kids who can’t read fluently by the third grade begin to fall behind, and in many cases never catch up.”

Seth Kennard, Principal at Mountain View Elementary. Photo: ACPS.

For the 2023-24 school year, ACPS is shoring up K-3 instruction with another reading program, while a nine-person steering committee and a 55-person adoption committee (including three teachers from each elementary school) spend September through January evaluating and selecting one of the approved state programs. In the interim, the VDOE is requiring school districts to take advantage of funding to implement an intensive tutoring program focused on supporting students who failed their SOL’s or are at risk of failing.

“The reading results in Virginia, across the board, were poor and sat still, and the new state superintendent has announced a program called All In Virginia,” said Albemarle schools Superintendent Matt Haas at the September 14 School Board meeting. “Part of that is high intensity academic tutoring, and [the state is requiring us to] start doing that in October. It’s going to be a heavy lift for us, because we’ve got to find tutors and figure out our school schedules, and it may mean restructuring some things in terms of the elementary school day just to get this fit in. But I support it, because we’ve got to catch up.”

Haas described how Being a Reader started at a few Albemarle schools “years and years ago” with no formal selection process and slowly spread across the division, and said he appreciated the specific instruction from the VDOE in asking schools to select from among six already-vetted curricula. “For us, as a school system that has really wrestled with implementation over the years, it’s a blessing to have this kind of direction,” said Haas, who has held ACPS division leadership positions for 13 years. “Virginia, I’ve often said, is a museum of education, like if you want to know how they did something in the past, go to Virginia and find out. So, this is a step in the right direction that there’s going to be uniformity.” 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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