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With new literacy standards, Pa. teachers' colleges change how they look at reading instruction

Books that are part of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library sends free books in the mail to young children.

Educator preparation programs in Pennsylvania are adjusting the way they teach reading to meet new, statewide curriculum standards based on the science of reading.

Undergraduate and graduate programs for those working toward a teaching certificate must emphasize core “structured literacy” elements, such as phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension.

Richard Sabousky, a professor of education at Grove City College, was a member of the working group that shaped the new requirements.

“The main goal was to make sure that students in the Commonwealth were being taught by teachers that had the information and the knowledge and the skills to deliver reading instruction according to what we know kids need to know to be good readers,” Sabousky said.

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By directing colleges and universities to incorporate these elements of reading instruction into their lessons, state officials hope to increase the number of classrooms staffed by fully prepared teachers, and improve student outcomes by strengthening new educator preparation.

Sabousky said much of Pennsylvania’s amended requirements were built from the science of reading — a broad term for decades of research on student psychology and cognition — as well as existing guidance on structured literacy from the International Dyslexia Association.

“People would say only kids with disabilities or with dyslexia need these things,” Sabousky said. “And really, we've known — cognitive scientists have known for years, a lot of special educators have known for years — that all kids need those things to learn how to read effectively.”

Pennsylvania is 1 of at least 30 states to have passed laws in the last five years requiring instruction based on the science of reading, although unlike other states, it does not require schools to use materials from a state-approved list.

“I don't know that we all need to be teaching from the same books or the same materials, but [we] all need to have these same overarching goals,” said Michelle Sobolak, who oversees teacher and professional education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Sobolak said the state’s requirements are a step toward boosting literacy rates among K-12 students statewide. They come as many school districts continue to see a dip in reading proficiency, largely due to the long-term effects of COVID interruptions in the classroom.

Just over 50% of all Pennsylvania third through fifth graders scored proficient or above on statewide exams during the 2021-2022 school year.

More recently only 41% of Pittsburgh Public Schools third through eighth graders performed proficiently on state reading tests for the 2022-2023 school year.

“I would like to think that this is pushing us forward, but I don't want to be blind to the fact that we have a long way to go in meeting the needs of diverse learners in our schools and building equity in our educational structures,” Sobolak said.

How universities are adjusting to meet state requirements

Pitt’s education and literacy programs already emphasize the science of reading and comply with the new standards, according to Sobolak. She’s working instead to ensure these requirements are explicitly addressed in students’ assignments as they relate to fieldwork, “so that they're aware that the state has these frameworks and competencies, and that they need to be referring to them throughout their instruction.”

Carla Meyer said the same is true at Duquesne University, where she leads the literacy and reading education program. Meyer noted the main challenge now lies in ensuring the school’s undergraduate programs meet all of the state’s provisions for certification while also accounting for competing university requirements, like general education courses.

“At a university, we don't work in isolation. Our students have so many other credits that they have to achieve,” Meyer said. “To be able to adjust your program, you might need a new course or you might need to do something differently. So you have to work across departments.”

Meyer said program leaders are constantly tweaking their courses to meet students’ needs as new requirements or guidance is handed down. Educator preparation programs have until Aug. 1, 2024 to integrate the structured literacy standards into their certification programs.

At Point Park University, educators have restructured their format to incorporate those components, moving away from a “balanced literacy” approach. (Balanced literacy curricula have largely been criticized for not having strong enough phonics programs and retaining teaching strategies that lack scientific backing.)

“It's not as though we had to do a major overhaul,” said Ginny Chambers, chair of the university’s department of teaching and learning. “We knew that phonics instruction and phonological awareness was at the core of reading instruction, and so we just positioned it more along the lines of the brain research and with the structured literacy components.”

Chambers added that the university has always adjusted its coursework to reflect state standards, though the structured literacy program is the first directive requiring universities to demonstrate how they align with a specific way of teaching.

School districts, meanwhile, must also integrate the standards into their professional development for teachers and reading specialists. As part of the State Board of Education’s rule instituting the new framework last year, Pennsylvania’s Department of Education developed an online, 10-hour course districts can adopt as part of their training, though they aren’t required to do so.

Pittsburgh Public Schools — which adopted a new science of reading-based curriculum for K-5 students this school year — said that while the district’s teachers won’t be required to take PDE’s course, they are scheduled to participate in professional learning on both the science of reading and structured literacy throughout this school year.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.