A Service of UA Little Rock
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Arkansas schools implementing new 'Science of Reading' curriculum

Students at Western Hills Elementary practice reading with their personal Ignite Reading tutors.
Josie Lenora
Little Rock Public Radio
Students at Western Hills Elementary School in Little Rock practice reading with their personal Ignite! Reading tutors.

People on all sides of the controversial Arkansas LEARNS Act seem to agree on one thing: reading is fundamental.

Only a third of Arkansas students were able to read on grade level when they took last year's state tests. In the Little Rock School District, only 23% can read on grade level.

And that's a problem. There is a direct correlation between illiteracy and worse life outcomes. You are more likely to go to prison if you can't read. And if you can't read by third grade, school becomes incredibly difficult.

But something about the way teachers, students and families are talking about reading is changing in Arkansas. The state, the governor, the administration, and the legislature are hooked on phonics. Or at least a phonics curriculum known as “The Science of Reading.”

Kevin Huffman is from Accelerate, a nonprofit that studies the outcomes of different reading interventions.

“The idea behind ‘science of reading’ is using some of the research that has been done on brain development and children's cognitive development as it relates to learning how to read,” he says.

Huffman says, in the past few years, he started to notice a shift in the way we talk about reading.

He thinks it's in large part because of an American Public Media podcast from 2022 called “Sold on a Story.”

“I think that podcast really increased awareness among noneducators, parents in particular, that the way reading was being taught in schools actually wasn't based on science,” he said.

The podcast argues that in the last few decades, American classrooms have started using a curriculum known as Whole Language. The idea is that students are naturally curious and if they are surrounded with books and required to read them, they can usually become literate with little assistance. The curriculum emphasizes a method known as "three cueing." Students are instructed not to sound out words. Instead, they are asked to guess which word “makes sense” or “looks right” in the sentence.

The podcast provides a litany of examples of students who can't read, but are good at pretending to. For example, one student said that, in World War II, the Germans were “invited into” Poland” instead of saying that they “invaded Poland.” Unable to read the word “invaded” and told not to sound it out, he simply guessed.

Arkansas lawmakers banned "three cueing" in June of 2021, and other states have followed suit. Now, Arkansas is slowly moving toward a curriculum emphasizing sounding out words and the Science of Reading.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is having the state contract with Science of Reading tutoring companies to bring phonics back to schools. Ignite! Reading is a Science of Reading curriculum where virtual tutors meet with students every day.

In a demo video from a phonics curriculum some Arkansas schools are using, a student named Lyra practices the “sh-” sound. The tutors are trained to be positive and upbeat, encouraging kids as they learn.

Jessica Sliwerski is the CEO of Ignite! Reading. She says the program is designed to account for the fact that some kids learn faster than others.

“We're doing such a good job in education teaching the kids to read who would already learn to read,” she said.

She talked about Nancy Young’s “Ladder of Reading.” That’s a diagram that puts all kids on a spectrum, from those who pick up reading the quickest to those who struggle for years.

Nancy Young's "Ladder of Reading" puts all readers on a spectrum.

The Ladder of Reading & Writing
Nancy Young's "Ladder of Reading" puts all readers on a spectrum.

“Everybody else, which is about 65% of kids, they will not learn to read unless they are given systematic direct instruction,” she said.

For some kids, she says, it takes hundreds of attempts to learn how to read certain sounds. For others, it takes thousands of times.

At Western Hills Elementary School in Little Rock, students are using Ignite! Reading. They spend 15 minutes a day learning phonics from a personal virtual tutor on a laptop, before having a full group phonics lesson with their teacher.

Second grade teacher Kim Reeves says she used to dream of having a program like this.

“There's no way I can meet with each child one-on-one for 15 minutes every day. That's impossible,” she said.

She echoed other teachers and district officials who say it has helped bring up literacy scores.

“I've seen a lot of growth.” Reeves said. “Struggling readers have made a lot of growth.”

Kevin Huffman from Accelerate says this specific method Ignite! Reading is using, regular one-on-one instruction with Science of Reading during school, reflects the best practices and the research they have. Ignite! Reading is partnering with the University of Arkansas to study how well these programs work. Huffman says he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“We are very committed to making sure there is actual evidence from independent third parties about these programs.”

The state is partnering with dozens of other groups like Ignite! Reading for this private “high dosage tutoring” all across the state. They plan to study their results and outcomes.

April Reisma was a special education teacher for 11 years. She now works as president of the Arkansas Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union.

Reisma had one big question about these programs: why are we privatizing learning to read?

“I don't think that any private education or tutoring thing needs to be coming from public funds,” she said. “I think if we were to correctly do it in the schools, then that should be plenty.”

Her criticism loops back to the de facto problem many people have with Arkansas LEARNS; that it takes state money, which could be going to public schools, and gives it to private schools and organizations.

Little Rock Public Radio was allowed to sit in on a class using Ignite! Reading tutoring. The second-graders seemed glued to their individual lessons as they learned to sound out words; part of the long, unwinding attempt to bring up literacy rates in Arkansas.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.