Delaware has a literacy problem, and Sen. Laura Sturgeon is trying to fix it by having schools teach using the science of reading.
Her Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 4, which requires Delaware schools to use materials and techniques resulting from the study of the brain and how it learns to read, was released Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee without any no votes.
Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said he’s really excited about what the bill will do.
“Reading is at the very core of all learning,” said Bonini, who added that his wife has a PhD in neurobiology from Stanford. “She’s very, very supportive and I think we should be excited about it.”
The bill now heads to the House floor.
The science of reading focuses on six essential components of early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, text comprehension, and oral language.
During Wednesday’s 45-minute discussion of the bill, the majority of time was devoted to people explaining how the legislation will translate to schools.
Sturgeon said that since 2002, Delaware’s reading scores have dropped from sixth in the nation to thirty-seventh. Only 51% of third graders score at or above grade level in English language arts on Delaware’s state assessment, with gaps in achievement among racial and socioeconomic subgroups.
SB 4 requires schools districts and charters serving students between kindergarten and third grade to adopt a reading instruction curriculum from the Department of Education, demonstrate that reading teachers understand the principles and identify a supervisor to oversee and assist with the curriculum.
The state would be responsible for maintaining and publishing a list of evidence-based reading instruction curricula for grades kindergarten through three that align to the science of reading.
SB 4 builds on SB 133, a bipartisan bill passed last June that required all teacher preparation programs in the state to use evidence-based instructional strategies rooted in the science of reading.
In the hearing, Sturgeon said that our brains are not naturally wired to understand a written language.
“Open up a document written in Arabic or a language that uses the Cyrillic alphabet and ask yourself if you would be able to read that fluidly just by being read to and shown pictures of what the words mean, without ever being taught explicitly,” she said.
Students need to be given phonics instruction, learning the sounds that go with each letter, she said.
To hammer this point home, Sarah Beth Theaker, the president of Decoding Dyslexia Delaware, asked Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, to participate in a little challenge.
Theaker presented him with a sharpie. She asked him what it was.
“A sharpie,” said Sokola.
She then flipped it on its head and turned it upside down, again asking the question.
“It’s still a sharpie,” said Sokola.
After doing this one or two more times. Sokola joked that the only thing that would make it not a sharpie would be to burn it and turn it to ashes.
Now, Theaker presented him with a paper “P” that was backwards. Again, she asked what Sokola saw.
“A backwards ‘P’,” said Sokola.
She flipped it on its vertical plane.
“Now it’s a ‘P’,” Sokola said.
She flipped it upside down now.
“Now it’s a “b’,” Sokola said.
One more flip.
“Now I see a ‘d’,” said Sokola.
“And that’s exactly the point,” said Theaker. “The words come into our brain, then come into our visual center and what we need is to get them to our language center so that we can access meaning and pronunciation and understand the whole point of the words.”
She said connecting the two is the brain’s “reading center” that the science of reading helps develop.
Liz Parlett Butcher, director of communications for First State Educate, spoke during the hearing’s public comment to support the bill.
One of her four children has dyslexia, she said, and the science of reading has been the only course of action that has helped him with his literacy struggles.
His teachers tried guided reading, balanced literacy, whole-child instruction, cueing – none of which is aligned with the science of reading, she said.
Butcher said it was not until this year in her son’s second year of first grade where she negotiated a agreement with the district to give Sebastian access to curriculum that aligns to the science of reading with a trained reading specialist that he progressed to grade level.
He’s now working with a trained specialist for remedial reading instruction. It means he’s pulled out of his class daily. Sebastian has little confidence in the classroom and often comes home feeling down and isolated from his piers, said Butcher.
“Think of what Sebastian’s outcome could be in his life right now, when we talk about trauma, if he could be learning alongside his typically developing peers, with access to curricula that aligns to the science of reading,” she said.
The public comments all supported SB 4.
Caroline O’Neal, CEO of Reading Assist, an organization that helps at-risk children improve in literacy, said her proudest moment would be losing her job, because then she would have helped alleviate the literacy problems facing the state.
“More than ever, it is important for us that we provide teachers with the right curriculum, the right training and the right resources to do their jobs,” she said.
Raised in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Jarek earned a B.A. in journalism and a B.A. in political science from Temple University in 2021. After running CNN’s Michael Smerconish’s YouTube channel, Jarek became a reporter for the Bucks County Herald before joining Delaware LIVE News.
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