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Fort Mill schools announce shift to science of reading strategies

Ann Doss Helms

Starting in 2024 the public schools in Fort Mill, South Carolina, will shift the way young children are taught to read — switching from a “balanced literacy” approach to one that zeroes in on phonics and other basic steps based on reading research.

Early this year, parents and reading experts began coming to Fort Mill school board meetings asking for just such a change. In March a district spokesman said Fort Mill was satisfied with its approach but would change if the state required it.

Last week Superintendent Chuck Epps told the board that his staff has been reviewing 90 pages of new state curriculum standards that were released in January — and, he says, the district does need to change.

“One of the changes we have found in our ongoing research is that the new standards, especially in K-2, have a strong focus on the explicit and systematic approach to teaching phonics and phonemic awareness. This is where we find alignment with the science of reading approach,” Epps said.

This is part of a national debate about the best way to teach reading. It’s been going on for decades but has intensified in the last couple of years — partly because of parent pressure after the pandemic and partly because of an American Public Media podcast, “Sold a Story,” that dug into problems with whole language and balanced literacy. Those strategies have been popular for decades but leave many students lacking basic reading skills.

Caitlin Boyle, of Fort Mill, is one of the parents who has been calling for change. She says overall reading scores in the small, affluent district just south of Charlotte may be high, but many students struggle because of faulty instruction. She lauded the district’s change of tactics.

“What I hope is happening is that the district has seen that the parents really want a focus on phonics for their children and for other children in the district and even though the district is going to have a lot of leeway in implementation, what we want is a solid science of reading stance,” she said.

Boyle is vice chair of the York County chapter of Moms For Liberty, a national parents’ rights group that formed soon after COVID-19 closed schools. Chapter members have been prominent in the call for change in Fort Mill, but others have joined in.

A slow shift to structured literacy

At last week’s board meeting, staff told the board the new state standards shift the focus to structured literacy, also known as the science of reading. It requires an explicit focus on teaching children to know the sounds letters make, use them to sound out words and understand the meaning of words and stories. Balanced literacy can include some of those steps but focuses more on exposing children to good books and helping them use context to figure out words.

Fort Mill officials say classrooms will begin making small adjustments now. For instance, Amanda Griffin, coordinator of elementary reading, says local educators are doing a book study on “Shifting the Balance: Six Ways to Bring the Science of Reading Into the Balanced Literacy Classroom.”

During the coming school year districts across South Carolina will train teachers and select new classroom materials for use in 2024-25.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Waiksnis says state officials have cautioned that there are misconceptions and oversimplifcations afloat about the reading debate. For instance, he said, some describe the strategies Fort Mill currently uses as “just guessing at words,” while others act as if science of reading is one proven strategy that can be packaged and marketed. In fact, he said, it’s a complex body of research whose applications are still being tested.

“It’s certainly not settled science, 100%,” he said. “We think it is a great idea for K-2, it’s supported by research. But there’s also research out there that says that’s maybe not the best way.”

Two years ago the North Carolina General Assembly provided $50 million to put all elementary and pre-K teachers through extensive training on how to use techniques based on the science of reading. It’s still being rolled out and requires 160 hours of training over two years.

Peter Olinger, director of elementary education for Fort Mill schools, says the district will not expect teachers to make dramatic changes without support.

“We want to make sure that we’re very methodical, that we’re very respectful and that we’re trying to meet them where they are to get this process going,” he said.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.