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Education secretary wants S.D. schools to get hooked on phonics
Education department renews push for phonics-based reading instruction in public schools
A tried-and-true model for teaching young children how to read is getting a renewed push in South Dakota public schools.
The South Dakota Department of Education has launched a statewide literacy initiative that Education Secretary Joseph Graves told The Dakota Scout this week is aimed at building better readers across the state.
“The ability to read is foundational to all learning. Up until about third grade, students are learning to read. After that, they are reading to learn,” Graves said. “Therefore, it’s critical that our students have strong reading skills early in their educational careers.”
While South Dakota touts reading proficiency rates higher than most of its peers around the country, standardized test scores have stayed mostly static in recent years. So rather than resting on their laurels, Graves and the DOE are calling on educators of young students to implement what’s known as phonics-based reading instruction.
Though that might not seem like a novel concept to adults who learned to read using phonics — a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters — or remember seeing television commercials for the Hooked on Phonics at-home reading instructional program, Graves said the education world in the last decade or so pivoted away from phonics-based learning.
Instead, early childhood academia embraced what’s known as Whole Language reading instruction, which teaches words in their entirety, not just the sounds associated with letters or segments of a word.
“In large part, Whole Language took the day and left huge swaths of children and schools mired in a process of trying to teach reading without actually teaching reading,” Graves said. “So we're trying to make sure everyone is getting back to — or moving forward to — what they need to do in order to give children the best chance at becoming highly literate, excellent readers.
“You explicitly teach kids how to read, how to decode words, not just introduce them to literature and hope they somehow figure it out. That’s the difference,” he added, referring to phonics-based reading instruction.
DOE’s phonics initiative is not mandatory. However, schools that choose to participate will receive support and resources to aid in implementing the initiative, which could include technical guidance, documents, and free professional learning opportunities for school staff.
According to DOE, professional learning opportunities are available to every educator in a public school, from paraprofessionals to teachers to school administrators.
Graves said he expects to see increases in students’ reading proficiency in schools that decide to participate, pointing to the Tea Area and Sisseton School Districts where phonics-based reading instruction is already being incorporated.
“All worthwhile things require hard work, and improvement will only come after a lot of hard work by South Dakota educators and those they serve,” he said. “Knowing them as I do, I am confident that both are up to the task.”
Public school administrators in Tea and Sisseton did not respond to requests for comment for this article.