The latest push for phonics-based instruction follows decades of
debate on how to teach reading.
California embraces whole language reading instruction, which focuses
on the meaning and context of words in literature.
In response to test scores showing more than half of fourth graders couldn't read well enough to understand a basic text, Marion Joseph is appointed to a state task force charged with improving early reading instruction. A grandmother from Menlo Park dubbed the “Paul Revere of the Reading Wars," she was a crusader for phonics instruction, which focuses on the relationships between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language. She died this year.
The Legislature passed phonics bills, then funded teacher training and
new textbooks based on reading research.
California is at the leading edge of the phonics-based movement. The Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, RICA, created by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, debuts to measure a teacher's ability to teach students in evidence-based practices.
Congress convenes the
National Reading Panel
responding to the national literacy crisis. The panel reviewed previously published studies and in 2000 recommended the explicit and systematic teaching of phonemic awareness and phonics, a guided oral
reading strategy, and fluency and comprehension strategies.
a national initiative in favor of evidenced-based phonics reading
instruction, such as the Open Court curriculum, holds sway in
A backlash partially motivated by teacher resentment of Open Court’s regimentation, some say, sets off a return movement toward the whole language. Over time, a mix of whole language and phonics, in which many say the former is favored, known as “balanced literacy,” becomes the dominant methodology in reading instruction, although a hodgepodge of methods exists throughout the state under local control.
The State Board of Education adopts the English Language Arts/English Language Development Framework for California. It provides guidance to teachers and textbook publishers on how to incorporate the Common Core standards in the classroom. Its K-2 chapters include sections on teaching basic reading skills including phonics. Not widely promoted, it is scheduled to be revised in 2025.
The landmark “Ella T.” case argued that literacy — the ability to
read, write and understand language — is a civil right. In a 2020 settlement, California agrees to
spend $50 million
help the lowest-scoring schools.
Plunging reading scores led American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford to investigate
the impact of the reading wars in
an ongoing series of stories starting in 2018, drawing parent and teacher attention to the flaws
in the system.
The Oakland Unified School District in May adopts a phonics-based
curriculum following a petition from the local chapter of the NAACP.
U.S. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond
creates a task force to help get all third graders reading by 2026.
He rejects a state-mandated curriculum.
The State Legislature passes
SB 488, primary sponsor Sen. Susan Rubio, D-West Covina, which mandates new literacy teaching standards for July 2025.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who has dyslexia himself, orders a phonics-based reading program for all schools and targeted services to identify and help children with dyslexia.
Lucy Calkins, an icon of the balanced literacy camp, admits to flaws in her
philosophy, revising her curriculum to embrace more phonics.
California's massive $110 billion TK-12 budget dedicates little for early literacy but districts can spend the extra money they are getting on early literacy staffing, books and training. The budget cut in half the $500 million Gov. Gavin Newsom sought for reading coaches. At the urging of Newsom, who himself has dyslexia, the state is funding $18 million to UC San Francisco to create a screening tool in multiple languages to detect reading difficulties, including dyslexia. But a bill to require K-2 testing stalled this year amid fears that English learners would be over-identified.