Memphis Is Changing the Way Its High School Students Read, Syllable by Syllable

Some students may also have missed out on important reading instruction early on.

In the early to mid-2010s, when high schoolers today were in elementary school, many schools practiced — and still practice — “balanced literacy,” which focuses on fostering a love of books and storytelling. Instruction may include some phonics, but also other strategies, like prompting children to use context clues — such as pictures — to guess words, a technique that has been heavily criticized for turning children away from the letters themselves.

For at least part of the time, Memphis was using a popular curriculum called Journeys. Its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, described it in a statement as a comprehensive program “grounded in research and backed by scientific evidence,” with daily, systematic instruction on literacy skills, including phonics, and “a variety of resources to support teachers.”

But Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied reading, described the program as “the legacy of balanced literacy” because it offers teachers many options, some more effective than others.

“There are things in there that would allow teachers to teach many different ways — and that is the problem,” he said.

Dr. Schwinn, the Tennessee education commissioner, said that under balanced literacy, the state met the needs of only some children for whom reading comes relatively easily — perhaps 40 percent, by some estimates. “We had gotten to those kids,” she said. “But there were a lot of others we hadn’t addressed.”

Catching up can be difficult. In fourth grade, schools typically transition from teaching students how to read to expecting students to use reading to learn.

And in older grades, teachers often are not trained in literacy.

Tamarah Brandon, an English teacher at Oakhaven, has a bachelor’s degree in English and African American studies and a master’s in curriculum and instruction. None of it, she said, covered how to teach reading.

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