A lawsuit in Ohio returns to the battle over how to learn to read

When Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio moved this year to overhaul reading instruction in his state, it seemed like another sign that the decades-long debate over how to teach reading had reached a tipping point.

Ohio joins growing list of states requiring schools to follow “science of reading” — an approach that emphasizes systematic, phonics instruction, known as phonics, and direct teaching of other skills, such as vocabulary.

Movement, encouraged long-term research, sought to displace “balanced literacy,” which is supposed to give teachers the flexibility to meet students’ needs while promoting a love of reading. It can include some phonics, but also other strategies, such as encouraging students to use contextual clues – like pictures – to make out words.

“The weight of the evidence is clear,” Mr. DeWine said in an interview this week. “My only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner.”

But a recent lawsuit by the Reading Recovery Council of North America, an Ohio-based nonprofit that supports balanced literacy, calls into question the state’s new mandate — highlighting financial and ideological forces in the national debate.

“I hope this is the first of many lawsuits to address the wild pendulum swing that has plagued schools for decades,” wrote Billy Molasso, executive director of the Reading Recovery Council in blog postcriticizing Mr. DeWine and Ohio legislators for succumbing to the political and media “circus” that supports the science of reading.

Reading Recovery is an intervention program aimed at helping first graders in the bottom 20 percent of their grade level. The nonprofit works with universities to train teachers and school district leaders in its methods. In the 2021-22 school year, the program reached about 23,500 students in more than 600 districts nationally.

Program — whose effectiveness has recently become come under scrutiny — owes much of its success in the United States to Gay Sue Pinnell, a star of balanced literacy who is professor emeritus and major donor at Ohio State University. Together with Irene C. Fountas, Ph.D. Pinnell has written one of the most lucrative and popular reading curricula used in elementary schools.

But the trend toward reading science has put pressure on established education players, who believe deeply in what they do and have struggled to maintain their foothold in the market.

In its lawsuit, the nonprofit Reading Recovery said it has experienced a “decline in membership” in Ohio and expects fewer registrations for its annual conference, which brings in most of the group’s revenue. Tax records show the group earned just over $1 million last year.

“The practical thing is that we have to be able to continue our business,” said Dr. Molaso ​​in an interview.

“But the position is one of principle,” he said, adding: “We believe what we’re doing works and we have evidence that it works.”

The lawsuit alleges that Governor DeWine violated state law by pushing the reading policy change through the budget bill, instead of in separate legislation.

The governor dismissed the lawsuit as personal interest. “They’re upset that they won’t be able to make any more money,” he told reporters after the lawsuit was filed last month.

In daily one-on-one lessons, Reading Recover students practice reading with teacher guidance. Phonics is included as needed, but it is not primary, said dr. Molaso, who rejected what he called “one-size-fits-all instruction.” “We have a ‘whatever it takes’ philosophy. Sometimes it’s phonics,” he said. “Sometimes it’s something else.”

Students can be taught to use context clues, including pictures, to discern the meaning of words, practice known as the triple sign. The practice has been banned in Ohio as part of the new mandate and has been criticized by reading science for taking students’ attention away from the letters on the page.

Dr Molaso ​​said the triple sign is only used early on, to build a child’s confidence – for example, if a student knows what an elephant looks like but hasn’t yet made the connection between spoken and written words.

“It’s not a strategy that we use or support later in that progression of learning to read,” he said.

dr. Pinnell helped bring Reading Recovery to the United States from New Zealand in the 1980s and helped establish a base in Ohio State. The university hosts one of a dozen reading recovery training centers across the country.

dr. Pinnell, who is a volunteer board member for the Reading Recovery Council, has given more than $400,000 to the nonprofit since 2013, according to tax filings, and recently donated a combined $4 million to support reading recovery training programs at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, and Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.

She also made donations to the state of Ohio, including a 7.5 million dollars donation in 2020, which was the largest individual gift in the history of the College of Education. The grant, in part, endowed a professorship that helps support reading recovery training at Ohio State.

(She is also a personal acquaintance of Mr. DeWine and supported his charity work for a school in Haiti named after his late daughter.)

dr. Pinnell, through a representative for her publisher, declined to comment for this article, citing the pending lawsuit. In his role on the board, Dr. Pinnell is not active in the day-to-day decisions of the Reading Recovery Council, a representative said.

Ohio State, which is not involved in the lawsuit, says that while the university was home to a training center for school districts, its undergraduate education program does not use Reading Recovery to train its future teachers.

Reading Recovery states studies who found positive results, incl a large federally funded study in 2016 by Henry May, associate professor at the University of Delaware, and other researchers. That research showed great progress for students by the end of first grade.

But a subsequent study by Dr. May published this year showed negative results in the long term. Reading Recovery Council rejected the results, citing methodological issues.

Follow-up studythat compared students who received a reading recovery intervention to other readers who did not struggle with reading, found that by the third and fourth grades, the reading recovery students were behind as much as an entire grade.

The results surprised the researchers, who “went back, checked, double-checked, triple-checked,” said Dr. May.

Timothy Shanahan, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was not involved in the study and described it as high quality, said one theory for the negative results is that students were taught to rely on strategies that had a negative effect as material for which are reading has progressed.

“Young children are starting to try different strategies,” he said. “If you show them a tube of toothpaste that says ‘Crest,’ they’ll guess it says ‘toothpaste.'” But he added: “Learning to read involves giving up that strategy and focusing more on ‘How do I actually get teeth.'” the author’s word, not just their general idea?”

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