Phonics Instruction Is Bearing Fruit

December 4, 2005

Andrea Neal column for Dec. 10, 2003
710 words

ImageINDIANAPOLIS — One of the myths of education reformers is that there is no such thing as a silver bullet. They insist it will take a variety of innovative approaches over many years to effect real change in low-performing schools.

News bulletin: There is a silver bullet at the primary level that can work its magic in test scores pretty quickly. It¹s phonics and it improves math skills as well as reading because both rely on a student¹s ability to make sense of stories and story problems.

Exhibit 1: In Indianapolis Public Schools, the percentage of third graders passing the ISTEP exam jumped this year from 46 to 54 percent. While students made gains in three of the four grade levels tested, the biggest increase was in third grade, the first class to have experienced two consecutive years of a phonics-based reading program. The program is Open Court published by SRA/McGraw-Hill, which offers the most systematic phonics of any textbook on Indiana¹s state-approved list.

Exhibit 2: In Detroit, 55 percent of fourth-graders passed Michigan¹s Educational Assessment Program this year, compared to 33 percent the year before. As reported in the Oct. 4 Detroit Free Press, Kenneth Burnley, chief executive officer for Oakland County schools, "credited the 22-point fourth-grade reading improvement to a program called Open Court, on which the district spent nearly $20 million last year."

Exhibit 3: In the Poudre School District in Colorado, an affluent community in comparison to Indianapolis and Detroit, third graders this year achieved an all-time high 84 percent proficiency rate on the reading test of the Colorado Student Assessment Program. The number compared to 81 percent the year before and 76 percent in 1998. Nancy Sebring, executive director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, attributed the growth to the district¹s emphasis on literacy at the elementary level, and the district-wide reading program, Open Court.

Memo to Indiana school systems: If you haven¹t yet put phonics back into your elementary reading instruction, you are missing the boat. Whether your ISTEP scores are high or low, you can nudge them higher.

"I do believe that our Open Court adoption in grades K-2 has had a big impact on improving our test scores at 3rd grade," says IPS Superintendent Duncan Pat Pritchett. "Open Court is a heavily phonics-based program, which is providing our students with the decoding skills necessary to be successful readers."

More good news comes from the federally-funded program for disadvantaged students known as Title I. Indianapolis¹s Title I full-day kindergartens began using Open Court in 1999-2000, two years before the district adopted the series. Three years after implementation, ISTEP passage rates for the Title I students went from 39 percent to 52 percent.

Other assessment tools show similar boosts, according to Nancy Beatty of IPS. Scores from the Signposts Early Literacy Battery indicate that 36 percent of Title I full day kindergartners scored above the 50th percentile in 2001 compared to 50 percent in 2002 and 56 percent in 2003.

Are there other factors that contribute to these improvements? Of course, Pritchett and Beatty agree, and teacher dedication and professional development are right at the top. But it¹s indisputable that IPS reading scores are moving in the right direction after only two years of intensive phonics.

Four other Indiana school districts formally use Open Court — Baugo in Elkhart County, Porter Township, Milan and Western Wayne — and dozens of others have supplemented their reading texts with phonics-based instruction, programs such as Saxon, Direct Approach and Success for All. (As a matter of disclosure, the private school where I teach uses Open Court).

In 2000, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill requiring new elementary teachers be trained in phonetic skills. The same year, the Indiana Department of Education created a "phonics toolkit" to help teachers incorporate phonics into their teaching. Two years later, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires schools receiving federal funds to use phonics-based programs.

There were naysayers aplenty, including some high-profile profs from Indiana¹s education schools and leaders in the International Reading Association, who continue to insist there is no best way to teach reading.

The proof, thank goodness, is in the pudding.

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Andrea Neal, former editor of the Indianapolis Star editorial page, is a middle school teacher, columnist and adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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