When Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio began overhauling his state’s reading instruction this year, 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, sound teaching, known as phonics, and direct teaching of other skills, such as vocabulary.
The movement, fueled by long-term research, sought to move away from “balanced literacy,” which is intended to give teachers flexibility to meet the needs of students while promoting a love of reading. It may include some phonics, but also other strategies, such as prompting students to use contextual cues – such as pictures – to distinguish 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 advocates for balanced literacy, challenges the state’s new mandate — highlighting the economic and ideological forces at work in the national debate.
“I hope this is the first of many lawsuits to settle the backlog that has plagued the schools for decades,” wrote Billy Molasso, executive director of the Reading Recovery Council. suspensioncriticizing Mr. DeWine and Ohio legislators for succumbing to a political and media “circus” supporting the science of reading.
Reading Recovery is an intervention program aimed at helping first graders in the bottom 20 percent of their class. The nonprofit works with universities to train teachers and school district leaders in its methods. During the 2021-22 school year, the program reached approximately 23,500 students in more than 600 districts nationwide
The program — whose effectiveness has recently come under control — owes much of her success in the United States to Gay Su Pinnell, a well-rounded star who is professor emeritus and major donor to Ohio State University. Together with Irini K. Fouda, Dr. Pinnell wrote one of the most lucrative and popular reading programs used in elementary schools.
But the trend toward the science of reading has put pressure on the established players in education, who believe deeply in what they do and have struggled to maintain their position in the market.
In its lawsuit, the nonprofit Reading Recovery said it had experienced a “decline in membership” in Ohio and expected fewer registrations for its annual conference, which generates much of the group’s revenue. Tax records show the group took in just over $1 million last year.
“The practical issue is that we have to be able to continue our business,” said Dr. Molasso in an interview.
“But the stance has principles,” 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 promoting a change in policy reading into a budget bill rather than specific legislation.
The governor dismissed the lawsuit as self-serving. “They are upset that they will no longer be able to make money,” he told reporters after the lawsuit was filed last month.
In daily one-on-one lessons, Reading Recovery students practice reading with guidance from a teacher. Phonics is included as needed, but not primary, said Dr. Molasso, who rejected what he called a one-size-fits-all teaching. “We have a ‘whatever it takes’ philosophy.” Sometimes that’s vocal,” he said. “Sometimes it’s something else.”
Students can be taught to use contextual cues, including pictures, to discern the meaning of a word, a practice known as triptych. The practice was banned in Ohio as part of the new mandate and has been criticized by science reading advocates for taking students’ attention away from the letters on the page.
Dr. Molasso said the triptych 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 connected spoken and written words.
“It’s not a strategy that we use or support later in this evolution of learning how 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 at Ohio State. The university is home to one of twelve 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 total of $4 million to support Reading Recovery training programs in Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas and Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
He has also donated to Ohio State, including one 7.5 million dollars donation in 2020 that was the largest gift from an individual in the history of the College of Education. The donation, in part, endowed a professorship that helps support reading recovery education at Ohio State.
(She is also a personal acquaintance of Mr. DeWine and has supported his philanthropic 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 her role on the board, Dr. Pinnell is not active in the day-to-day decisions of the Reading Recovery Board, the spokesman said.
Ohio State, which is not involved in the lawsuit, said that while the university hosted the training center for school districts, its undergraduate education program does not use Reading Recovery to train its future teachers.
Reading Recovery reports studies which have found positive results including a large, federally funded study in 2016 by Henry May, an associate professor at the University of Delaware, and other researchers. This study found large gains for students by the end of first grade.
But a follow-up study by Dr. May published this year found negative results in the long term. Reading Recovery Council rejected the results, citing methodological issues.
The follow-up studywhich compared students who received Reading Recovery intervention with other struggling readers who had not, found that by third and fourth grade, Reading Recovery students were as much as a full grade level behind.
The results surprised the researchers, who “went back, checked, double-checked, triple-checked,” Dr. May said.
Timothy Shanahan, 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 failed as material. reading became more advanced.
“Young children are starting to try to use different strategies,” she 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 them abandoning that strategy and focusing more on ‘How do I actually get the word of author and not just his general idea?”