Nancy Polasek’s two sons had vastly different experiences learning to read when they were in Houston ISD’s Oak Forest Elementary School more than a decade ago.

The difference, Polasek believes, was curriculum.

Teachers gave her elder child tools to sound out words, and he quickly became a fluent reader. But her younger son received lessons that emphasized story comprehension and neglected letter sounds, leaving him mystified by how to process the jumble of letters on a page. 

“I could tell that he wasn’t learning phonics,” Polasek said. “I could tell that he wasn’t learning the sounds. He couldn’t rhyme. … It never even occurred to me that someone would try to teach kids without teaching them the sounds of letters.”

The contrast in instruction represented a bitter fight playing out nationwide, which observers have dubbed the “reading wars.” In the years since, Texas has taken a clear side in the fight, passing a law that did away with materials like the ones Polasek believes failed her younger son. 

Now, HISD and its new state-appointed superintendent are taking that mandate further, advancing an approach known as the “science of reading.” This year, Superintendent Mike Miles required 85 schools to use a specific curriculum based on the science of reading, called Amplify. 

The latest approach is part of Miles’ aggressive literacy push in the district, where about 80 percent of students are not proficient in reading, according to the leading national standardized test.

“We, the profession, we’ve learned how to teach kids well how to read,” Miles said. “But not all textbooks and curriculum are based on the science of reading. And so we’ve got to change that.”

But what is the science of reading? And how might it address the needs of HISD’s learners? 

The science of reading, explained

In short, the science of reading refers to lessons that put an emphasis on phonics, a method of teaching children how to sound out words.

But it’s not quite that simple, literacy researchers caution. They lay out five pillars of learning to read, only one of which is phonics. The others are: understanding rhymes, reading with pace, broadening vocabulary and boosting overall comprehension. 

Helping students make progress toward all five pillars is the best way to develop strong readers, researchers say.

Studies mostly show that children who receive systematic phonics instruction tend to learn to read better and more quickly than those who don’t, especially in the early grades.

What are the ‘reading wars?’

For decades, a pendulum has swung between two approaches to teaching reading: phonics-based instruction and “balanced literacy.” The fights between the two camps have grown so bitter at times that they have been described as a war.

Balanced literacy approaches tend to instruct young learners to use cues, such as sentence structure and pictures in books, to figure out unfamiliar words, with sounding out the letters as a last resort. For decades, it was the predominant approach used to teach children to read in classrooms across the country. Some districts still continue to spend millions on the curricular materials. 

But in recent years, parents nationwide have spoken out against the strategy, arguing that it trained their children to guess words rather than reading them. Following the outcry, the science  of reading camp has scored marked victories. Texas and 31 other states, plus Washington, D.C., have passed laws promoting the science of reading, according to an Education Week tracker updated in July. 

Under a Texas law passed in 2019, school districts must use a curriculum that delivers “systematic direct instruction” in phonics and early-grade educators must complete training in the science of reading.

HISD Superintendent Mike Miles in Houston
Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles presents data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress during a family engagement event July 12 at Marshall Middle School on Houston’s north side. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

What’s changing in HISD?

For years, HISD’s decentralized structure, which placed curriculum decision-making power in the hands of principals, meant students could receive different reading instruction from one campus to the next.

This year, 85 campuses participating in Miles’ “New Education System” are basing all reading lessons on Amplify, a program that’s popular nationwide. All schools across the district may opt into using curriculum, financed by the central office.

Jacque Daughtry leads Literacy Now, a nonprofit that provides extra reading tutoring to youngsters in HISD and Aldine Independent School District. For over a decade, the organization has filled in the gaps for students who are behind grade level in reading. She’s “very excited” that dozens of HISD schools will now use a curriculum she considers high quality.

Sarah Woulfin, an education professor who studies literacy at the University of Texas at Austin, said Amplify is a solid curricular choice. She’s reviewed research on the model that suggests it includes all the essential elements of the science of reading, producing results for students. 

“A real strength is that if you are a first grader or a second grader at a particular school, you’re experiencing Amplify in first and second grade. And then you go to the third grade classroom, and they’re also using Amplify and it’s intentionally sequenced,” Woulfin said.

Still, Woulfin said the curriculum also has downsides. Some critique it for pre-selecting books for students, rather than giving kids the joy of choosing a book from the shelves. And some reading researchers argue Amplify’s emphasis on phonics and word recognition comes at the expense of ensuring students fully understand the meaning of what they read, Woulfin said.

Where does HISD stand on reading?

Students in HISD have long struggled with reading, with stagnant standardized test scores for over a decade.

About 19 percent of fourth graders in the district scored “proficient” in 2022 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” That’s virtually unchanged since 2003 and 11 percentage points lower than the state average. 

Vast gaps also exist between low-income and affluent students.

About 35 percent of third graders deemed “economically disadvantaged” by the state scored at grade level in reading on Texas’ state standardized tests, commonly known as STAAR, in 2023. By comparison, 74 percent of their more affluent peers tested at grade level. Third grade is a critical juncture after which many educators expect students to transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.”

Scoring “proficient” on the “Nation’s Report Card” exam is not equivalent to being on grade level, according to the test’s creators. 

The science of reading and dual language

Lessons in the science of reading will be taught completely in English at the dozens of overhauled schools required to use the Amplify curriculum, Miles has said. That’s a concern to many parents at the 78 HISD schools with Spanish-English dual language programs who have been promised equal parts instruction in each language. Last school year, 42 percent of HISD students spoke Spanish, according to the district.

Miles articulated his vision in mid-July at one of several meetings with families, talking over shouts from the crowd arguing students should also be taught to read in Spanish.

“You cannot read well if you can’t decode, and you cannot decode if you don’t do it in English,” Miles said. “So we’re gonna do the science of reading, decoding and language comprehension in English and then we will supplement the language, Spanish. We will try to do as much 50-50 in the other courses, math or Art of Thinking or social studies.”

Literacy professors said there’s active debate within the research community about how best to create fluent readers in two languages, and in what order to prioritize each language. 

Some approaches incorporate both languages simultaneously. Jorge Gonzalez, a University of Houston professor who studies early language and literacy, said students’ native language skills in Spanish can bolster their reading abilities in English. As a largely phonetic language, Spanish can help students naturally learn to sound out words.

“We can leverage what the child brings to the classroom and their first language to build the second language,” Gonzalez said.

Training teachers on science of reading

Education researchers caution that it’s not enough to give teachers curricular materials and lesson plans aligned to the science of reading without training in how to use them. Woulfin said teachers should get coaching and the opportunity to confer with colleagues about what is and isn’t working in the classroom. Those supports should be continuous throughout the year, she said.

“It’s not a one-and-done,” Woulfin said. “It’s really important it’s not a copy-and-paste, not just a PowerPoint of, ‘These are the 10 things to do well teaching Amplify.’”

All HISD educators had to attend two half-days of training this summer on delivering lessons aligned with the science of reading, Miles said. The superintendent promised that training would continue throughout the school year.

“There’s been a lot of training, but it takes more than just … a conference session to learn how to deliver curriculum, how to deliver science of reading well,” Miles said. “So we’re not done with that.”

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Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Landing. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...