Partnership Educators Explain the New Urgency Around How Students Learn to Read

Last week, Governor Mike DeWine proposed that the state ban a range of reading curricula and provide $129 million for materials and teacher training to support a switch to the “science of reading.” His announcement comes amid a national awakening about reading instruction; for example, last winter New York Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks bluntly announced that when it comes to reading, many of the city’s public schools are “teaching wrong.” And ranked amid the 100 most popular podcasts this winter is “Sold a Story,” American Public Media’s exploration of how millions of American children receive reading instruction that does not align with what evidence suggests is effective.  

For the last decade, Partnership Schools have used the kind of curricula that DeWine, Adams, and others now advocate for. So Partnership educators have unique insights into its efficacy—and into why it has taken until 2023 for a groundswell of support to emerge for it.

Phonics and More

“Our words are composed of sounds. When you really master putting those sounds together, then reading takes off,” explains Lisa Marynowski, a veteran first-grade teacher and dean of the Early Childhood Education Campus at Metro Catholic School in Cleveland. The crucial role of phonics as foundational to reading comprehension has been a settled point for decades, and most reading curricula now include phonics to some degree.

But other practices with no basis in research persist. Three-cuing is one such strategy, where children are encouraged to use pictures and context to figure out meaning. Instead, Partnership Regional Superintendent Molly Smith explains, “We want students to build knowledge and understanding of the world around them based on the text in front of them, not on strategies that take them out of the text.”

The amount of phonics instruction that students receive can also be problematic, as reading expert Tim Shanahan notes. At Metro Catholic, Lisa has definitely noticed a difference this year as her school joined the Partnership and began using Core Knowledge Language Arts, a curriculum which adopts a more intensive pace to phonics instruction than what she had used before. As a first-grade teacher, “I was lucky if we got to ‘long a’ at this point; they are doing ‘ou’ now. And they are reading!” She relates the story of a first grader who recently walked up to her teacher and read a Partnership t-shirt that said, “Go Slow to Go Fast.” Proud of reading the words by herself, she turned to the teacher and asked, “Wait—what does that mean?”

Indeed, decoding words doesn’t mean we understand their meaning. That’s one of the reasons why knowledge-building is an important part of research-based reading curricula like those our schools use. As Molly explains, “a base level of content knowledge enables you to absorb more” when you read new material. Someone reading “The O’s beat the A’s 3-2 in the 10th” will understand that sentence more readily if they know Major League Baseball teams, for instance. 

“The Aztecs were hard,” Lisa explains, referring to a recent unit of study in first grade. The emphasis on content knowledge is new for her and her colleagues at Metro as they joined the Partnership this year, and it is definitely a challenge—but one she sees already bearing fruit. For example, students in first grade also learn in English-Language Arts about the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and in a recent religion class, a student recalled that Christianity emerged from Judaism. 

“That’s why I teach,” Lisa explains. “I love it when it all clicks together. Once the light comes on and they realize what they know and how they can apply it, that light stays on—and they crave knowing more.”

Scientific research on learning to read supports other practices as well, such as the use of appropriately complex texts supported by instruction that enables all readers in a class to access them. Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee explained in a series of blog posts over a decade ago that “teaching with this approach can be more challenging, particularly in schools where many students are far behind grade level. A great deal more scaffolding is needed.” Those scaffolding techniques are at the core of much of the professional development Partnership teachers now receive.

Why Now?

If research has clearly pointed to such strategies as ample phonics and knowledge-building for over a decade, why are they only now gaining such prominence in national conversations? Molly Smith agrees with the Sold a Story podcast’s observation: “For all the downsides of kids needing to learn from home during the pandemic,” she explains, “the upside was that parents saw the complexity of learning to read for the first time. Before, when they were just reading at home with their children at night, they may have seen struggles but not understood why they were happening.” 

She adds, “curriculum is a business, and often profits come first, ahead of kids. For parents, that is infuriating. The only way it changes is if the consumer changes–from the school to the parents. Parents are participating more enthusiastically around the question of what curriculum our children are consuming, and in this case, they are advocating for a curriculum that works.” 

For more on the research behind the reading curricula Partnership Schools use, click here and here; you can access the Sold a Story podcast through most podcast apps. 

“Transforming love and truth”: Pope Benedict on Catholic Education

Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy is multifaceted, and it includes a rich vision for Catholic education. As those of us in the Partnership join Catholics around the world in praying for the repose of his soul, we have a unique way to honor him: as Catholic educators, we can take a moment to see our work as he did.

 A talk that the former pontiff gave in 2012 to teachers and professors in Washington, D.C. touches on many of the themes he returned to often in his career as a scholar and church leader. Among his insights:

  • Catholic schools are places to encounter “transforming love and truth.”

When students really come to know Jesus Christ in our schools, they are invited into a revelation of how they are loved by God, and how beautiful truth permeates creation. It is nothing less than this relationship with “the living God” that should animate our school days.

  •  The truth we teach is more than “factual data.”

Pope Benedict had long defended the existence of objective truth in a world that prefers subjectivity. He also called the truth of the Gospel “creative and life-changing.” He called this “performative” truth—so compelling that encountering it causes us and our students to grow and change.

  •  We should spend more time forming students for freedom.

In his years as a scholar, Pope Benedict grew concerned that the notion of freedom was being “distorted” in contemporary cultures. “Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in—a participation in being itself,” he explained in Washington. There is no true freedom where there is not also faith in God, he asserted, and he reflected that “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will.”

  • Schools’ Catholic identity comes from how we are, not who our students are.

He declared that a “school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction—do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear?” 

  • “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”

Pope Benedict heard those voices suggesting either that the Church should concentrate on work other than that of schools, or that Catholic schools have little value for the wider community. He pushed back against both. “Do not abandon the school apostolate,” he urged; “indeed, renew your commitment to schools especially those in poorer areas.”

Our work, then, involves knowing we are loved by God, passing the truth of that love on to our students, letting it change us and the world around us, giving our students the tools they need to freely choose that love, and doing all of this for young people in marginalized communities. Seen this way—as Pope Benedict XVI saw it—the work of Catholic schools is a daily practice of hope in a world that could use more of it.