A plea to Kentucky’s teachers

Seize ownership of the push to change reading instruction. Crisis numbers of young Kentuckians won’t learn until they’re taught the way their brains demand.

By: - Thursday December 22, 2022 5:50 am

A plea to Kentucky’s teachers

Seize ownership of the push to change reading instruction. Crisis numbers of young Kentuckians won’t learn until they’re taught the way their brains demand.

By: - 5:50 am

Teachers filled the Kentucky House gallery on April 13, 2018. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Teachers filled the Kentucky House gallery on April 13, 2018. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

I get why teachers in Kentucky are suspicious of almost anything coming out of the GOP-controlled legislature. Republicans earned that distrust through words and deeds, most notoriously the surprise attack on teachers’ pensions in 2018.

I’m begging educators to see beyond the poisonous political atmosphere and seize ownership of a push to change reading instruction. 

Lawmakers launched the effort earlier this year with bipartisan support. It’s backed by $32 million from state sources.

Teachers understandably bristle at having any new demands piled onto their already overflowing plates. I get that too. But this is not just another hoop to jump through. 

What’s at stake is central to everything we hope for our young people. 

What’s at stake are crisis numbers of young Kentuckians who are not learning to read. 

And they won’t learn until they are taught the way their brains demand. 

I take this personally.

My daughter was part of that large group of children who cannot crack the code without instruction steeped in phonics by a teacher knowledgeable in how the brain processes language.

My daughter would listen for hours while I read but had resigned herself to a life of illiteracy. With science-based instruction, she cracked the code and became a proficient reader. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Jamie Lucke)

She would happily listen for hours as I read Harry Potter or “Little House on the Prairie” but by age 7 had resigned herself to a life of illiteracy. 

“I don’t read” was what she first told the speech therapist who led the practice where she would, in fact, learn to read, in fairly short order.

With the right teaching she was whizzing through chapter books by third grade and later maxing out reading comprehension on college-entrance exams.

Rewards will flow swiftly, I predict, to schools that adopt a science-based approach to teaching reading.

My family story is admittedly one of privilege. Teachers at my daughter’s small private Montessori School in Lexington referred us to professionals who employed a multi-sensory approach: Some combinations of letters are roof-scrapers (touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth), some are lip-poppers (self-explanatory).

At home she practiced “Earobics,” an online “game” developed by the Chicago public schools. 

My employer gave me flexibility to take her to the after-school lessons for which my health insurance helped pay. My daughter also had the advantage of living in a word-rich environment, surrounded by recreational readers.

Kids who grow up in word-poor environments, or in homes where English is not the first language, might figure out the decoding yet struggle with comprehension and will need teaching to fill that gap in their experiences. 

The bottom line is, all kids can learn, most at high levels, but not unless they get the science-based teaching that identifies and fills their needs. Senate Bill 9, enacted earlier this year, puts Kentucky on that path. But we won’t get there without broad buy-in from all levels of education.

Buy-in needed

Already there is progress: 1,800 Kentucky educators, most teachers in the early grades, have begun an intensive, two-year course in which they will gain the knowledge and practical skills to effectively teach reading. (The less good news is there were slots for another 600 to sign up.)

School administrators, school boards and colleges of education must get behind the effort, including offering supports and incentives for teachers to retool.

My daughter’s diagnosis was lack of phonemic awareness and delays in auditory processing, which refers not to how the ear works but how the brain hears and decodes.

Experts estimate that 60% of children need explicit and systematic phonics instruction to become able readers. Without it, reading will always be a chore for half of that group, and half will never be readers. Some, like my daughter, will need specialized interventions, while many will get what they need from 20 minutes of phonics instruction a day. 

In the 20-plus years since my daughter cracked the code, I wondered many times how schools were responding to the needs of children like her. Or, more to the point, if they were responding. Yet, when I heard that, phonics instruction had all but been abandoned in the very many years since I learned to read, I thought that had to be an exaggeration, because how can you teach reading without phonics?

I feel terrible that I waited until now to use my platform as a journalist to explore the subject. Because, sure enough, many schools now provide little to no explicit instruction in decoding the printed word. 

Alarming data

The results are alarming. Kentucky was losing ground in reading even before COVID-19’s disruptions. Half of Kentucky’s third graders fell short of proficiency in 2019, according to state tests. The downward trend is continuing. Reading proficiency among Kentucky’s fourth-graders ranks its lowest since Kentucky began participating in the 50-state National Assessment of Educational Progress. Just 31 percent of Kentucky’s fourth-graders were proficient readers in 2022, which was still good enough to rank Kentucky 29th among states, suggesting this challenge is not unique to us.

My hat is off to Mandy McLaren whose reporting in The Courier Journal has driven home the urgency of change. McLaren, who majored in broadcast journalism and political science and then taught in New Orleans as part of Teach for America, is off to The Boston Globe, where she will be part of a six-person team covering education.

I told her I would keep an eye on the reading beat in Kentucky. Please, share with me your observations and concerns.

I won’t venture into the pedagogical debate over reading instruction except to say that it’s fierce, the warring camps entrenched and the conflict heartbreakingly self-defeating. It took four years for a reading bill, backed by the Kentucky Department of Education, to get through the legislature. 

Kentucky cannot waste more time. The wrong that’s being done to our children demands a crisis response.

Today’s students have the most at stake, obviously. But teachers and principals also stand to be deeply rewarded by change. A school where more children are reading at higher levels will be a happier, more productive place for all.


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Jamie Lucke
Jamie Lucke

Jamie Lucke has more than 40 years of experience as a journalist. Her editorials for the Lexington Herald-Leader won Walker Stone, Sigma Delta Chi and Green Eyeshade awards. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky.