Midland ISD makes move to phonics

For the 2023-24 school year — which officially starts Wednesday — Reading Language Arts curricula will add a phonics-based approach.

It replaces the whole-language approach, a method districts across the nation for years have implemented but that now is being abandoned en masse for an approach rooted in the science of teaching reading. Recent research has shown phonics is a more effective way to teach young children to read.

For MISD, the data shows action must be taken, a news release stated.

“In the 2022-23 school year, only 56% percent of third graders were reading at grade level according to NWEA MAP data. It’s unacceptable, and we must act with a sense of urgency to provide a better learning experience for our students,” said Associate Superintendent Ashley Osborne, who just half a year into her new role at MISD is championing the shift in literacy instruction along with other district and campus leaders, as well as teachers.

“Reading is the foundation of all other learning, and literacy has a strong tie to success as adults,” Osborne added. “We work to ensure that all students are prepared and ready for college or career, and establishing solid literacy skills is a key component to realizing our mission.”

Phonics isn’t new. Dating back to the 1830s with the publication of the “McGuffey Readers” series of books, the method — which focuses on teaching the sounds of words — was long a mainstay in reading instruction.

However, in the past few decades the trend moved to the whole-language model, whose approach focuses on word meaning within context and relation to other words.

“For us, there’s no debate: Students deserve the best instruction possible, and when it comes to reading instruction, particularly for our youngest learners, phonics is the most-effective method according to the vast body of research available,” Osborne said.

Reading instruction isn’t just for the youngest students. MISD’s structured literacy approach — which will see a consistent reading curriculum across all classrooms in the district — has been built from the ground up to teach reading to students in kindergarten through ninth grade.

“Older students who were taught via the whole-language method are included in the phonics curriculum,” said Andrea Messick, Executive Director of Teaching & Learning. “That’s why we’re implementing a suite of methods that teaches children phonics from the outset and catches any students who didn’t have phonics in their primary years.”

MISD’s main reading curriculum resource will be Amplify Texas, which is approved by the Texas Education Agency as a high-quality instructional material that is designed to meet 100 percent of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Amplify Texas was used in a pilot program at Alamo Junior High and several elementary schools in the 2022-23 school year.

“I was very impressed by the results I saw in our seventh and eighth graders,” said Claudia Valenzuela, who served as principal at Alamo last year and is currently the Director of Teaching and Learning for the district.

As someone who was taught the whole-language model as a child, Valenzuela said she is thrilled that MISD is moving to phonics. “Plain and simple: It’s just more effective, and our kids deserve the best,” she said in the release.

A trio of supplemental resources from Curriculum Associates will be used alongside Amplify Texas to fill the gaps. Magnetic Reading Foundations will assist students in kindergarten through second grade. Third through sixth grade students will use Phonics for Reading, which is targeted specifically for this age group. The net is even wider with Personalized Instruction from iReady. All students from kindergarten through ninth grade will use this resource, which provides an individualized pathway to meet students’ needs. Additionally, teachers will have access to small-group lessons specifically designed with student skill gaps in mind.

Reading proficiency data only tells one part of the story of the need to change how the district teaches reading.

Superintendent Stephanie Howard took the reins as superintendent in January this year. During intensive listen-and-learn sessions with staff, Howard and her team heard much about reading from teachers. They made clear their struggles wrought by not having a consistent, districtwide reading curriculum, which ultimately has negatively affected students’ reading success.

“As a system, we needed to do a better job,” Osborne said. “We listened to teachers, and we’re acting to make sure that they are receiving the support and materials they need so that our students can excel.”

All educators involved in reading instruction are receiving professional development on the new curriculum and the tools MISD will use to raise student literacy levels. Plus, MISD now has two dedicated coordinators with whom teachers can consult when they have questions, need help or want to share their ideas and experiences.

Literacy is critical for academic success.

“A student who can’t read will fail in all other content areas,” Messick said in the release. “By moving to a phonics-based reading curriculum, we’re confident students will see a lift as a whole academically.”

Literacy is also critical for personal success.

“Students who have strong reading comprehension have greater self-esteem,” Messick said. “And they’ll carry this confidence with them beyond graduation.”