Ohio embraced the 'science of reading.' Now a popular reading program is suing

FILE - Books sit on shelves in an elementary school library in suburban Atlanta, on Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. The battle over how to teach reading has landed in court. With momentum shifting in favor of research-backed strategies known as the science of reading, states and some school districts have been ditching once popular programs amid concerns that they arent effective. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr., File) (Harkim Wright Sr., Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The battle over how to teach reading has landed in court.

With momentum shifting in favor of research-backed strategies known as the “science of reading,” states and some school districts have been ditching once popular programs amid concerns that they aren’t effective.

A legal fight in Ohio centers on a state ban of material that uses a common technique called three-cueing. It involves encouraging students to draw on meaning, sentence structure and visual clues to identify words, asking questions like: “What is going to happen next?,” “What is the first letter of the word?” or “What clues do the pictures offer?”

The technique is a key part of the Reading Recovery program used in more than 2,400 U.S. elementary schools. The Reading Recovery Council of North America filed a lawsuit earlier this month, saying lawmakers infringed on the powers of state and local education boards by using a budget bill to ban three-cueing.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, blasted the lawsuit, calling evidence in favor of the science of reading “abundantly clear.”

“Now we have a lawsuit being filed by people who just want to make money,” he told reporters this week. “They’re upset that they’re not going to be able to make money anymore. They don’t care about kids, and I think Ohioans ought to be very angry about that type of a lawsuit.”

The Reading Recovery Council, the nonprofit that operates the program, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. But it said on the platform formerly known as Twitter that it will fight for evidence-based reading instruction “as defined by educators and researchers, not politicians and corporate interests.”

Proponents of the science of reading argue students need detailed instruction on the building blocks of reading. The push was led by parents of children with dyslexia, who need systematic instruction to read. It gained steam during the pandemic as schools looked for ways to regain ground lost during the pandemic.

Reading Recovery is not the only program to find itself on the outs.

Last month, the Columbia University’s Teachers College announced it was shutting down a reading program that also employed three-cueing and was founded by education guru Lucy Calkins.

Once used in hundreds of New York City public schools and thousands of others nationwide, Calkins’ “Units of Study” found itself facing scrutiny. Calkins added more phonics to appease her critics, but it was too late.

New York City, whose mayor often talks about his personal struggle with dyslexia, dropped her program. And several other states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Virginia, have banned schools from using methods based on three-cueing.

Mike McGovern, president of the International Dyslexia Association of Central Ohio, said his organization is behind the governor in the legal fight.

“It’s about money,” he said, of the lawsuit. “Like any business they have to fight back.”

In Ohio, the latest state operating budget bill stipulates that by the next school year, all schools must use reading programs that have been approved by the state.

In its lawsuit, the Worthington, Ohio-based Reading Recovery Council of North America argued a budget bill cannot set policy. Under the state’s constitution, that role is left to the state Board of Education — some of whose members also have sued the state over budget provisions that restructure the state’s Education Department and curtail their authority.

Under the state law, which the suit describes as “contradictory, and indecipherable,” the only time three-cuing is allowed is if a district get a waiver or the approach is part of a student’s special education plan.

One recent blow to the program is a federally funded study that found students who received the program’s intensive one-on-one help as struggling first-graders had lower test scores years later than a similar cohort that didn’t participate.

The study’s lead author, Henry May, said he was “flabbergasted” by the result.

“From an evaluation perspective, what that means to me is, in the long term, the program is potentially harmful,” said May, director of the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at the University of Delaware.

The main problem is that three-cueing emphasizes using clues besides the actual spelling of a word, creating problems once students don't have pictures to help, said Jill Allor, an education professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She said older students then have to unlearn the habit of guessing.

“It is just inconsistent," she said, "with the science behind how reading develops and also the evidence about which programs are the most effective.”

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Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.

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