Literacy lessons are embedded in every academic class. Even in biology.
MEMPHIS — For much of his life, Roderick, a high school junior, did not enjoy reading. As a boy, he trudged through picture books that his mother encouraged him to read. As a teenager, he has sometimes wrestled with complex texts at school.
“I would read, and I’d go back and reread,” he said. “It’s just stressful.”
But recently, he said, he has made strides, in part because of an unusual and sweeping high school literacy curriculum in Memphis.
The program focuses on expanding vocabulary and giving teenagers reading strategies — such as decoding words — that build upon fundamentals taught in elementary school. The curriculum is embedded not just in English, but also in math, science and social studies.
With his new tools, Roderick studied “I Have a Dream,” the speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — no longer skipping unfamiliar words, but instead circling them to discern their meaning. And when scanning sports news on ESPN in his free time, he knew to break down bigger words, like the “re/negotia/tion” of a player’s contract.
The instruction “helped me understand,” said Roderick, 17, who is on the honor roll at Oakhaven High School and is preparing to take the ACT. (He and other students, interviewed with parental permission, are being identified by their first names to protect their privacy.)
The program in Memphis is an extension of a growing national movement to change the way younger children are taught to read, based on what has become known as “the science of reading.” And it is a sign of how sharply the pendulum has swung in the decades-long, contentious debate over reading instruction, moving away from a flexible “balanced literacy” approach that has put less emphasis on sounding out words, and toward more explicit, systematic teaching of phonics.
Brain science has shown that reading is not automatic, and longstanding research supports the need for sequenced sound-it-out instruction, along with books that build vocabulary and knowledge.
Since 2021, Tennessee and more than a dozen other states have passed laws or policies reshaping reading instruction, according to Education Week.
But reform has largely centered on the early years, kindergarten through third grade, and millions of students have already progressed beyond those grades without getting the full support that they needed.
Nationwide, two in three eighth graders are not reading with proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous exam overseen by the U.S. Education Department. Nearly one in three falls “below basic,” meaning they have not demonstrated even partial mastery of the comprehension and analysis skills expected for their age.
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Reading difficulties cut across all demographic groups. About one in five eighth graders from middle- and higher-income families and a similar share of students with at least one college-educated parent are reading below a basic level. Among Asian and white eighth graders, who scored highest overall, about 15 to 20 percent have not achieved partial mastery.
The situation is often most acute, though, in communities with fewer resources. Shelby County, which includes Memphis, has one of the highest concentrations of school-age children living in poverty, at more than 30 percent, and the Memphis-Shelby County school district trails many other large school districts on the national exam. About half of its eighth graders are reading below a basic level, and most are not proficient.
Tennessee has aggressively pushed for statewide change. Last year, the state’s Republican legislature and governor, Bill Lee, passed a law that required all elementary schoolteachers be trained in a phonics-based approach, with optional literacy training for middle and high school teachers. More than 40,000 teachers have participated in the training so far, according to the state’s education department.
“This is the most important thing we can do in public schools right now,” said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee’s education commissioner, of the literacy focus.
In Memphis, which is facing declining enrollment, district leaders are applying lessons from the science of reading to high school students. That includes basic phonics for some who need it. But every student — including top performers — is learning to break down new vocabulary words, part by part. “It helps all of the students,” said Oakhaven’s principal, Jocelyn Mosby.
At the start of each academic class at Oakhaven, students spend 15 minutes or so learning vocabulary and pulling the words apart. In biology, for example, students wrote down the definition of “prophase” (the first stage of cell division) and identified the prefix (“pro” means forward) before diving into the material.
Some educators question whether the current movement has gone too far, focusing too much on the mechanics, and not enough on the real goal: reading in order to learn.
But leaders in Memphis, rejecting a “Band-Aid” approach, say they are trying to get to the core of the problem.
“When you realize that students are missing skills, I don’t care where they are, from ninth to 12th grade, we have to stop and we have to address it,” said the Rev. Althea Greene, chair of the board for Memphis-Shelby County Schools.
The Journey to High School
At Oakhaven, 400 or so students walk in the door each day, some reading above grade level, others on an elementary level.
Students can struggle with reading for many reasons: the impact of poverty and trauma, the challenge of learning English as a second language, learning disabilities, the quality of instruction. About 73 percent of students at Oakhaven are considered economically disadvantaged. The student body is mostly Black but also includes a growing Hispanic population, including recent immigrants.
Some students may also have missed out on important reading instruction early on.
In the early to mid-2010s, when high schoolers today were in elementary school, many schools practiced — and still practice — “balanced literacy,” which focuses on fostering a love of books and storytelling. Instruction may include some phonics, but also other strategies, like prompting children to use context clues — such as pictures — to guess words, a technique that has been heavily criticized for turning children away from the letters themselves.
For at least part of the time, Memphis was using a popular curriculum called Journeys. Its publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, described it in a statement as a comprehensive program “grounded in research and backed by scientific evidence,” with daily, systematic instruction on literacy skills, including phonics, and “a variety of resources to support teachers.”
But Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied reading, described the program as “the legacy of balanced literacy” because it offers teachers many options, some more effective than others.
“There are things in there that would allow teachers to teach many different ways — and that is the problem,” he said.
Dr. Schwinn, the Tennessee education commissioner, said that under balanced literacy, the state met the needs of only some children for whom reading comes relatively easily — perhaps 40 percent, by some estimates. “We had gotten to those kids,” she said. “But there were a lot of others we hadn’t addressed.”
Catching up can be difficult. In fourth grade, schools typically transition from teaching students how to read to expecting students to use reading to learn.
And in older grades, teachers often are not trained in literacy.
Tamarah Brandon, an English teacher at Oakhaven, has a bachelor’s degree in English and African American studies and a master’s in curriculum and instruction. None of it, she said, covered how to teach reading.
She and other teachers are now getting trained at Oakhaven. During a presentation this month, Ebony Shaw, an administrator who coaches teachers, made a point by displaying text in Russian.
“Everything is scrambled,” one teacher observed.
“This is how most of our students feel when they are looking at text in our classroom,” Ms. Shaw said.
Phonics, Vocabulary and More
For some Oakhaven students, filling in gaps means going back to the beginning.
In an intensive class focused on phonics, ninth graders recently learned about silent vowels and adjacent consonants that make one sound, as in “rabbit.” Students were mostly enthusiastic, competing to spell “repel” and giggling through an example about “dandruff.” After years of frustration, breakthroughs can feel exciting — and empowering.
One student said her grades had improved, and she was thinking about reading “The Vampire Diaries” novels, an undertaking, she said, that she previously would not have considered.
Literacy, though, is embedded in all academic classes. To boost comprehension, students learn about prefixes, root words and suffixes — for example that “bene” means good or “audi” means hear.
Illyse, a sophomore, found the strategy useful. “Big words,” she said, “come from smaller words.”
Vocabulary is also important. In English class, students recently learned words like “dopamine” and “cognitive” before reading a passage about thrill seeking.
“You can do a lot with really explicit vocabulary instruction,” said Danielle Dennis, interim dean of the College of Education at the University of Rhode Island.
It is also a balance. “If we spend a lot of time with that explicit vocabulary, around the word ‘photosynthesis,’ at what point do we get into the actual study of photosynthesis?” Dr. Dennis said.
Officials in Memphis hope that their literacy focus and other investments, like tutoring, are paying off. The district recently received the state’s highest rating for academic growth for the first time in seven years.
Still, just 21 percent of students districtwide are meeting state standards in English.
“We’ve been promised so much for so long,” said Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent network for families assigned to low-performing schools, who said that children cannot afford to wait years to see gains. The group is taking matters into its own hands and hiring an independent reading specialist to assess children at its office in north Memphis.
One mother in the network, Trinca Richardson, said her daughter, a junior in high school, seemed more engaged with reading this year, but “I think she probably would have been much better if she would have got it earlier,” she said. Her daughter is making plans to graduate early and may pursue a career as a hair stylist.
At Oakhaven, Devin, 15, is celebrating each step forward.
His mother died when he was young, his father said, adding stress to Devin’s elementary years. For a long time, Devin said, he felt “stupid” because reading did not come easily.
Now, he said he was tackling reading in an entirely new way — and slowly gaining confidence. He smiled recalling a recent test that indicated he was reading faster and more accurately. And he has noticed that some challenging words, like “traumatize,” do not trip him up so much.
He once dreamed of becoming a football player. These days, he thinks he would rather get a regular job, maybe in real estate.
“I’m proud,” he said, “of what I’m knowing and learning.”
Kitty Bennett and Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.