Study finds scientific, phonics-based reading significantly improves literacy

(The Center Square) – Scientific, phonics-based reading programs in California serving the state’s 75 worst-performing schools comparatively accelerated reading learning by 25% and boosted math…

(The Center Square) – Scientific, phonics-based reading programs in California serving the state’s 75 worst-performing schools comparatively accelerated reading learning by 25% and boosted math advancement by 12% relative to students in schools that didn’t adopt the programs, according to a new study from Stanford researchers.

At a cost of $1,144 per pupil per year, the program increased educational attainment at ⅓ the cost of Project STAR’s classroom size reduction programs and 13 times more than a generalized increase in school spending in California.

First noting how early literacy provides the foundation for longer term academic success, the study explains how California’s Early Literacy Support Block Grant was created to implement “science of reading” phonics-based literacy programs at California’s 75 lowest-performing elementary schools across the state after a lawsuit found the schools failed to meet students’ constitutional right to an education based on the fact “an education that does not provide access to literacy cannot be called an education at all.” In addition to the $50 million directly for ELSBG, another $3 million was allocated for program management under the Sacramento County Office of Education. 

Under the program, schools conducted literacy assessments, completed assessment-based literacy action plans, provided phonics-based supports for teachers, students, parents and communities, allowed for flexibility in program spending within specific parameters, and included access to the Sacramento County Office of Education as an “expert lead in literacy” running the spending bloc program. Expenditure categories included literacy teaching, materials and assessment tools for teachers, support for students such as tutoring and after-school programs, and engagement with families and communities via outreach and training. Recipient schools also were required to submit quarterly reports proving expenditures were consistent with the approved budget and annual reports exploring progress towards the goals outlined in their literacy action plans to continue receiving funding. 

The phonics-based teaching method, also called science of reading, is based on five sequential pillars: first, building phonemic awareness (an understanding of individual sounds and sound pairs), phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and then comprehension.

The study’s lead author, Stanford PhD. student Sarah Novicoff, says it’s this combination of oversight, flexibility and tailor-made programming that made the scientific, phonics-based ELSBG program a success. 

“As policymakers and practitioners advocates think about expanding science of reading programming, I encourage them to think of this blend of oversight and support that we see being especially helpful in this context,” Novicoff said. 

“This program does include additional funding for schools and there’s a lot of research that shows money matters, and this is another piece of evidence in that literature. The effect size that we see says yes, the money mattered, but a lot of this implementation design — the support schools were given, the training teachers received, that matters as well,” continued Novicoff. 

Novicoff also noted that the study’s main findings were through comparison and in difference between where the schools would have been absent the grant. While the grant improved reading learning by 25%, what this translated to in real world testing was a 6 percentage point increase in reading reaching level two (partially meeting standards) or higher on the English/Language Arts portion of the Common Core State Standards test, a standardized test created to provide a baseline for academic achievement on a national scale across public school systems. The ELSBG program increased achievement of students at level three or higher (approaching standards) by 4.98 percentage points, and level four or higher (at or above standards). While these numbers may sound small, given how low initial testing results were before the program, these improvements amount to a 42% increase in students at level 3 or above and 59% increase in students at level 4 or above, suggesting the program had a significant impact on the relative number of students approaching or passing literacy standards.

With the majority of California students not meeting basic math and literacy standards, these improvements are notable and could inform further changes to the state’s reading programs on a larger scale. California’s new Literacy Coaches and Reading Specialists program is bringing $500 million to approximately 800 schools statewide, and will allow the ELSBG recipients to continue with many of their efforts, but this new program does have a different methodology and may be more or less successful than the ELSBG program. 

School funding is proven to be correlated with a positive impact on student outcomes, and while California allocated an additional $3,018 per student for the 2023-2024 fiscal year budget, bringing per student annual spending by the state up to $16,933, or higher than the national average of $15,446 per student reported by EdSource, this figure does not include local spending, which is often approximately 40% of what is spent per student, which means the typical California average likely increased from roughly $24,000 to $27,000 per public school student. 

However, given the California Legislative Analyst’s Office new estimate that the state faces a $68 billion deficit for the coming 2024-2025 fiscal year currently being budgeted for, it’s likely education will be first on the budget cutting block. During the Great Recession, California cut school budgets by over $2,000 per student, leading to significant increases in classroom size.