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KDKA Investigates: With one-third of American kids unable to read at grade level, schools are returning to phonics

KDKA Investigates: The fundamentals of reading
KDKA Investigates: The fundamentals of reading 04:25

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Reading, writing and arithmetic are the basic fundamentals of learning. However, it turns out kids are having a real problem with reading these days. 

There's a crisis in reading, and scores across America are abysmal, but kids in Penn Hills and in other school districts are making significant progress by getting back to the basics: phonics. 

KDKA-TV visited a second grade reading class and it may have looked like just that, but it's a rescue mission, rescuing kids from a life of illiteracy. 

"You can change their lives. I mean that. You can change their lives. The whole course of their life can be different when they are taught how to read," said Kristen Marino, a reading specialist at Penn Hills School District.

Studies show that if kids don't learn how to read proficiently by third grade, they'll likely fall hopelessly behind, with real-life consequences and real-life failures. 

These days, about one-third of American kids cannot read at grade level, but the failure is not theirs. School districts across the country have failed in their obligation to properly teach them.

"Our scores were not where we wanted them to be. They were below proficiency levels. We knew we needed to do better for our kids," said Penn Hills Elementary School Principal Kristin Brown. 

For years, Penn Hills and other school districts used a reading curriculum that was all the rage: the whole language approach. Pioneered by an academic guru named Lucy Calkins, districts across the country abandoned traditional phonics and began to teach kids to identify words by sight and memorization, encouraging them to guess at words in the context of a sentence, a process called "cueing." 

Now, educators across the country acknowledge that curriculum was a failure. 

"The lack of emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness definitely resulted in the basically abysmal scores we saw in the past," said Dr. Jala Olds-Pearson, chief academics officer at Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

In Pittsburgh's public schools, under former Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, the district spent $4 million on a curriculum called "ReadyGen," which critics say lacks foundational phonics. 

Currently, reading scores in the district are at crisis levels, especially in elementary schools where the students are mostly African-American. For example, Miller Elementary in the Hill District has 47% of the third graders who can't read at grade level, and while 50% are reading at basic levels, only 3% are proficient in reading. In 2023, the district has discontinued ReadyGen.

"In my review of the program, it did not meet the requirements based upon the science of reading that we're following," Dr. Olds-Pearson said. 

"I think our test scores showed we did not get the results we wanted to see," she said. 

In Pittsburgh, they're going back to basics in 2023 by teaching foundational phonics. In Penn Hills, second graders started in kindergarten to learn phonics, recognizing consonants and vowels and sounding out the words they spell.  

They won't be tested on reading until 2024, but already the teachers say they're confident the majority are well on their way to becoming proficient readers. Based on the success, the district's reading specialists like Marino are now intervening with fourth, fifth and sixth graders to give them the basics they never got.  

"I had one little boy say to me last year, 'I'm stupid.' I said, 'You absolutely are not.' And I wanted to build him up. I reached out to his mom as well. 'It's not your fault if you weren't taught the right way.' We know how to teach the correct way and we're going to do that. This is like boot camp," Marino said. 

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