Posted on January 5, 2023

In Memphis, the Phonics Movement Comes to High School

Sarah Mervosh, New York Times, December 25, 2022

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. {snip}

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.

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.


In Memphis, which faced enrollment declines during the pandemic, 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 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.


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 adjacent consonants that make one sound, as in “rabbit,” and silent vowels. 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.


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.


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.