Not as Easy as ABC: Santa Barbara Schools Tackle Literacy

New Reading Program Combines Phonetics with Good Literature

Not as Easy as ABC:
Santa Barbara Schools Tackle Literacy

New Reading Program Combines
Phonetics with Good Literature

By Callie Fausey | November 15, 2023

Dyslexia activists Monie de Wit (left) and Cheri Rae (right) have dedicated their lives to demystifying the reading process and advocating for those who are often left behind. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

I can’t fully recall how I learned to read; it just seemed to click. I vaguely remember my mom using flash cards to teach me how to sound out letters, and that’s about it. I was one of the lucky ones — I picked up reading relatively easily. 

But I do understand the challenges of teaching kids to read. For several years during college, I worked for Engage Literacy, an after-school tutoring program.

One of my younger students, whom I’ll call Ben, was an adorable little monster. He had huge brown eyes, a nearly bald head, and a big ol’ smile with a small gap between his front teeth. When he was 5, the only way he’d pay attention was if I let him sit on my lap while we took turns sounding out the words in a story. 

But he was crafty. He’d memorize and recite the words from his favorite basketball- and dinosaur-themed books, rather than actually read them. His trick, to his dramatic exasperation, never worked on me. I called him out when I noticed him fumbling through the pages (he’d get every other word wrong), and we’d pick a brand-new book to start over. 

By the time I graduated college, Ben was 8 years old. Whether he liked it or not, he could read. (He did not like it.)

In their implementation of a new literacy curriculum, the Santa Barbara Unified School District is kind of like Ben and me. They’re sounding out words, picking new books, and starting over. Hopefully, it will have the same result, and students will learn to read.

For decades, reading scores in Santa Barbara have been disparagingly low. Throughout the district, reading was being taught by a patchwork of methods, few of which were evidence-based, and according to reading test scores, none were working. 

But this year, the school district has implemented a new $1.7 million curriculum — “Wit & Wisdom” by Great Minds and “Fundations” by Wilson Language Training. The new program claims to be grounded in scientific research on how children actually learn to read. It emphasizes phonics instruction — teaching kids to sound out letters, combined with “knowledge-building” literature.

Santa Barbara educators believe it could be the proverbial shovel needed to dig student literacy rates out of the hole they’ve been stuck in for years.

In with the New

Backed by “the science of reading,” phonics-based instruction is a shift away from the contentious Whole Language or Balanced Literacy approach, which teaches students to focus on context or the first initial of a word to determine its meaning. Its critics have accused it of being tantamount to guessing. The differing approaches ignited a longstanding national debate over reading instruction, or “the reading wars,” that schools are still grappling with.

Introduced around 15 years ago, the district’s Balanced Literacy curriculum rested upon the Units of Study program by Columbia professor Lucy Calkins. Popular in schools around the country, it is now blamed for putting a chokehold on national literacy rates for decades. Overall, it was a big hodgepodge of well-intentioned but ultimately misguided approaches based on little more than magical thinking. A few years ago, even Calkins gave in to the wave of criticism and added a phonics component to her curriculum. But it was too little, too late. 

Kids might have been learning a lot of different things in school, but barely 50 percent of them came out on the other side knowing how to read.

Teaching kids how to read, however, is not as easy as throwing money into some new materials.

As I’ve learned since first reporting on this shift in instruction back in May, it’s not that simple. 

Not even close. 

Bad Grades

Poor reading rates have plagued the United States with little improvement since testing began in the 1990s, when nearly 40 percent of 4th-grade students were “below basic” in reading achievement — the lowest level in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a federal exam considered the “nation’s report card.” 

On the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), reading proficiency rates are at the bottom of the barrel, staying around 50 percent from 2014 until now. The fact that less than half of students statewide can read at grade level has been all but normalized.

In Santa Barbara Unified, the percentage of students reading at grade level was 54 percent in 2018-19. After a pandemic-related drop in scores, it rebounded to 50 percent in 2022-23. 

Across Santa Barbara County, reading proficiency averaged 39.17 percent in 2023. For children of color, low-income students, emergent multilingual learners, and those with learning disabilities, the numbers are much, much more damning. 

When you look at the whole picture, though, it becomes clear that even these assessments are flawed. Instruction has indeed failed many students to the point of impeding performance. Still, poor reading scores can also be blamed on assessments that rely too heavily on general knowledge and language skills, and often do not match what is going on in the classroom. 

In a word: It’s all a mess. 

Change was long overdue, but the question now is whether the district and the community can commit to turning the page. 

“Seeing Red” is an art piece created by Cheri Rae’s son using a homework assignment from when he was an SBUSD student in 2011. The red markings and “0/20” grade correspond with the broken heart at the bottom, representing how the harsh feedback made him feel. | Credit: Monie Photography

Three Strikes, You’re Out

Santa Barbara Unified’s recent decision to adopt the new curriculum came amid a nationwide “aha!” moment. 

Parents, educators, reporters, and activists, who for years had been questioning why American students couldn’t read, intensified their criticism as more scientific studies were persuasively documenting how humans learn to read. School administrators were waking up to the science that might have been employed from the get-go.

Teachers, specialists, and admin throughout the Santa Barbara Unified School District played a role in selecting this new curriculum, a process that began in January. “Every school was involved, every grade level was represented; we had over 500 years of experience involved with that curriculum adoption,” said Denise Alvarado, executive director of elementary education. 

Over the summer, 86 percent of K–6th grade teachers went through a training program to learn the curriculum, why it is needed, and how it is grounded in the vast neurological and psychological research behind reading and writing development, said Mallory Price, an instructional support specialist for the district. 

At the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, the program was introduced across all elementary schools (except dual-language school McKinley Elementary), reaching nearly 3,000 students in kindergarten through 6th grade. 

Failure to achieve reading proficiency by 3rd grade increases the risk of dropping out or falling behind, with potential long-term consequences — a majority of those incarcerated in the nation’s jails never learned how to read properly. 

Driven by a statewide literacy task force, school districts throughout California are gradually adopting scientifically backed reading programs, so that by 2026, all students will be skilled readers by the end of the 3rd grade. 

This year, Palo Alto Unified in San Diego saw substantial improvements in reading proficiency through teacher training and a science-of-reading program, more than doubling proficiency for low-income Latino 3rd-graders. 

Although Balanced Literacy was appealing on paper — pictures equal words, yay! — it is not how the brain works. Reading isn’t intuitive like speaking is; it requires systematic instruction. Sounding out letters is not an automatic process. Children have to be taught how to “crack the code” of written language.

It’s not like we are brought into this world ready to interpret random squiggles, connect them with sounds, and apply meaning to them. When I began thinking about it like that, reading almost sounded miraculous.

The Scientific Reader

Santa Barbara–based dyslexia advocates Cheri Rae and Monie de Wit have dedicated their lives to demystifying the reading process. Rae said they recommend “thinking like dyslexics — way outside the box.”

When an adult is trying to learn a new language, would it work to just look at a picture book written in Italian and intuit the meaning of each word? No. So, then, “Why do we think that kids are just going to pick it up?” de Wit mused. 

An effective, structured approach for teaching dyslexic learners to read, as it turns out, also works best for all learners. It includes five key components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

The focus of their work is obvious inside de Wit’s studio. It’s full of portraits of people who are dyslexic, including the late Santa Barbara philanthropist Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree. Around the studio, the classroom experiences of dyslexic students are displayed, some in startling detail. One of the most poignant examples is a homework assignment that belonged to Rae’s son when he was a Santa Barbara Unified student in 2011.

Titled “Seeing Red,” it is a small sheet of school notepaper displayed in a handmade frame of red pencils. The paper is covered in red marks lambasting the boy’s handwritten answers. A big “0/20” is marked at the top, inches away from his name. At the bottom of the frame is a big, broken heart. 

It set the tone for her son’s school year: feeling defeated before he even had a chance, a familiar feeling for other dyslexic students, Rae said. “A few grown men have been moved to tears when viewing it because it brought them right back to that awful, powerless place in school.” 

Don’t Stop at Curriculum

When I was reporting this story, I asked everyone if they remembered learning to read. I quickly noticed that those who really remembered were the ones who had a hard time. For those for whom reading was “easy,” their learning process was a mystery; for those for whom it was a struggle, reading was a mystery.

Suzette McCormick, principal of the Santa Barbara Community Academy elementary school, recalled her primary school years in Santa Barbara when the only books in her home were Dr. Seuss and children’s Bible stories. She’d pretend to read by mimicking her brother, but, in reality, it was a challenge for her. “I get the child who doesn’t know how to read,” McCormick said.

Her reading troubles forced her to repeat 1st grade. But that all changed when her father hired a tutor. “It just didn’t come as naturally to me,” she said. “But after I caught on to the code, I took off; there was no stopping.”

McCormick likes how Wit & Wisdom’s texts integrate social studies, science, and the arts, providing students with a “big dose” of knowledge and multiple, thematic perspectives to “dig in deeply.” The importance of surrounding children with high-quality texts is something that both sides of the reading war could agree on. 

But McCormick highlighted the need to teach students how to decode what they’re reading, which they can’t do with good books alone. Wit & Wisdom — launched in the 2016-17 school year, with little opportunity thus far to study its effectiveness — is missing a key component: phonics-based instruction. Its creators acknowledge this and recommend it be paired with a fundamental skills program for younger grades.

Former school board member Ruth Green — and a former president of the State Board of Education — says that the adoption of research-based programs is a “great first step.”

But “now comes the hard part, full stop. If you don’t implement with fidelity — meaning, doing the program, plus guiding what teachers bring to the table —then the job will not get done.” 

Inside the Classroom

Teachers reign over their colorful, postered classrooms like they’re kingdoms, so they are central to the success of the new curriculum.

At 9 a.m. on Tuesday, October 17, Megan Reed, a 6th-grade teacher at Harding Elementary, projected a color-coded hopscotch grid of vocabulary words onto the classroom TV. Her students, sitting in groups in the small, portable classroom, followed along intently as she lifted a Post-It note off a square in the middle column, colored blue for the “meaning” of the word. 

The handwritten words “to suffocate or suppress; unable to breathe,” appeared on the screen. The kids started brainstorming possible definitions together. “Choke,” maybe? 

The word was “smother,” but all the other good guesses were written in a third column labeled “synonyms.” When each new word was revealed, Reed would connect the meaning to what they had read in Out of the Dust — a novel by Karen Hesse about a girl and her family struggling to survive the dust-bowl years of the Depression — using characters and plot points from the book as examples. 

[Click to enlarge] Harding Elementary teacher Megan Reed teaches her 6th-grade class using a new method of vocabulary instruction, based on collaboration and context. She connects what her students learn to what they’ve read in Out of the Dust, which has a dedicated board of essential questions, important ideas, and examples of student work on display in Reed’s classroom. | Credit: Callie Fausey

It exemplified a shift in instruction toward knowledge-based learning, which emphasizes collaboration and context over rote memorization of vocabulary words. But while some teachers and their students are embracing the change, others are not too thrilled about the switch.

Educators district-wide are scrambling to incorporate the new materials into their lesson plans. The curriculum is dense, and many wish they had more comprehensive, upfront training and support from the district. They feel like they’re building the plane as they’re flying it.

This year, the district started a three-year professional development process in the science of reading, namely Orton-Gillingham and “Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling,” or LETRS, by Moats to give teachers the tools and skills they need to handle the curriculum in the classroom.

Green applauded the district for adopting these professional development courses but warned that without the proper teacher instruction and leadership from the top, the implementation will go off the rails, and old problems could repeat themselves. She worries they haven’t spent enough time bringing teachers up to speed. “Balanced literacy is a lot easier to teach than drilling down on phonemic awareness,” she said.

One anonymous 4th-grade teacher at Harding Elementary likened the professional development to a “sales pitch.” Although she thinks the new curriculum is “far better” than what they were doing before, she struggles with students reading below grade level who need additional support. Some students lack vocabulary, while others can’t decode the words. In response, she relies on tools from previous years to help, such as grade-level “text cards” for reading and practicing comprehension questions. 

Some of the new content is so unfamiliar that it requires teachers to do additional research, which can be frustrating. “If we’re reading about survival and kids ask about tying knots, I have no idea how to answer that,” she said.

Teachers also expressed frustration with insufficient paid preparation time over the summer, and many now sacrifice their Sundays to ensure they’re ready for the week. The new curriculum means taking an extra 30 minutes every day to prep a 20-minute lesson.

“There’s not enough time for everything,” said one anonymous teacher. “You have to choose the most important things from the lesson to focus on. It’s not going to be an easy year because of it.”

Cathy Neushul, a 4th-grade teacher from Washington Elementary, said that while there are “wonderful aspects” of Wit & Wisdom, there are “missing components,” such as daily writing activities and spelling practice, that she supplements “to get the whole enchilada.” However, she did add that the Wit & Wisdom creators “seem to be taking teachers’ notes to accommodate their suggestions.”

Dee Carter-Brown, a 2nd-grade teacher at Harding Elementary, uses the new Fundations program to teach phonics with digraphs of consonants and vowels, which students follow along with by pinching their fingers to count the sounds. She believes it’s a good program but worries it’s moving too quickly, wishing for more opportunities to observe and practice it in the classroom.

“I have to tell my students sometimes, ‘Ms. Carter-Brown is in the middle of a productive struggle,’ ” she recounted. “ ‘I have to get through this, and learn, just like you.’ ” 

The experienced elementary teacher said she got into teaching because she cares. “It doesn’t feel good to not feel good at it,” she added.

She echoed what experts have said, that school and workplace culture, which impacts the morale of staff, always comes from the top. “We’re not going to have a rogue positive culture, if negativity bleeds down from the top,” she said.

Teachers are leaving the district, citing low pay that doesn’t match Santa Barbara’s insane cost of living, compounded by stress and burnout. The added stressor of implementing a new curriculum may be the straw that breaks some camels’ backs.

Even graduates from UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) are not staying in town as frequently, which could be viewed as either good or bad news. The university received an “F” in Early Reading from the National Council on Teacher Quality in 2023, reflecting the broader issue of teacher preparation programs lacking scientifically-based reading instruction.

“Schools of education do not instruct their teacher candidates how to teach this,” Green said. “By withholding it from teacher candidates — to their everlasting shame — they withhold it from the students because, through no fault of their own, teachers can’t teach what they haven’t been trained to do.”

Leave No Child Behind

It’s no secret that half of Santa Barbara Unified students can’t read at grade level. Local reporters have been pointing that out for years. But the real issue lies not with the averages, but with those at the bottom. One size does not fit all when it comes to reading instruction. 

In 2022-23, only 8 percent of the district’s Emergent Multilingual Learners in 3rd grade could read at grade level. That number was 6 percent for students with disabilities. Out of all Latino students in the 3rd grade, only 30 percent met or exceeded grade-level standards in reading. For white students, that number was 74 percent. 

“These are children; they’re not scores; they’re not numbers,” Principal McCormick said. “So, a child who’s not successful in reading, you have to know their story.”

I asked district literacy coach Sandy Robertson what she thought the main difference was between kids who were proficient in reading versus those who were not, if all kids have been receiving the same method of instruction.

It comes down to wealth. Families who can afford to provide their kids with the fundamental instruction they need — often by hiring tutors — see better outcomes than those who cannot. In Santa Barbara, the number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students meeting grade-level standards in reading is half that of wealthier students. 

All students need to be taught facets of both word recognition and language comprehension, which explains why students who do not have a foundational understanding of English may be more vulnerable to falling behind without the proper support. 

However, all readers must master the same concepts to learn, experts say, and research shows that 95 percent of students can be taught how to read at average levels, no matter their perceived ability or background. Literacy experts note, though, that it is important to provide students who are English learners with more focused attention on oral language development. 

“You have kids that just need a little help, and you have kids that need a lot of help, but once you unlock that code, 95 percent can read, and that’s why this is called a ‘solvable crisis,’ ” Green said.

McKinley Elementary is implementing a separate dual-immersion curriculum called Amplify Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) and Caminos, tailored to support a biliteracy model. But teachers from other schools find that Wit & Wisdom does not sufficiently address the needs of their bilingual students, as it lacks translations. One 4th-grade teacher said she supplements it herself to meet that need and is concerned that she hasn’t seen any tangible support from the district.

Concerned California, a group of mostly retired executives, took on the problem of helping young Spanish-speaking and low-income students to learn to read by implementing a mobile, phonics-based computer program called the “Waterford Method.” They wanted to focus on the transitional kindergarten age group as a way of getting ahead of the curve.

“I spent a lot of time teaching children how to read,” said retired Duke University professor John Coie, a developmental and clinical psychologist who helped bring this program to Santa Barbara. He said the phonics-based program helped reduce the number of children failing English proficiency exams by 45 percent over the last three years of the program. It ended in 2013 when there was a district leadership change. 

But in 2023, 81 percent of students in the district who were tested for proficiency in English failed. Concerned California members now advocate for the program’s reinstatement based on the apparent need for language development resources.

Reading Ahead

The district is going to be held accountable throughout the implementation process, through frequent check-ins and multiple progress reports presented to the board over the next few years. The first of such reports was delivered on September 26 this year. The next is scheduled for December 13. 

The real work lies ahead, and the community knows what is at stake. 

“No child should be traumatized by what happens in the classroom,” Rae said. All students have a right to a basic education, which includes literacy. “What we’re beginning to recognize,” said Rae, “is that no kid ever imagines that they’re not going to learn to read when they go to school.”

Now, if only someone would tackle math. 


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