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In EdReports' First Review of Early-Reading Programs, No Materials Make the Grade

xx-foundationskills-Blog-Getty.jpgEdReports, the nonprofit curriculum reviewer, released its first reviews of foundational reading and writing skills programs on Wednesday—and none of the materials met the evaluator's highest standard.

The organization, which evaluates curricula against the Common Core State Standards, looked at five programs. Three of them partially met EdReports' criteria: Puzzle Piece Phonics by Catawba Press, Fundations by Wilson Language Training, and the Fountas & Pinnell Phonics, Study, and Word Study System by Heinemann. 

The other two—Express Readers and Jolly Phonics, by Jolly Learning—didn't meet EdReports' standards.

"None of these programs in and of themselves would be sufficient to get all of the foundational skills for kids," said Eric Hirsch, the executive director of EdReports, in an interview.

This release marks EdReports' first foray into reviewing supplemental materials. Traditionally, the organization has only reviewed year-long, comprehensive curricula—in math, English/language arts, and science.

In this new set of evaluations, EdReports was looking for something different: programs that focus exclusively on teaching young children in grades K-2 basic skills like identifying letters, sounding out and spelling words, and reading text fluently. These materials are meant to be used alongside a traditional English/language arts program, filling in the gaps where core curricula may not fully address these foundations of reading and writing.

While the review couldn't identify any "perfect" programs, there were some heartening trends, said Liisa Potts, EdReports' director of ELA reviews. In general, said Potts, the programs taught the progression of early reading and writing skills in a systematic way—a practice that is supported by research.

Districts Demand Guidance

The choice to take on stand-alone skills programs was in large part a result of district demand, said Hirsch.

A lot of districts have ELA core programs that don't sufficiently address foundational skills, he said. It's common for school systems to buy add-ons, and district leaders have reached out for guidance, said Hirsch. "We felt we had to enter this part of the supplemental market," he said. (The organization doesn't plan to expand into supplemental markets in other subjects, Hirsch said.)

Teams of teachers and other educators conduct EdReports' reviews. Programs have to pass two gateways, or sets of expectations (this is in contrast to core ELA materials, which have to pass three gateways). A program won't be evaluated in the second gateway if it doesn't at least partially meet expectations for the first.

The first gateway measures alignment to the common core and research-based practices.

So what in particular is EdReports looking for? Materials have to include systematic instruction in phonological awareness—the ability to identify and manipulate parts of spoken language like syllables and parts of syllables, called onsets and rimes. They need to teach all of the letter names and introduce phonics systematically and explicitly. And they have to explicitly teach concepts of print, like the understanding that text runs from left to right in English.

Then, students need opportunities to practice what they've learned—identifying letters in text, decoding words, and spelling. They also need to practice oral reading fluency.

If programs meet or partially meet these expectations, then they're also rated on the implementation support and assessment opportunities they provide (or, gateway two).

Some of these programs teach synthetic phonics, while others use an analytic phonics method. EdReports wanted to include a representation of both, said Potts, and doesn't rate one approach as better than the other.

In synthetic phonics, students learn letter-sound correspondences first, and then blend those together to sound out words. Analytic phonics takes the opposite approach: Students break words down into letter-sound chunks, and then apply that knowledge to read other words. While some evidence gives synthetic phonics an edge, the larger body of research doesn't support the effectiveness of one type of phonics over the other.

Programs Present Mixed Bag

The five programs reviewed all had different strengths and weaknesses, Potts said, and there wasn't a unified pattern that emerged.

Among the programs that partially met expectations, for instance, Puzzle Piece Phonics had explicit, systematic instruction in both phonics and phonological awareness, but lacked enough opportunities to practice fluency. The program also didn't present enough opportunities to collect data about student progress.

Fundations, on the other hand, only provided limited opportunities for phonological awareness. Still, there was a clear scope and sequence for phonics instruction and lots of opportunities for students to decode and encode words. 

"There were many key elements of the program that were dismissed or omitted from EdReports' review, which resulted in misleading 'partially meets' scores," Barbara Wilson, co-founder and president of Wilson Language Training, wrote in a statement to Education Week. Fundations also goes beyond some of the requirements in the evaluation, she said, teaching total word structure and spelling.

Puzzle Piece Phonics did not respond to requests for comment before time of publication. In its official response to EdReports, Catawba Press, Puzzle Piece Phonics' publisher, called the review "intentional and thorough," but also noted there were places it thought the evaluation missed evidence in materials.  

Fountas & Pinnell's Phonics, Spelling, and Word Study System included explicit phonological awareness instruction, but didn't present a research-based explanation for why phonological awareness and phonics skills were taught in the sequence they were, according to the review. Children also didn't get enough practice with previously taught phonics skills or decodable text, the review states.

In an emailed statement to Education Week, Heinemann, the program's publisher, stated that there are "varied perspectives" on how to best teach phonics skills, and noted that the Word Study System is only one component of a broader reading program, Fountas & Pinnell Classroom.

"In [the Word Study System], you will find explicit, systematic teaching of all the essential aspects of phonics, spelling, and word study through lessons taught outside of continuous text; in addition you will find suggestions for explicit, systematic teaching as children read and write within a cohesive literacy system [Fountas & Pinnell Classroom]. It is in the processing of continuous text that readers and writers use their phonics skills," the statement reads.

Express Readers, a teacher-run company, took a hit in the scoring system for focusing largely on reading skills, rather than incorporating writing and spelling as well.

Until now, the company has presented its product as a supplemental reading program, rather than a foundational skills program more broadly, said Elise Lovejoy, the founder of Express Readers.

"We had a review that definitely showed that we have room to enhance and grow our program," Lovejoy said, citing the need for more emphasis on writing, spelling, and encoding words.

The company is pulling its curriculum from the market, and incorporating changes for the launch of its third edition in January 2020. Schools currently using Express Readers will receive an updated copy after the third edition release date.

Other companies pushed back. Chris Jolly, the managing director and owner of U.K.-based Jolly Learning, disputed EdReports' review of the company's program, Jolly Phonics.

The review dinged the program for not providing instruction in phonological awareness, and stated that it didn't provide enough opportunities to practice long and short vowel sounds, decode words in a sentence, and practice fluency.

In an interview with Education Week, Jolly said that the reviewers overlooked instances in the program that allowed students to practice these skills.

He also took issue with some of EdReports' methodology. The rubric requires that students learn all of their letter names in kindergarten. But Jolly Phonics teaches letter sounds before letter names, a choice that Jolly said makes students "blending ready." He called the review "immensely disappointing."

Contradictory Practices?

Potts stressed that all of these programs are meant to supplement, not replace, an ELA curriculum. "The reason that we're reviewing them is because they're important, but they're not meant to be the core of a child's day," she said.

Schools can deliver standards-aligned instruction, regardless of whether they're supplementing with a foundational skills program or using a core curriculum that already incorporates these skills, she said.

Still, using multiple programs raises the possibility that students will be learning contradictory practices.

For example: In many schools across the country, children are taught to employ a series of reading strategies when they encounter new words that they don't recognize. Some of these strategies encourage kids to use pictures, sentence structure, or the first letter of a word to guess what it says, rather than sound it out.

Even if students are receiving phonics instruction, studies suggest that these strategies can make it more difficult for them to learn letter-sound connections, as they aren't being asked to attend to the letters in words.

Is it possible that using a foundational skills supplement alongside these reading strategies could diminish the effectiveness of instruction?

Potts said that she couldn't speak to the positives or negatives of other programs.

"Our reports are only looking at the materials themselves," said Potts. "We are considering when we do all of our reviews that the implementation and application directions in the materials themselves are going to be applied with integrity in the schools."

Going forward, EdReports plans to continue releasing ELA foundational skills evaluations. Two programs are listed as currently under review: From Phonics to Reading, by William H. Sadlier, Inc., and Pathways to Reading.

Image: Getty

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