Georgia education officials consider more phonics in schools

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The Georgia Department of Education wants to focus on phonics as students in the state, and across the country, struggle with learning to read.

The agency has written new educational standards that focus more on phonics in the early grades. Phonics is a method of teaching to read that involves teaching children to break down words into sounds and tying them to letters or groups of letters.

The more than 100 pages of proposed standards come after the recent release of the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores. The “nation’s report card” reported that less than a third of Georgia’s fourth and eighth grade students were reading proficiently or better. The scores were about the same as in 2019 and on a par with the rest of the country.

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The state Board of Education will meet Thursday and vote whether to post the proposed English Language Arts (ELA) standards for public review and comment. None of the members of the group’s Rules Committee criticized the measure during a brief discussion at a work session Wednesday. If it passes, the public will have about a month to comment before a final vote of approval.

If the new standards are ultimately adopted, teachers would have a year to prepare before classroom implementation in the fall of 2024.

The proposed standards would replace older standards that Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods have sought to replace for several years. They announced the start of a standards review process in 2019. It involved more than 300 ELA educators and thousands of public comments.

The existing ELA standards focus less on phonics, a concept that has been gaining adherents nationally and in Georgia.

Last year, Fulton County Schools began implementing a new training program for teachers that emphasizes phonemic awareness and phonics.

It falls under a broader movement to refashion teaching following the tenets of what’s being called ”the science of reading,” an approach, informed by cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. The movement recently influenced Gwinnett County’s school system to overhaul its literacy curriculum.

The Georgia General Assembly embraced the ideas in 2019 with a law that mandates annual screening for dyslexia in kindergarten through third grade starting in 2024. Parents of children with dyslexia have been major advocates of phonics.

The ELA standards are just one portion of a broad set of academic guides for the various grades and subjects. The standards influence local choices about curriculum and when portions of it are taught. They also inform the state’s standardized Milestones tests that are given in some grades and subjects to measure whether students are learning what the standards dictate.