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Illinois set to roll out a new literacy plan aimed at changing how students are taught to read

High angle view of large group of elementary students having a class in the classroom. Teacher is assisting one student.

Illinois literacy plan for schools coming in 2024, after general assembly passes literacy bill 56-0 on Friday.

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The Illinois general assembly has passed a bill requiring the State Board of Education to create a literacy plan for public schools with the hopes of changing how reading is taught and to help students struggling with reading.

The Senate voted 56-0 to pass the bill — SB 2243 — Friday afternoon. 

Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, a Democrat who serves the city’s West Side and Western Suburbs, was a lead sponsor of several literacy bills over the years. She was on the floor Friday asking the Senate to vote in favor of SB 2243. 

“Every child deserves the instruction and support that meets their needs to become a proficient reader,” said Lightford in a press release. “This initiative moves Illinois off the sidelines and into the action to fight for every student to have access to the literacy instruction they deserve.”

In 2022, only 29.9% of the state’s students between third grade and eighth grade met or exceeded state standards in reading on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness exam. That represented a 7.5 percentage point drop from 2019. Research has found that students who aren’t proficient in reading by third grade are more likely to drop out of school

Under SB 2243, the state board must develop and adopt a comprehensive literacy plan by Jan. 31, 2024 and create a rubric by July 1, 2024. Local school districts could use the rubric to evaluate their reading lesson plans. In addition, the bill requires the state to develop training opportunities for educators by Jan. 1, 2025.

Future elementary school teachers who plan to teach students in first through sixth grade will also be tested on their knowledge of literacy on a content-area exam student teachers are required to take before they receive a license. That will begin by July 1, 2026.

The next step is for Gov. J.B. Pritzker to sign the bill into law. 

The Early Literacy Coalition — a group of organizations across the state advocating for evidence-based literacy instruction  — has been pushing the state to create an evidence-based reading curriculum for schools that includes teaching students the relationship between sounds and letters, like phonics. Some public schools use a now-debunked approach called “balanced literacy” which is based on the idea that reading is a natural process and mixes some phonics into “whole language” instruction. One of the leading proponents for this approach has since revised her recommended curriculum to include phonics and the science of reading

Jessica Handy, executive director of Stand for Children Illinois, was one of the lead advocates drafting language with state lawmakers for several literacy-focused bills over the last couple of years. On Friday, Hardy said that she’s excited to see SB 2243 head to the governor’s office after negotiations with legislators.

“We can really see a tremendous amount of momentum to adopt a comprehensive literacy plan that is inclusive, that takes into account every student needs to become a strong reader and writer,” said Handy.

The State Board of Education has already taken steps toward creating a literacy plan. During Wednesday’s board meeting, the board announced plans to release a draft ]literacy plan next month. Last fall, the board held a literacy summit where many participants supported the state creating a literacy plan. 

“I do absolutely see literacy as a civil right in this country that has been denied to so many,” said board member Donna Leak during Wednesday’s board meeting.

A team of educators, administrators, parents, community organizations, and experts in literacy, special education, and bilingual education are working on the draft literacy plan, state education officials said Wednesday. 

After presenting a first draft of the plan during the June 21 board meeting, the state board says it will hold a listening tour during the summer, and create a second plan by the fall with more public hearings.  They expect to meet the lawmakers’ deadline and finalize the literacy plan by the beginning of next year.

Illinois is not the only state revisiting how reading is taught in schools. Since 2019, over 20 states have passed bills to change how states teach literacy by requiring schools to teach phonics. 

This year, states including Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Georgia, and New Mexico passed laws that require schools to teach evidence-based reading instruction, ensure that teacher preparation programs are training students on the science of reading, and require the state to create standards for literacy and create a rubric to vet curriculum.

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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