News10NBC Investigates: As reading rates plummet, NYS tells teachers to go back to basics

Investigates: The way children learn to read could change

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Educators across New York are being told to change the way they teach our children to read, because the method that’s been used for more than two decades is not working. 

According to data from the New York State Department of Education, during the 2021-2022 school year, just 46% of third grade students statewide were considered proficient in reading. 

In Monroe County, just 38% of students are good readers. There are sharp differences from district to district. In Pittsford, for example, 75% of students were considered proficient readers — compared to 53% in Rush-Henrietta, 24% in Gates-Chili, and 11% in the Rochester City School District. 

Studies show that students who don’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, and the dropout rate is even more pronounced for students of color and for those who come from a disadvantaged home.

“Our goal is obviously to make sure that we’re increasing it at a rate that’s faster,” RCSD’s Superintendent Dr. Carmine Peluso said when asked about the district’s rate.

But, Governor Kathy Hochul says she’s not interested in waiting around any longer.

“There was this idea about 20 years ago. They thought it was this whole different way of learning, ‘Why don’t we just put kids in a room with books and they’ll figure it out,’” she said recently.

But, it’s not working. So, the Governor is demanding that all districts go back to the basics: Phonics. 

Terri Robson is the Director of Elementary Education for East Irondequoit Schools. News10NBC asked her to explain the difference in teaching methods.

“In the older model, students are more likely to have picture-supported text. So, books where the picture matches the exact sentence at the bottom. We cue kids to constantly look at the picture and make a guess. We have them get their mouth ready — this is the old way — and make a guess. And if it’s close or it makes sense, we let them go. We let that go,” she says. 

But without the early precision and attention to detail, kids slip when the pictures go away and the passages get longer. East Irondequoit and a handful of other local districts realized the old way wasn’t working a few years back, and are already in the process of shifting to the new (old) method.

“So, the new method is phonological awareness — so phonics, decoding, site words, letter knowledge and the other side of that is language skills, vocabulary, background knowledge,” Robson explains. 

Kindergarten, first, and second graders in East Irondequoit are already making progress.

“We’ve seen some exciting shifts in our data already,” says Robson.

But districts can’t just snap their fingers and make the change. Teachers need to be re-trained and new reading materials and resources secured. 

Jennifer Lewke, News10NBC: “I am the parent of a first grader right now and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, this is too late, my kid is learning to read right now.’”

Terri Robson, Director of Elementary Education for East Irondequoit Schools: “Right. I think every district is going to come at it differently. We started with our primary kids so we could kind of grow our knowledge.” 

Lewke: “In the meantime, no matter where your child goes to school, how can parents help their children at home?”

Robson: “A lot of this is what we’re familiar with from when we were in school. So, helping kids with letter ID, letter sounds, helping kids blend sounds together, rhyming, reading aloud… I would really recommend reading aloud with a lot of non-fiction, because that really builds up their vocabulary. 

By September of 2025, all school districts will need to certify with the NYS Education Department that curriculum, instructional strategies, and teacher professional development align with a phonics method.  $10  million has been set aside in this year’s State budget for teacher training programs. 

Dr. Peluso tells News10NBC that hundreds of RCSD teacher are undergoing re-training right now on the science of reading, and will begin rolling out the new method soon.