In Illinois, Educators and Students Fight for the Right to Read
It’s not magic - it’s science.
This is what Kait Feriante, the founder of Redwood Literacy, a Chicago-based literacy tutoring program for teens, had to say about structured literacy instruction. Redwood Literacy has become a lifeline to teens who have experienced poverty, tragedy, systemic neglect, and other circumstances that limited their access to high-quality reading instruction from an early age. Feriante and her team employ the Wilson Reading System, which emphasizes phonics, high-frequency words, and the importance of reading sentences aloud. While the program’s literacy intervention specialists hold their students accountable to meet reading milestones, they are also playful and gracious, addressing students with a firm warmth during their twice-a-week, 90-minute reading sessions.
In Illinois, Redwood is a rarity: Illinois school districts have been slow to adopt reading curricula based on the science of reading. The now debunked philosophy of balanced literacy assumes that reading skills develop naturally, dismissing the value of decoding and other foundational skills; yet some Illinois schools still use the approach, haphazardly mixing phonics with whole-language instruction. Illinois has yet to utilize federal COVID relief funds to expand and improve early literacy programs, lagging behind the District of Columbia and 18 U.S. states that are mobilizing these funds to improve early literacy programs and teacher training.
Historically, Illinois’ largest school district, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), left schools and even individual teachers to devise their own reading curricula. While the district debuted a new literacy curriculum called Skyline in the summer of 2021, only 30% of CPS schools adopted its English Language Arts portion, which contains elements of structured literacy. Grassroots changes to reading curricula may be more impactful: early in the pandemic, teachers at a local elementary school in Plano, IL began researching structured literacy and lobbied for a new literacy program grounded in the science of reading. One of those teachers, Pam Reilly, is one of a growing assembly of voices who assert that “‘when we know better, we do better’”: a belief that underpins the state’s latest Right to Read bill. The bill calls for 3 key actions by the state school board:
- Create a list of evidence-based reading programs and increase access to support, training, and grants for school districts that want them
- Require an evidence-based reading instruction assessment for teachers seeking licensure in early grades
- Create a statewide online training module for preschool and elementary teachers, including those who work with students with disabilities, to enhance knowledge of the science of reading
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill easily passed committees and are primed for debate on their respective floors this session. While Right to Read is widely supported, opponents worry that the new legislation minimizes the needs of English language learners. This remains a valid concern for Redwood and any literacy program or school working to adopt comprehensive and culturally responsive reading instruction.
While no reading intervention program is perfect, the guarantee of small group instruction, transportation assistance, small weekly stipends, and $1000 by the end of Redwood’s program represents one small - but significant - attempt to empower young people with the tools to read and receive help from empathetic adults. Their newfound literacy skills carry into adulthood, improving their prospects for employment, higher education, and overall confidence. Redwood illuminates the intersection of reading science and social justice: a reality that Illinois and other states must honor. By acknowledging all students’ right to read and the scientific basis of reading itself, it is implied that all students have the potential to learn - and thrive - as adults, parents, and future educators themselves.
- Redwood Literacy is a literacy intervention program in Illinois: it relies on the science of reading to support students who have not had consistent access to high-quality literacy education.
- Statewide, Illinois has struggled to adopt reading curricula and intervention strategies grounded in the science of reading.
- Grassroots efforts and district-wide concerns regarding students’ reading abilities supported the initial drafting of the Right to Read bill, which reflects the goals of Redwood Literacy’s programming.