In Partnership with 74

Bill to mandate ‘science of reading’ in California classrooms dies before reaching legislature

Angelina Hicks | May 14, 2024

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

A proposed bill, AB 2222, to increase child literacy rates by mandating the science of reading, will not advance in the legislature this year. (Redd F/Unsplash)

A proposed bill to increase child literacy rates in California has died in the legislature this year after objections from the state teachers union and English learner groups.

A December 2023 policy brief by EdVoice, Decoding Dyslexia CA and Families In Schools found that 60% of California students aren’t reading at grade level skills by the time they reach third grade. AB 2222, which would have mandated the phonics-based science of reading in California classrooms, was meant to address the state’s struggling literacy among children across the state.

Third grade is seen as an essential benchmark for kids’ reading development. When children finish third grade, they usually stop learning how to read and instead start using reading to learn other subjects, like math and science.

Science of reading research has found the best way to teach reading is through phonics, phonemic awareness, oral reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

Last month, the California Teachers Association sent a letter to the Assembly’s education committee opposing the bill, citing concerns regarding instruction, professional development, language acquisition and testing.

“The science of reading is an expansive and evolving body of research and not a one-size-fits-all approach that this bill seeks to codify,” according to a March 28 letter from the union’s legislative advocate Seth Bramble. “In our state, literacy instruction is already rooted in an understanding of the science of reading and decades of research that serve the needs of the most diverse set of students in the country.”

Bramble wrote the science of reading is a growing and changing body of knowledge and research and shouldn’t be defined so precisely in the bill. The letter also said teachers should not be restricted in their teaching methods. 

“Restricting instructional methods stifles teachers’ creativity and innovation in the classroom,” Bramble wrote. “Educators should have the flexibility to adapt their teaching strategies based on their students’ needs, interests, and the content being taught.”

Advocates for English learner groups, such as the California Association for Bilingual Education (CABE), also wrote letters opposing the bill.

“CABE does not believe that mandating a single option for literacy instruction through the [Science of Reading] will address the needs of [English learners], particularly as most districts across the state have not yet implemented the English Learner Roadmap,” according to the March 11 letter

Los Angeles Unified School District officials are still pushing ahead with district-wide lesson plans based on the science of reading state lawmakers rejected legislation requiring the curriculum.

In the 2022-2023 school year, 31% of third-graders in low-income families read on grade level. For students not considered low-income, 63% read on grade level. That trend has been steady for nearly a decade, with low-income students underperforming in reading tests yearly since at least 2014.

“It’s clear that California students’ reading and literacy rates are a serious problem,” Speaker of the Assembly Robert Rivas said in a statement earlier this month. “We need a methodical and inclusive process before enacting a costly overhaul of how reading is taught statewide.”

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio (D-48), the bill’s author and former teacher, vowed to continue working to improve child literacy in California. The bill was supported by 12 Democrats and two Republicans in the state assembly.

“Despite this setback, I will not give up on comprehensive, evidence-based early literacy reform to help close the extreme reading achievement gap our state is currently facing,” Rubio said in the statement. “It’s what our educators need and our students deserve — particularly low-income Black and Latino students, English learners, and students with disabilities who are experiencing disproportionate reading challenges in our classrooms.” 

Pedro Noguera, dean of USC’s education school, disagreed with the bill’s emphasis on the science of reading but agreed something needs to be done to get more third graders in California reading at grade level.

“[Rubio] is concerned about the large numbers of kids who can’t read at proficiency by third grade, and I share that concern,” Noguera said. “What we need is to make sure that we are not adopting a too-limited approach or too-narrow approach and really think about it broadly.”

This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Angelina Hicks is a reporting fellow for Voice of OC, a nonprofit news outlet in Orange County, CA. She’s currently a master’s student at USC Annenberg and managing editor at Annenberg Media.

Read Next