More States Are Using Science-Backed Reading Instruction. It Shouldn't Have Taken This Long.

Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have all seen dramatic improvements in reading scores by investing in "science-based" reading instruction.


In 2019, two-thirds of American fourth-graders scored below "proficient" in reading in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, scores declined again, reaching a 30-year low. However, despite a widespread national literacy problem among American schoolchildren, several states have managed to stave off the dramatic declines in test scores that plagued other states.

Since 2013, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have all passed legislation mandating that teachers be trained in the "science of reading"—methods that typically center around phonics, an approach in which children are taught to read words by decoding the sounds that different letters or groups of letters make. Since these policies' implementation, reading performance in these states has dramatically improved, even though reading scores there have historically been among the lowest in the nation.

This stands in sharp contrast to the popular, though discredited, "balanced literacy"—also known as the "whole language" or "three cueing"—method, which concentrates on having children read whole words instead of sounding out letters. This method also teaches children to guess when they come across an unfamiliar word, using context clues like the word's first letter or the pictures in the book.

The idea that children learn to read by using context, rather than decoding words, was first challenged in the 1970s with a series of studies that found that skilled readers rarely rely on context at all. Instead they "very quickly recognize a word as a sequence of letters. That's how good readers instantly know the difference between 'house' and 'horse,' for example," journalist Emily Hanford summarizes. In fact, Hanford notes, "Experiments that force people to use context to predict words show that even skilled readers can correctly guess only a fraction of the words."

While balanced literacy was widely discredited decades ago, it has remained incredibly popular in American schools. According to Hanford, the continued use of balanced literacy–based reading curricula plays a large role in America's current literacy crisis.

"Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don't know the science or dismiss it," Hanford noted in an episode of the Educate podcast. "As a result of their intransigence, millions of kids have been set up to fail."

But some states have charted a different course. Mississippi passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act in 2013, requiring thousands of teachers to undergo training in science-based reading instruction. The law also required intensive screening to test if kids are having reading difficulties, even mandating that children be held back if they aren't reading at grade level by the end of the third grade.

Following its implementation, Mississippi's test scores skyrocketed. According to the Associated Press, in 2013, the state was ranked 49th in fourth-grade reading. In 2022, it ranked 21st. Low-income students saw particularly great benefits. The state went from ranking as one of the worst states in the country for low-income fourth-graders in 2013 to second in the nation in 2022.

Alabama and Louisiana followed suit with similar legislation in 2019 and saw their own gains in performance. In 2019, Alabama ranked 49th among low-income fourth graders, and in 2022, it ranked 27th. Louisiana was ranked 42nd in 2019 and is now 11th. Both states, according to the A.P., actually saw modest gains in reading scores during the pandemic.

And the science-based reading trend is catching on. According to the A.P., Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Virginia have all adopted similar reading policies in recent months.

Despite the clear evidence that phonics-based instruction is effective, it's taken years for schools to implement those teaching practices. Public schools don't face much competition, meaning they aren't incentivized to improve their practices. As a result, a generation of American schoolchildren has been taught to read using an ineffective method. The improvements in states like Mississippi are encouraging, but it shouldn't have taken this long for the trend to catch on.

"The problem is that the schools are run by a bureaucratic government monopoly, largely isolated from competitive or community pressures," wrote David Boaz, a distinguished senior fellow of the Cato Institute, last year. "We expect good service from businesses because we know— and we know that they know—that we can go somewhere else…. You can bet that if schools had to depend on satisfying customers, there wouldn't be many that decided to skip phonics."