By Hannah Gross
Gov. Phil Murphy plans to introduce a new focus on improving literacy rates during his State of the State address set for Tuesday.
The program will focus on elementary school literacy, emphasizing phonics-based reading strategies and other best practices, according to the administration. The move comes as recent state test results show just 42% of third-grade students met or exceeded expectations in English Language Arts in 2023, lower than the 50% rate before the pandemic.
The approach will be centered on phonics, which emphasize the connection between how words are written and how they sound when spoken aloud. The Murphy administration said the state’s current approach to literacy instruction has not led to the desired results, especially following the pandemic. The new program will also focus on teachers, many of whom are not trained in phonics-based instruction.
“It is simple: an emphasis on phonics in reading instruction is essential to the lifelong success of our children,” Murphy says in an advance copy of the speech.
The program includes several initiatives, some of which will require legislative approval. Other aspects will be initiated by the Department of Education, according to the administration.
One initiative is to launch a pilot program so districts can access high-quality literacy screeners for elementary school students. Paula White, executive director of advocacy group JerseyCAN, said literacy screeners help educators assess students’ reading ability and track their progress.
Surveying the learning landscape
The administration also plans to conduct a landscape analysis to make sure districts are using best practices and relevant phonics-based material when teaching kids how to read. Helene Anthony, co-chair of the department of special education, language and literacy at The College of New Jersey, said current practices are not very consistent across school districts.
The analysis will be accompanied by a review of how the state’s educator preparation programs teach reading instruction. According to Anthony, this can also vary from one institution to the next.
She said TCNJ is moving toward more research-informed literacy instruction, like many other programs in the state. Anthony said the approach to reading instruction has changed over her 30 years in the field, accelerating around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to training future educators, the Murphy administration also plans to ensure all pre-K through sixth-grade educators receive professional development on best practices before 2026.
White said it’s important teachers are adequately trained to provide instruction and support their students. She said this sort of investment typically costs between $1,000 and $3,000 per teacher.
Funding professional development
The Department of Education allocated $3 million to its RAPID program, which provides teachers with professional development focused on literacy instruction that aligns with recently approved learning standards. The program launched in the fall and remains available.
The state revised its English Language Arts standards to align with phonics-based instruction in October 2023. The standards will go into effect for the next school year. White said while these standards are moving in the right direction, they need to be properly implemented to have a meaningful impact.
The state also adopted regulations in May that require educators in preschool-3 and K-6 educator preparation programs to participate in phonics-based coursework and other best practices for teaching literacy.
This phonics-based approach, often referred to as the science of reading, is becoming increasingly common across the country. From 2019 to 2022, 42 states began requiring schools or educator-training programs to use science-supported reading strategies. Now, New Jersey may be joining them.
“Increasing literacy rates makes New Jersey better,” Murphy’s speech reads. “Because reading books is always better than banning books.”