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Uniting Virginia through Literacy

Choosing a Reading Curriculum that Works

In 2022 the Virginia legislature passed The Virginia Literacy Act, often referred to as VLA. It was sponsored by such unlikely co-sponsors as lead Senate Democrats Louise Lucas from Portsmouth and Jennifer McClellan, and Siobhan Dunnavant, Republican firebrand from Henrico. The House sponsors were Carrie Coyner, a Republican from Chesterfield, and Kaye Kory, a Fairfax County Democrat. What could have brought legislators from such varied perspectives and parts of the Commonwealth together on an education bill that will directly define what and how students in elementary schools across Virginia are taught? 

The Virginia Literacy Act (VLA), as being implemented by the Virginia Department of Education, dictates that all schools in Virginia will teach literacy as distinct from language arts and will use state-approved, “evidence-based” materials. Whether the materials are locally developed, or purchased, they must be approved at the state level. As a result of VLA, schools all around Virginia are reviewing and changing their elementary language arts materials and resources, and national vendors are advertising and adapting their materials to suit the Virginia Department of Education’s specifications. 

To date, there are 11 commercial products approved for use in Virginia schools. Seven of those are for the full span of K-5. They are from traditional education companies such as McGraw Hill and Houghton Mifflin and from more recent companies such as Amplify, which was founded and later sold by Rupert Murdoch. Savvas, which is on the list, was formerly Pearson but was bought and retooled by hedge fund Nexus Capital in 2022. 

The VLA change marks perhaps the largest direct mandate in classroom instruction since the establishment of the Standards of Learning in 1995. The VLA materials adoptions will heavily determine what happens for the language arts portion of students’ days (usually a 90-minute to 120-minute daily block), and move teaching techniques toward scripted lessons and complete “fidelity” to the prescribed curriculum in order to collect data on whether the curriculum materials are working.

So, what prompted the legislature to get involved at this level? In three words: phonics and test scores.

Closing the achievement gap and test scores that confirm all students are reading at a high level has been the holy grail of education since at least the initiation of the NAEP in 1996. Despite programs, initiatives, and ever-increasingly rigorous tests and accountability, the grail has remained elusive, and scores have continued to correlate most closely with the affluence of school neighborhoods. 

Then came Dr. Hollis Scarborough’s reading rope and the Science of Reading. Though the Reading Rope was developed in 2001, it took time for it to become an almost universal image of reading pedagogy. The reading rope includes strands related to comprehension and fluency, but the basic letter and word approach skills (phonemic awareness and phonics) receive far more emphasis in the public and legislative discourse, and the Science of Reading is explicitly stated as the goal of VLA, since the act calls for materials to be scientifically based reading research.

Will the Virginia Literacy Act prove to be “The Answer” to reading, poverty, and access to success in Virginia? It’s a tall order, never reached before. Yet, teachers are already reviewing and looking for ways to choose and make the newly adopted materials engaging and exciting for their students. Though the Science of Reading has a substantial body of studies, there are those, like Dr. Nancy Bailey, who challenge the notion that it is entirely science based.

Will the state and localities provide the support to help both the teachers and students succeed? Will students respond positively to the new approach? We can only hope.


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