The View

UB educator offers insights into Hochul’s ‘Back to Basics’ plan for literacy

A teacher and young students relax and read in a library setting.


Published January 12, 2024

John Strong.
“Parents should anticipate that new programs with more explicit and systematic attention to phonemic awareness and phonics in kindergarten through third grade may improve their children’s reading abilities, especially for those who have had difficulty learning how to read. ”
John Strong, assistant professor of literacy education
Graduate School of Education

“Reading is the foundation of our education system, but New York State is currently not meeting basic reading proficiency levels,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said just ahead of her 2024 State of the State address in Albany.

In an effort to address this lag in literacy, Hochul recently introduced her “Back to Basics” reading proficiency plan, which includes investing $10 million in training teachers, and enhancing and expanding the SUNY and CUNY micro-credential program for teachers focused on the “science of reading.”

John Strong, assistant professor of literacy education in the Graduate School of Education, offers some insights into how the governor’s plan affects teachers, students and their families, and identifies some of the potential factors contributing to the decline in literacy.

Strong, a former high school English language arts teacher, is interested in reading and writing instruction and assessment in elementary and secondary grades. His research focuses on developing and testing reading and writing interventions to support students’ foundational reading skills and comprehension of complex texts, with an emphasis on the role of text-structure knowledge in reading and writing. His research emphasizes equitable literacy instruction and improving literacy achievement for diverse populations of students who are traditionally underserved by public schools.

How plan would affect Western New York schools

Strong says the plan would require school districts to align their curriculum, instructional strategies and teacher professional development with evidence-based practices grounded in the “science of reading” by September 2025. “So, many students and parents might begin to see new curriculum materials being used in their school district in short order,” he says. He adds that “parents should anticipate that new programs with more explicit and systematic attention to phonemic awareness and phonics in kindergarten through third grade may improve their children’s reading abilities, especially for those who have had difficulty learning how to read.”

The lag in literacy and how it can be improved

Strong says that in addition to a student’s environment and socio-economic status, the pandemic also has played a role in the decline in literacy.

“Extensive research has documented that students of color, students in urban schools, and students who experience poverty face systemic barriers that impact their reading growth, with many who do not achieve reading proficiency by third grade being more likely to drop out of high school,” he explains. “Limited face-to-face instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated disparities in achievement for these students, many of whom spent more time in remote learning.”

Without obtaining the foundational skills, such as phonics and oral reading fluency, students experience difficulty with overall literacy achievement,” Strong says. “There are, however, current programs that have proven to be helpful to struggling students.

“Efforts such as high-dosage tutoring in foundational reading skills for students in kindergarten through second grade have produced promising effects on early literacy achievement. Dr. Blythe Anderson and I have been collaborating with local elementary schools to provide high-dosage tutoring since summer 2021 using an approach to differentiated reading instruction that has shown promising effects. We are currently in the process of scaling up these efforts with more schools in Wester New York.” 

‘Science of reading’ and teacher preparation

Strong says the “science of reading” refers to a large body of research about how children learn to read and how reading should be taught. He says scientifically based reading instruction includes systematic attention to development of five components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

“A recent report claims that only half of teacher-preparation programs across the nation adequately prepare teachers in these five components, with fewer programs teaching the foundational skills of phonemic awareness, phonics and fluency,” he says. “However, research demonstrates that teacher preparation programs can effectively increase teachers’ knowledge of these foundational literacy skills and phonics instruction, especially when they have the opportunity to apply their knowledge in the classroom.”

Teacher instruction reflecting student needs

While the governor’s “Back to Basics” reading plan focuses on re-training teachers who already work in schools across the state, UB is also innovating the way it prepares pre-service teachers to enter the classroom in diverse schools, Strong says.

Students in the UB Teacher Residency Program and the UB Teach Combined BA/EdM Program have the opportunity to complete more extensive teacher residency programs that provide them with more time to apply the knowledge and skills they obtain about the science of reading in their literacy coursework in real classrooms under the guidance of an expert teacher.

“Research shows that these opportunities for pre-service teachers to apply their knowledge in the classroom results in greater knowledge of the science of reading that will ultimately impact the reading success of their students,” Strong says.

“For example, our Graduate School of Education is launching a Literacy Coaching Micro-credential that aims to prepare literacy professionals with knowledge and skills needed to coach teachers in scientifically based reading instruction,” he says, noting that other micro-credential programs are likely to launch in response to the governor’s plan. “While the specific details of the plan remain to be seen, I anticipate that the governor’s investment will mean that schools and districts in New York State will have greater access to these new micrcredential programs offered at SUNY and CUNY campuses to provide training in the science of reading for teachers as soon as this year.”

Science of reading in elementary classrooms

Strong and his colleagues have initiated the Read STOP Write project, which will test an innovative approach to providing children with the built-in supports they need to succeed during the reading and writing of science and social studies texts.

“Much of the attention in the current science of reading movement has focused on early literacy instruction in kindergarten through third grade, but many older students continue to experience difficulties in reading that affect their academic success beyond third grade,” Strong says. “For example, the challenges of informational texts in science and social studies that upper-elementary school students are expected to read independently include new and unfamiliar content, text structures and vocabulary. In the Read STOP Write project, we are developing a supplemental program for fourth- and fifth-grade students that provides explicit instruction in decoding and determining the meaning of multisyllabic words while supporting students’ reading fluency and comprehension of informational texts through repeated reading, instruction in comprehension strategies such as text structure, and summary writing.”

Strong and his colleagues are developing and testing a revised version of Read STOP Write on students’ foundational skills and comprehension in local elementary schools.

“Although the governor’s plan focuses mostly on supporting reading development in the primary grades, the goal of our project is to extend supports aligned with the science of reading to children in the upper-elementary grades,” Strong says.