System 44 at Eagle Nest Elementary

Eagles Nest Elementary School third-grader Emmanuel Milledge celebrates his success on part of the System 44 reading course with teacher Kelly Nobbs on Wednesday, May 24. Brad Nettles/Staff

The third grade is a big deal. It's when students study maps of South Carolina's river basins, explore the principles of magnetism and learn the difference between a numerator and a denominator.

Starting next spring, the third grade will also be an important checkpoint for reading. Under a state law that takes effect in 2018, many South Carolina third-graders who can't pass a state standardized reading test will be held back the next school year while they catch up.

The third-grade retention policy is one of the final pieces to take effect from the Read to Succeed Act, a 2014 state law that promised a renewed focus on literacy.

But even as school districts gear up to meet the challenge, there is no consensus on the best way to teach reading.

The law leaves a lot up to the schools. Teachers should use "evidence-based" methods, according to the act. Teachers must take courses and earn certification in literacy education, and the state provides literacy coaches to train teachers in schools with the greatest needs.

It also provides funding for school-based summer reading camps, which third-graders can take next summer if they fail the literacy part of the SC READY test and don't meet other exemptions. Students who make progress at camp may qualify to advance without re-taking the third grade.

Before it comes to that, teachers and school leaders are trying to find what works for their students.

Meeting different needs

Round-robin reading? That's out, say education gurus. Although it was common practice for centuries to have students take turns reading aloud in a big group, many academic studies shows it doesn't help — and it might even harm students who struggle to read in front of their peers.

Still, old habits are hard to break.

"I was taught — you were taught — round-robin reading, spelling lists, all of those old approaches to literacy," said Eliza Braden, an assistant professor and literacy scholar at the University of South Carolina College of Education. "The same goes for parents, so when they don’t see that approach, they say, 'What happened to this? Where is the approach I had when I was in school?'"

Read to Succeed stresses the need for "evidence-based" literacy programs — ones that are backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Literacy programs of the future might look a bit like the suburban schools of Dorchester District 2, which rank among the best in the state for reading scores. Instead of round-robin, some teachers use choral reading, in which groups of students read along in unison.

According to Debbie Cruse, an assistant principal at Summerville Elementary who also teaches literacy strategies to teachers, the first step is "phonemic awareness," or recognizing the components of spoken words.

"It's not just something they discover on their own," Cruse said. "It needs to be explicitly taught."

From there, teachers in early grades spend time working in small groups with students based on their skill levels.

The district also has used computer-based programs, such as Read 180 and Waterford Early Learning. Both earned high marks for effectiveness on the What Works Clearinghouse, a U.S. Department of Education site meant to help teachers find programs backed by solid research.

In Kelly Nobbs' classroom at Eagle Nest Elementary in North Charleston on a recent Wednesday morning, four students plugged away on computers at System 44, an add-on to Read 180 that teaches how the English language can be broken down into 44 distinct sounds.

Students come into Nobbs' classroom one or two grade levels behind. They are almost all third-graders, and that's no coincidence.

"This is where we need to catch it," Nobbs said.

Reading to learn

Why is South Carolina throwing down the gauntlet on literacy in third grade? Conventional teachers' wisdom holds that it's the year when students go from learning to read, to reading to learn.

Some scholars cringe at that cliche, though, even if they agree that the third grade is an important benchmark.

"It always bothers me when I hear that said. ... If you think about it, you are reading to learn all the time," said Cathy Chapman, lead literacy specialist at the South Carolina Department of Education.

State lawmakers felt they had to draw the line somewhere. A student who can't read early on is only going to fall farther behind.

In 2016, just over one-quarter of South Carolina third-graders failed the ELA portion of SC READY. That's not a precise indicator of how many students will face being held back after next school year — the literacy score is a subset of the overall ELA score, certain disabled students will be exempt, and the state might modify the cutoff score for failure this summer — but it does not bode well in some parts of the state. 

The higher the poverty level of a district, the lower its reading scores tend to be, with few outliers.

The third-grade cutoff has drawn criticism from some parents and education advocates who worry the schools are putting too much pressure on young children to pass a single make-or-break test.

In Horry County, school board chairman Joe DeFeo said he sees it as another instance of state leaders interfering with the work of classroom teachers — and he worries about the message it sends to kids at an early age.

"The problem we have here is an economic problem and social problem more than anything else. We have children that come to school in kindergarten and know how to read. That is not normally true for the lower-income demographics," DeFeo said. "What we’re doing is holding back kids and letting them know, ‘You are a failure.’ That’s not the message to send to them."

Phonics or whole language?

State education leaders are staying out of a long-simmering debate between two schools of thought on literacy.

On one side, proponents of phonics-based education stress the need for explicit instruction on the sounds of letters and the structure of words. The other side, known as whole language, focuses more on word-recognition strategies and helping students derive meaning and enjoyment from reading.

Many school districts, including Charleston County, have adopted a "blended" approach that involves both whole-language techniques and phonics. The district will also pilot a K-3 intensive phonics program next school year in 10 schools.

"It’s really not a question of using a phonics approach or blended. Phonics is a part of that instruction. The end result should always be comprehension," said Jennifer Anderson, director of the South Carolina Department of Education Early Learning and Literacy Office.

Still, the debate continues. A handful of private schools including Trident Academy in Mount Pleasant and the Sandhills School in Columbia have opted for the Orton-Gillingham method for teaching dyslexic students, a multisensory approach to literacy that's also heavy on explicit phonics instruction.

"It’s the phonics approach," said Nancy Linvill, board chair at the Lakes and Bridges Charter School, an Orton-Gillingham charter school slated to open in Greenville in 2018. "It works for any child, but dyslexic children have to have that or they don’t learn well."

When it comes to teaching South Carolina's third-graders, it's best to have every tool available, according to Suzanne Rosenblith, associate dean for undergraduate programs at Clemson University's College of Education.

"Within education we see trends swinging, and sometimes that pendulum swings from one side to another," Rosenblith said. "I guess I come from a school of thought that generally speaking, all of the above is better than one or the other because we have such diverse learners."

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.