PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The South Dakota Department of Education is encouraging K-12 schools to take a phonics-based approach to teaching reading.

The department is offering school-wide training in what’s now called the science of reading. Federal COVID-19 aid is paying for the initiative.

Normally the department lets each school district make its own curriculum decisions.

State Education Secretary Joseph Graves says participation is voluntary.

“It would blur the line if we mandated it,” Graves told KELOLAND News.

He said there are five pillars: Phonetic awareness, phonetics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary.

Graves was superintendent of Mitchell’s public schools before the governor appointed him to the state post in January. He said Mitchell schools in 2001 began using a phonetics-based approach known as ‘Reading First.’

According to Graves, Mitchell students performed better at English language arts proficiency than the statewide averages each year.

Assessment data maintained by the state department for recent years showed that was true.

In the 2021-22 school year, the statewide proficiency rate was 51%. Mitchell was at 60% overall, including 35% for American Indian students and 65% for White students.  

In 2020-21, the state proficiency rate was 53%. Mitchell was 63% overall, with American Indian students at 18% and White students at 68%. 

No assessment results were collected during the 2019-20 school year because of COVID-19.

For 2018-19, the state proficiency rate was 54%. Mitchell was 58% overall, with American Indians at 18% and Whites at 62%. 

In 2017-18, the state rate was 55%, while Mitchell was 63% overall, with 27% American Indian students and 66% of White students proficient.

Asked about the lower proficiency rates for American Indians, Graves said even those were “well, well above the average.” Statewide data for 2021-22 showed English language arts proficiency rates of 21% for American Indian students and 58% for White students. In 2020-21, proficiency rates were 23% for American Indians and 59% for Whites.

Graves said the department decided to offer the initiative because proficiency rates weren’t high enough and the ‘science of reading’ approach was proving “extremely promising.”

He spoke from experience.

“When I became an elementary principal, this was exactly how we taught reading,” he said. “It’s just a return to what we already knew worked.”