Nora Chahbazi had not intended to become a literacy trainer and coach back in 1997. She was busy being a mother and a neonatal intensive care nurse. But when her daughter was having reading difficulties in second grade, Chahbazi wanted to find the best way to help her.
During a break from her nursing career, Chahbazi moved into deep research mode and discovered materials based on a program called phonographics. “I started it with my daughter,” she says. “And after three hours of that instruction, she came home one day with a Bailey School Kids book, sat on the couch and read the entire thing cover to cover and told me all about it.” Stunned by her daughter’s progress, Chahbazi jumped on board to be a certified phonographics trainer. “A lot of serendipitous things kept happening,” she says, relating how she then opened her own reading center in Michigan in 1999 and trained a steady flow of teachers, all the while building her literacy knowledge.
But by 2002, Chahbazi was feeling constrained by the program. “I was realizing that phonographics is very narrow,” she says. “It’s very good with phonics and phonemic awareness, but not expansive enough for the application to reading and writing, using vocabulary, and a lot of other things.” And a month after she formally quit, she got a call from a foundation in southern Michigan offering to pay for every teacher in the county who was interested in being trained. “I was like, ‘Uh-oh. I don’t have a training program of my own yet.’ So that’s how EBLI was born, to be honest.”
Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction is described as a speech-to-print/structured linguistic literary system that includes online training sessions for teachers, lessons for students, materials, and ongoing support. This model incorporates the five pillars of literacy—phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension—but contains several elements that make it different from the long-standing methodologies that are most familiar to teachers. Earlier this year, Chahbazi described the program’s speech-first approach in a blog post: “Accessing the whole word that they say, segmenting the word into sounds, matching the letter(s) or spellings to the sounds as they write them, then saying the sounds and blending the word back together: this is at the core of EBLI instruction,” she wrote.
Ideally, Chahbazi sees a day when educators and literacy experts from all corners can work together to sort out what’s best for the kids at the center of the reading instruction debate. “I really think the parents are the ones who are going to move the needle with all of this,” she notes. “Nothing is a motivator like your own child’s suffering. And there are lots and lots of parents in this situation, and they’re just not going to stop.”
According to Chahbazi, the recent spate of media attention focused on illiteracy and reading instruction has been a bright spot. She has participated in the documentary The Truth About Reading, among other projects. “These documentaries, podcasts, and articles are all in the same general basket and going in the right direction: here’s the deal, we’re in trouble, and it’s time to change,” she says. “It’s a different feeling than any other time in the 25 years I’ve done this, which makes me very cautiously hopeful.”