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More than one-third of American children cannot read by fourth grade. And while the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the nation’s literacy crisis, these struggles predated Covid.  The answer, I believe, is with the “science of reading.”

Over the last several months, public discourse about learning to read and reading instruction has significantly increased. This is likely due to several factors: increasing involvement from parents as schools moved online; advocacy from groups like Decoding Dyslexia; social media conversations and coverage in the popular press; and a push by state legislatures toward improving our nation’s stagnant and dismal reading scores.

There is growing recognition that reading instruction must be done differently. Yet while frustration mounts, so too does the blame game.

Inevitably, teachers and schools of education have become scapegoats. Many teachers feel that their graduate and certification programs left them ill-equipped to teach reading. Only 53 percent of teacher education programs “provide sufficient coverage of early reading components,” the National Council on Teacher Quality found in their 2020 review of elementary teacher training programs. The licensing exams that teachers take are also problematic: Only 20 states require a test that fully measures knowledge of the “science of reading.”

Yet progress is now being made in many schools of education, with concerted efforts to help teachers understand the cognitive aspects of learning to read and the ways to provide research-based classroom instruction.

These more effective teacher training programs spend ample time exploring the theory and research behindthe science of reading. They devote entire semesters to explaining the linguistic structure of English, how to evaluate children’s foundational literacy skills through multiple measures and how to model explicit and systematic phonics instruction. This was my work for the past 16 years as a professor at a major graduate school of education.

Related: Reading Remedies

Too often, though, my teacher candidates became employed in schools that undermined their preparation. The vast majority secured teaching positions in schools using the instructional materials written by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell or Units of Study, from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

Indeed, new teachers often encounter a disconnect between their preparation and the materials they are given. Recent reports and independent evaluations have pointed out the problematic approaches of those materials, which fall short in developing foundational reading skills and providing text complexity and support for English language learners.

There is growing recognition that reading instruction must be done differently. Yet while frustration mounts, so too does the blame game.

The most glaring problem with those materials is their reliance on ineffective strategies — using context, pictures and sentence structure — to identify unfamiliar words. Those strategies are detrimental to students, and go against the science of reading instruction that the new teachers received in their preparation programs. And, unfortunately, research shows that early career teachers typically adopt the teaching practices they encounter in their teaching placements — even if those practices go against what they learned in their training.

Early career teachers struggle with the demands of teaching. They do not yet have the comfort of tenure, and few will push back against a curriculum that goes against their training in the science of reading — an essential component in improving our nation’s literacy.

Related: Retraining an entire states’ elementary teachers in the science of reading

Coordinated efforts to train entire teaching forces in states like Mississippi and North Carolina in the science of reading will be insufficient unless we also adopt instructional materials that align with the science.

If we are truly to reconsider efforts to improve reading instruction, I offer two ideas.

First, graduate and certification programs in educational leadership must help school leaders understand the science of reading. While leadership programs are rich in content like fiscal management and teacher development, they often fall short in teaching leaders what effective literacy instruction looks like and how it underpins all content knowledge.

Because school and district leaders usually control the purse strings, they must be able to wisely determine which curriculums add to literacy development. When school leaders truly understand the science of reading, they become change-makers who can help parents and school boards understand reading instruction.

Second, parents who became more involved with their children’s schooling because of the pandemic must now learn about the research on how kids learn to read so they can push school leaders and boards to choose the best possible instructional methods and materials — and ask why they were chosen.

The tides of literacy instruction will turn only when we place well-trained teachers with well-informed school leaders and provide them with the best possible teaching tools.

Molly Ness is a reading researcher, author, and former university professor. In 2022, she launched the Coalition for Literacy Equity.

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  1. Amen! But let’s add that we need to improve how teachers are taught. It must begin there. Even the “reading specialists” in our public elementary schools often have no idea how to help dyslexic readers. The solution, an Orton-Gillingham based program/approach, could benefit ALL students, but certainly let’s stop letting those students for whom reading is challenging slip through the cracks, or worse, be fed into our prison system. Approximately 34% of all US students are performing to grade level standards for reading in 8th grade. Recent and broad data on reading is trending in the wrong direction. To start, see:
    https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/reading/
    Additionally, we should teach the teachers the neuroscience around learning, so they can better understand the big picture. Our educational system is broken, but there are known, science-based solutions if those in education are humble enough and open enough to keep learning themselves.

  2. What instructional materials do you recommend that aligns with the science.

    we use EL education. It uses the reading rope however, it lacks a great deal in hands on reading books and phonetics.

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