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Our lives are heavily influenced by our ability to read. Yet across the country, millions of kids are struggling to learn this vital skill.

A low literacy level at a young age can have a lifelong impact that includes poor physical and mental health, limited employment opportunities and lower quality of life.

As students return to the classroom this fall — many for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that upended their access to quality, in-person learning — we have an opportunity to enact standards to ensure that teachers’ instruction methods are effective and backed by science.

In 2019, just over one-third of students in the U.S. achieved National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) proficiency in fourth grade reading. The rate was worse for children of color: Just 18 percent of Black students and 23 percent of Hispanic students achieved proficiency.

During the pandemic, these challenges have been exacerbated. Preliminary research from the nonprofit assessment group NWEA suggested that students would retain only 70 percent of last year’s gains in reading when they returned for the 2020-21 academic year compared with a typical school year.  Results from the fall 2020 assessment showed that students in grades 1-8 “lost” an extra 1 percent in reading compared to fall 2019, with high-poverty students “losing” more.

States that have adopted legislation around science-aligned approaches to reading instruction have seen significant improvements in reading achievement.

That’s why it’s critical for state policymakers and school administrators to adopt a standard for teaching reading based on the science of reading — a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically based researchabout reading and issues related to reading and writing.

The research provides evidence that informs how proficient reading and writing skills develop over time and shows why some students have difficulty. Its conclusions can help us effectively assess, teach and improve student outcomes, both by preventing reading difficulties and identifying students early who need intervention.

There is a strong coalition of support behind the science of reading, even though it had yet to be reflected in conventional wisdom about reading instruction or widely utilized in U.S. classrooms or teacher preparation programs — until now.

For the first time since the National Council on Teacher Quality began publishing teacher preparation program ratings, the number of programs that embrace the science of reading has crossed the halfway mark.

Of 1,000 evaluated traditional elementary teacher preparation programs across the country in 2020, 51 percent earned an A or B grade for their coverage of the key components of the science of reading — up from 35 percent just seven years earlier.

Furthermore, states that have adopted legislation around science-aligned approaches to reading instruction have seen significant improvements in reading achievement.

Take Mississippi, for example — a state that had been near or at the bottom of most state education rankings for years. In 2013, the state passed the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which ended the promotion of students beyond third grade who fail to meet an established reading cut-off score or qualify for an exemption.

After the Act’s passage, Mississippi aligned with the science of reading. The state trained K-3 teachers and elementary school administrators how to teach foundational reading skills and provided support by placing highly trained reading coaches in its lowest-performing schools.

Related: Can literacy coaches help solve Mississippi’s education woes?

Years later, those efforts have yielded positive results. In 2019, Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on NAEP assessments.

Despite high poverty, fourth-graders in Mississippi scored better than the nation’s average in math, tied the national average in reading and outgained the nation in both reading and math.

Many other states are enacting similar legislation. Alabama passed a comprehensive early literacy policy in 2019. During the 2021 legislative session alone, the Tennessee, North Carolina, Louisiana and Connecticut legislatures passed comprehensive early literacy policies that include training for teachers in the science of reading, guidance on the adoption of high-quality instructional materials and interventions for students identified as having reading deficiencies.

As school districts, educators and parents across the U.S. consider how to make up for the interrupted learning suffered over the last year, it is critical that we establish a shared understanding among administrators and educators on how to improve reading outcomes.

At the end of the day, all children deserve a chance to learn to read, and all teachers can learn to teach them. Adopting consistent, science-backed standards around how reading is taught is how we will get there.

Kymyona Burk is the policy director for early education at ExcelinEd and a board member of The Reading League. Maria Murrayis the founder, president and CEO of The Reading League.

This story about the science of reading was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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