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As if the pandemic weren’t enough, we’re about to be hit with another tsunami, one not likely to be fought with a vaccine. Thousands of our nation’s students aren’t learning to read, and the patchwork of instructional programs, limited resources and frequent change from hybrid to virtual schooling surely is contributing to the problem.
Pre-pandemic, we weren’t doing all that well in teaching our children to read. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress stagnated, with children lacking even basic proficiency by the end of third grade. Around one-third of our nation’s fourth graders were scoring below basic on standardized tests, a staggering statistic that isn’t even newsworthy anymore.
For too long, we’ve been doing the same thing in reading instruction over and over again, expecting different results. Today, in large part, programs rely on reading methods that employ a three-cueing system, based on an understanding that readers use three systems: meaning, syntax and phonics skills. If one system fails (such as phonics), the other cues are considered to step up, picking up the slack. Yet despite its application in many commonly used reading programs, this method has never been shown to be effective.
In fact, it is predicated on notions of reading development that have been demonstrated to be false. Albert Einstein called such mindless repetition insanity; we call it complacency. Rather than embrace instruction based on scientific evidence, too many of our nation’s schools cling to ideas from the dark ages of literacy instruction. Guided reading, balanced literacy and whole language simply don’t stand up to interdisciplinary science that shows how the brain learns to read. We’ve relied upon instructional approaches that teach our students ineffective methods and programs that shortchange students on necessary foundational skills of reading.
We’ve relied upon instructional approaches that teach our students ineffective methods and programs that shortchange students on necessary foundational skills of reading.
Go into an average first grade classroom. You may see talented teachers trying to teach reading with materials that are based on failed practices, known as “balanced literacy.” This approach, widely adopted throughout the country, doesn’t give much credibility to the need for phonics or other essential foundations of reading, like background knowledge and vocabulary.
In that same classroom, children will approach the difficult task of reading an unfamiliar word. They’ll look at the pictures, gaze at a word wall, guess words, or wait patiently for the teacher to give them the answer. This is a fail-and-fix model of teaching reading: Watch children fail, and hope that they will fix it by trying just a little harder.
Learning to read isn’t easy. It requires skills that are systematically and sequentially taught, practiced and reviewed over time. These skills include not just phonics, but vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. It also demands background knowledge, gained when children read meaningful content. These skills can’t be taught in a haphazard way; they need to build on one another with explicit instruction and sufficient practice. Structured approaches, based on the Simple View of Reading formula and the intertwined skills shown in Hollis Scarborough’s Reading Rope, lead to successful literacy acquisition.
So, what would true reform in literacy instruction entail?
First, we need curricula based on scientific evidence of effective reading instruction. In the early grades, our students need explicit instruction in phonics and decoding, instant recognition of words from memory, the ability to map sounds to correct spellings of words, knowledge of the meanings and functions of words, and fluent reading to support comprehension of text.
Such instruction must occur in culturally responsive classrooms, under the tutelage of highly effective teachers, in schools plentiful with reading materials, led by leaders who embrace literacy as a lifelong skill.
The time for complacency is over. As we envision a post-Covid landscape, we have a unique opportunity to reset literacy instruction for our children.
At all levels, our children need content-rich instruction that promotes vocabulary acquisition, stimulates curiosity and builds background knowledge. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, got it right. Knowledge matters, and content knowledge across the disciplines is the backbone of understanding.
Next, our teachers need a comprehensive understanding of the science of reading, linking theory and research to classroom application. A thorough and rigorous program of professional development would not only save millions of funding dollars, but would provide a common language about proficient reading.
State officials, teacher educators, school leaders and other stakeholders in Mississippi have shown that with concerted efforts to increase teacher knowledge, positive outcomes are attainable. This is significant because Mississippi, a poor and rural state, has long trailed the country in test scores.
In the post-pandemic world, we will find ourselves facing a crossroads of literacy instruction. We can either return to the balanced literacy approaches or we can use the interdisciplinary research from the science of reading to adopt new reading programs and rethink the training we provide for teachers at all levels of their careers. As reading researchers who care greatly about the education of the nation’s children, we urge all states and districts to utilize literacy instruction based on scientific evidence in a consistent and coherent way.
The time for complacency is over. As we envision a post-Covid landscape, we have a unique opportunity to reset literacy instruction for our children. We call on school leaders and school boards to push aside curriculum that relies upon the three-cueing system and instead adopt programs with ample phonics instruction and the opportunity to transfer word knowledge skills to authentic text.
We ask everyone in the field of teacher development — at the university level and across all programs of professional learning — to help teachers understand and apply the science of reading. We also hope that Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of education, shares our outrage about decades of subpar test scores and prioritizes literacy instruction.
Let’s not fail our nation’s students again.
Susan B. Neuman was the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education under former President George W. Bush and is a professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University. Molly Ness is an associate professor at Fordham University.
The following literacy educators contributed to this article: Susan Chambrè, Barbara Foorman, Esther Friedman, Joanna Williams and Linnea Ehri.
This story about teaching reading was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.