More than half of the states are mandating changes to how early reading is taught. The process of phasing in new methods, materials, and philosophies will be challenging. And as one researcher said, “the dirt is in the details.”
The legislative movement aims to bring teaching in line with what advocates are calling the “science of reading”—the body of research on how children learn to read text. Many of the practices that schools currently use, and that are promoted by popular reading programs, do not align with this evidence base.
Education Week’s new series of stories looks deeply at how the attempt to change teaching practice at scale is unfolding on the ground. The collection examines the national landscape and dives deep into the experience of one state—North Carolina—as it implemented a new reading law this past school year.
All the stories are available here. It’s a lot to read, so here are five of the most important takeaways to get you started.
1. States’ number one priority? Professional development
Most states that have passed legislation or implemented other policies related to evidence-based reading instruction are focused on training current teachers in new practices. Of the at least 29 states that have issued a mandate, 23 include some form of professional development or coaching.
This trend has grown out of the idea that the most important factor for strong instruction is teacher knowledge. “When you know better, you do better,” goes a popular saying among science of reading proponents.
States vary in how they’re rolling out this training. Some are creating their own programs; some are bringing in outside vendors; others are letting districts choose from a few options.
One course stands out as more popular than the rest: Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, more commonly known as LETRS. While its content is aligned to a science of reading framework, studies have shown that LETRS doesn’t necessarily improve the achievement of students whose teachers take the course.
2. Teachers can’t do it alone. Systems matter
Overhauling a school or district’s approach to reading instruction requires a lot more than just teacher training—and the burden can’t rest on teachers alone.
In Mississippi, a state that many others have regarded as a model for reading overhaul, the state created systems for assigning and training coaches, for maintaining professional learning quality, for identifying schools that needed extra support, and for providing principals with updates on school progress.
In Tennessee, another state that has worked over the past few years to revamp reading instruction, the department of education designed its own teacher training and foundational skills curriculum with input from educators. Doing so allowed the department to respond directly to districts’ needs, and to align the training to a common set of materials, said Lisa Coons, the chief of standards and materials at the Tennessee Department of Education.
Creating a thoughtful, detailed plan for implementation takes time and effort, Coons said. “It’s not something I can put on a one pager and go shop to different states and say, ‘Do this, it’s magic.’”
3. The ‘science of reading’ isn’t just about phonics. (Really)
The “science of reading” is often described as an emphasis on foundational skills instruction—teaching students how to recognize the different sounds in words, how to link those sounds to letters, and how to blend those letters together to read words.
While systematic, explicit instruction in these foundational word-reading skills is a key component of an evidence-based approach to reading instruction, the “science of reading” involves more than just phonics.
Experts say that students also need to have rich conversations to develop oral language, vocabulary, and critical thinking—even before they can read text. They need opportunities to build knowledge about different subjects and learn how to use comprehension strategies. They need to write about what they’re reading.
Once students have some decoding ability, all of these parts of reading instruction are integrated, said Gina Cervetti, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan who studies the intersection of literacy and content-area learning. Students are practicing their decoding skills in text, talking about that text, learning vocabulary from that text, and writing about that text.
If states don’t put as much effort into getting all of these aspects of reading right as they do with foundational skills, they’re not going to get the results they want, Cervetti said.
4. Educators must fundamentally reimagine their practice. And old habits can be hard to shake
Researchers say that many techniques that are commonly taught in teacher preparation and promoted in popular reading programs can undermine evidence-based practices. Take, for example, a technique known as three-cueing.
A teacher will observe a child reading a book, coaching them when they come to a word that stumps them. The teacher might suggest that the student look at the letters to try to sound the word out, but she could also tell the child to look at the picture for clues, or think about what word would make sense.
But studies have shown that encouraging students to rely on other “cues” can take students’ focus away from the words and lower the chances that they’ll apply their phonics skills in context. And if teachers are teaching students a systematic, explicit phonics sequence in the morning but then using cueing in the afternoon, experts say, it could undermine the effectiveness of their instruction.
There’s some evidence that this mismatch of practices is occurring now. Despite the many states that have passed “science of reading” legislation, 61 percent of teachers say that they still use cueing.
5. Follow-up support and coaching could make a big difference
In interviews with Education Week, teachers said that they wanted more support in putting all of the new learning they’re doing into practice.
“I felt like a lot of it was giving me background knowledge, background knowledge. But I wasn’t getting—how do you apply it?” said Raul Olivares Jr., a kindergarten teacher at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., who is currently taking LETRS as part of the state’s reading initiative.
Research on providing coaching in addition to LETRS has shown that it raises the chances that teachers will make changes to their practice. And the evidence base on coaching as a lever to change practice in general is strong. Good coaching systems, in which coaches are trained themselves and are strategically placed in schools, can improve teacher practice and student achievement.