Teacher Preparation

Few Teachers Learn About ‘Science of Reading’ in Their Prep Programs. Some Colleges Are Working on That

By Elizabeth Heubeck — February 16, 2024 6 min read
A female teacher of Asian ethnicity is helping her multi ethnic group of students with a book to read. They are all dressed casually and are at their school library.
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Just four years into her career as an elementary school teacher, 26-year-old Kaylee Hutcheson has established herself as a resident expert on evidence-based reading instruction at Hawthorne Elementary School in Mexico, Mo. Recently, she was even appointed to sit on her district’s literacy committee. But the recent college graduate admits that her expertise in the “science of reading” has little to do with what she learned in either her undergraduate or master’s level coursework.

“I had no idea about the science of reading when I was in college,” Hutcheson said. “We weren’t aware that it was so important.”

That’s through no fault of her own.

Between 2013 and the start of 2024, 37 states and the District of Columbia passed laws or implemented policies related to evidence-based reading instruction, according to an Education Week analysis. But the onus for who will train these states’ educators in evidence-based literacy instruction has fallen primarily on school districts and, by extension, existing classroom teachers—not the colleges and universities that train the teachers.

“Only about a quarter of the teachers who leave teacher preparation programs across our nation enter classrooms prepared to teach kids to read [in a way that’s] aligned to the science and research on reading,” said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, or NCTQ, in conjunction with the release of a 2023 study on the topic by her organization.

The 2023 NCTQ analysis rated the majority of licensure exams “weak”, observing that many were not adequately addressing all five science-based components of reading proficiency, as developed by the National Reading Panel: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. To address that gap, the NCTQ called for a “transition to a stronger reading licensure test.”
But to pass reading licensure tests that incorporate the tenets of evidence-based literacy instruction, teacher candidates must first be taught them. .

Why aren’t more teachers-in-training learning evidence-based literacy instruction?

There’s no single or clear-cut reason why the push to learn evidence-based literacy instruction hasn’t focused on colleges of education. Some policy experts suggest that tenured faculty at colleges of education are slow to change their long-entrenched pedagogy and associated teaching methods.

“They’re not shifting fast enough,” said Javaid Siddiqi, president of The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy that advocates for positive changes in public education. “There’s a mentality among some tenured faculty that ‘this is the way I’ve always taught.’”

Some research also suggests that college instructors’ long-held theories about how best to teach literacy do not align with evidence-based best practices, even though the research establishing ‘science of reading’ practices has come out of higher education. In a recent nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey of postsecondary reading instructors, 68 percent of respondents agreed that “balanced literacy,” an approach proponents say combines explicit instruction, guided practice, and independent reading and writing, best described their philosophy of teaching early reading.

But some higher education experts have a different take on why not all colleges of education instruct aspiring teachers in evidence-based literacy approaches.

“I think that there are a lot of really strong programs out there, but also a lot of really weak ones,” said Holly Lane, director of the University of Florida Literacy Institute. Part of the University of Florida College of Education, the institute provides programming to prepare pre-service and current educators for teaching foundational reading skills using evidence-based practices.

Lane blames the lack of uniformly high quality literacy instruction in part on the prevalence of ill-qualified adjunct professors, which she sees as a serious and pervasive problem in colleges of education. “We have a shortage of qualified people preparing teachers,” she said.

Challenges to the evolution of teacher-prep programs

Changes, however slow, are afoot. As of January, 21 states have passed some form of relevant legislation requiring that institutes of higher education and teacher preparation programs review their course offerings or instructional approaches, bring them in line with evidence-based practices, and require courses to cover certain topics related to early reading, according to an Education Week analysis.

Some literacy experts expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of such legislation. Lane, at the University of Florida Literacy Institute, said that, although she believes lawmakers have children’s best intentions in mind, the focus of this legislation is sometimes misguided. For instance, it would be more effective if the new laws focused on what to teach, rather than what not to teach, she explained.

“Banning the 3-cueing system—that’s not going to have a real effect,” Lane said, referring to the practice of prompting students to draw on context, sentence structure, and letters to identify words. “Instead of banning things, making sure they’re using evidence-based practices and programs makes sense.”

Lane raised another question about recent literacy legislation: Does the expertise exist at the state level to make these sort of nuanced decisions around literacy instruction?

That’s where organizations like the Hunt Institute may help. Siddiqi, the institute’s president, has both education and policy experience as a former science teacher, principal, and state education secretary in Virginia.

“We’ve been working with states and state teams to transform teacher preparation and licensure programming to ensure that the science of reading is embedded in [teachers’] learning experience,” Siddiqi said.

The Path Forward, one of the Institute’s signature programs, was launched to strengthen alignment with evidence-based reading instruction and teacher preparation, program approval, and licensure. It supports individual state teams—groups of six or seven individuals working together to shift their teacher preparation and licensure programs to include evidence-based literacy approaches. So far, 18 states have signed on to the program, which operates via virtual meetings and targeted coaching support.

The support and specific goals vary depending on the needs of individual participating states. For instance, North Carolina’s cohort collaborated with educator preparation programs in the state to ensure all pre-service teachers are trained in evidence-based reading instruction before licensure. Arizona’s cohort worked with a state literacy nonprofit on a whitepaper codifying core principles of elementary teacher preparation on early literacy that reflect the continuum of effective literacy practices for students from age 8 through 8th grade.

Siddiqi said policymakers pay attention to what other states are doing, and that this form of positive peer pressure may help facilitate more states to adopt legislation related to changes in literacy instruction. “Having worked in the governor’s office in Virginia myself, we would always pay attention [to what neighboring states were doing],” he said.

In the meantime, the responsibility to learn how to teach students to read proficiently using evidence-based methods will likely continue to fall primarily on teachers—both those who have been using other approaches for years as well as newer teachers like Hutcheson.

Hutcheson has been among the first wave of teachers in Missouri’s Mexico school district to receive training in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, a program which instructs teachers in essential literacy skills and the research behind them. She also attends conferences and other training as time permits to enhance her knowledge of evidence-based literacy instruction.

“What I’ve learned,” Hutcheson said, “is that understanding the science of reading is key for educators to provide the best possible literacy support to their students.”

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