Reading & Literacy

Listen: A Principal Reflects on Shifting to the ‘Science of Reading’

By Sarah Schwartz — September 16, 2022 3 min read
Sherri Miller is the principal of Lacy Elementary in Raleigh, N.C.
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Changing entrenched practices in education is hard—even if they’re not serving all students. But what makes it so difficult to evolve to better approaches? And how can school systems begin to tackle some of these challenges?

These questions are the focus of Education Week’s recent project on putting the “science of reading” into practice, published in July. The stories examine the national movement to align early reading instruction with the evidence base behind how young children learn to read.

Decades of research have demonstrated that the most effective way to teach beginning readers to recognize words on the page is to explicitly teach them how letters represent sounds, and how to blend those letters together into words. But many schools in the United States minimize this kind of instruction—or intersperse it with other, ineffective strategies for learning to read.

In the past two years alone, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation requiring that classroom instruction follow the research. The series of stories published this summer looks at what’s driving this effort, where it might succeed or fail, and why.

Earlier this month, social media producer Hayley Hardison and I spoke with Sherri Miller, a principal at Lacy Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C., in a Twitter Spaces event that dug deeper into how this movement is playing out in North Carolina. The state recently passed a law requiring sweeping changes to how schools teach reading.

Miller, whose school is featured in the Education Week series, talked about the history of reading instruction in the state, and why shifting schools’ approach is such a massive undertaking.

“Your philosophy on reading is as deep as religion,” Miller told me this past spring. “I’ve had many matches with people where you just go round and round and round. It’s kind of like the politics in our country.”

Here are a few takeaways from the Sept. 7 conversation:

Most school systems employ a patchwork of strong and not-so-strong instructional practices. Miller talked about how North Carolina created its own training for teachers in evidence-based reading practice two decades ago, with the goal of raising achievement for students with disabilities. But uptake of the course varied district by district and even school by school, meaning that receiving that evidence-based instruction was “hit or miss” for students, Miller said. The goal with these state-wide mandates is to standardize access to high-quality instruction, she added.

Understanding the research is one thing. Putting it into practice is another. Many states, including North Carolina, are mandating that teachers take a training called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, more commonly known as LETRS. The two-year course gives teachers a thorough grounding in reading research, but it doesn’t always translate to adoption of new practices or increases in student achievement (for more on the research base behind LETRS, see this story). This is where support for teachers is crucial, Miller said. “I’m done with unit 8, but then how does that look in my classroom?” she asked. That’s where coaches come in, she said.

Change can be an emotional process. Teachers’ practices are “deep-rooted,” Miller said, the result of years spent in teacher-preparation programs, hours of professional development, and advice handed down from mentors and promoted by literacy edu-celebrities. Communication with—and support for—teachers needs to be well-planned, she said. Otherwise, asking teachers to change what they’re doing could feel like an attack on their professional credentials.

For more on what schools are doing to address these barriers, listen to the whole Twitter Spaces conversation here:

And check out Education Week’s full collection of stories on putting the science of reading into practice.

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