As states have crafted plans for addressing the academic disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, one area has emerged as a policy priority: early reading instruction.
At least 18 states and the District of Columbia have said that they plan to use COVID-19 relief funding through the American Rescue Plan or previous aid packages to support teacher training or instruction in evidence-based approaches to early literacy. And over the past year, four states have passed new laws or enacted regulations that mandate teachers be taught, and use, techniques that are grounded in the large body of research on how children learn to read.
While some of these new developments are designed to support students with pandemic-interrupted education, they’re also part of years-long legislative momentum on expanding research-based reading instruction that started pre-COVID, said Kymyona Burk, the policy director for early literacy at ExcelinEd, an advocacy group founded by Jeb Bush, Florida’s former governor. Burk was previously the Mississippi Department of Education’s state literacy director, leading the implementation of Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act.
In early 2020, Education Week reported that at least 11 states had enacted laws aimed at expanding evidence-based early instruction in grades K-3 over the past three years.
There’s a large, established body of research in psychology, human development, and cognitive science focused on how people learn to read. This literature spans many processes, from vocabulary acquisition to comprehension to the role of background knowledge. One of the key findings in this research, though, relates to foundational reading skills, which allow children to decipher print.
Decades of studies have shown that explicitly and systematically teaching students which sounds represent which letters—teaching them phonics—is the most effective way to get them reading words. But as reporting from Education Week and other outlets has demonstrated, many teacher preparation programs don’t teach their students how to deliver this kind of instruction.
North Carolina’s new law, passed in April, requires teacher training in the “science of reading,” while in Pennsylvania, teacher preparation programs are now mandated to teach “structured literacy”—defined as a “strong core” of foundational skills integrated alongside instruction in listening, speaking, reading, writing, and spelling.
Also this year, Arkansas banned three-cueing, a practice of word identification that encourages students to rely on pictures and context to decipher words, not just letters. Connecticut passed a law requiring schools to use “evidence-based” reading materials, to be selected from an approved list drawn up by a department of education committee.
While many reading researchers agree that many teachers could benefit from more training in evidence-based methods, some also voiced concerns about the unintended consequences of using legislation as a lever for change.
“Legal remedies are a clumsy, heavy-handed tool. If you write a law saying you can’t use three-cueing approaches, that’s easy to evade and difficult to enforce,” said Mark Seidenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies reading.
On the other hand, he said: “Nothing else was working. And the laws are having some impact.”
Legislation makes promises but has limits
Mandating that teachers use “evidence-based” methods isn’t a new phenomenon, said P. David Pearson, a reading researcher and emeritus faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education.
Reading First, the George W. Bush-era grant program authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, required schools to use “scientifically based reading research” to receive grant funding.
But critics of the program argued that its implementation put too much focus on one area of the science—foundational skills instruction—leaving teachers without enough time to work with young students on other key components of literacy instruction, like building vocabulary and background knowledge and developing comprehension skills.
With these new policies, states and districts should take care not to repeat this pattern, said Claude Goldenberg, a professor emeritus at Stanford University who studies early literacy development in English-language learners. “We need to learn from things that don’t work out, even if experiments say they should,” he said.
But Burk, of ExcelinEd, said it’s crucial to help teachers develop a common understanding of how children learn the foundations of reading—an understanding that often isn’t taught in their preparation programs or in professional development.
“With legislation, we can ensure that these things are happening everywhere,” she said. Some new laws, like North Carolina’s, write in this support for teachers through professional development, and detail how the state will hold teacher preparation programs accountable for conveying this information.
Fostering teacher buy-in will be crucial, said Pearson. “Programs that engage the teachers and help them develop ownership of it, [that] make them responsible for implementation and monitoring one another, create a system that becomes self-monitoring. Reform efforts that don’t take into account the social and cultural facets of learning are, I think, never going to be effective.”
Laws like the one in Arkansas, which bans three-cueing, also put pressure on curriculum publishers to align to evidence-based practice, said Seidenberg: “If they want to continue selling their products in those markets, they are going to have to change enough to satisfy the stipulations in those laws.”
Aligning materials will be the next task for these states, Burk said. “We are teaching teachers how to teach reading, and then they’re going back into their classrooms and looking at their materials and saying, ‘This doesn’t line up.’”