Spoiler alert: The hard part about reading instruction is not figuring out how to teach reading. We actually know quite a bit about that. There has been renewed interest in discussing the findings of the 2000 National Reading Panel report on the importance of phonics-based instruction in the early grades. The popularity of Emily Hanford’s radio documentary “Hard Words” and Susan Pimentel’s Education Week Commentary “Why Doesn’t Every Teacher Know the Research on Reading Instruction?”—and the conversations both stirred—underscore that how we teach reading is far from settled, even 20 years after the publication of the panel’s report. Earlier this year, I co-authored a Commentary in this publication on the challenges we district leaders face when it comes to the research-based findings on reading instruction. We all have unfinished learning, but the research is clear. Reading isn’t just about decoding words.
Another critical element here is the central role that background knowledge plays in reading comprehension, which was demonstrated as early as 1988 by Lauren Leslie and Donna R. Recht’s seminal baseball study: If we want students to actually understand the words they are decoding, they must build a critical mass of background knowledge in order to provide context and meaning to what they are reading.
The hard part about reading instruction isn’t even deciding how to take action. Putting the research about reading instruction into practice has been simplified in recent years by the abundance of research-aligned curricula. Finding a suitable curriculum is now as easy as scrolling through EdReports.org and reading summaries of the “all green” options that signify positive standards alignment, usability, and quality. In my school district in Tennessee, we provided teachers with a few curricula options from this list, gathered feedback during a pilot period, and made a decision about what to use.
The hard part is not about the funding required to make these changes, either. On average, my district spent approximately $50 per student to replace all of our English/language arts curricula in every grade, kindergarten through 12th.
For school and district leaders, the hard part about reading instruction is leading a highly effective implementation and sticking to the plan long enough for the work to have a meaningful impact. Putting a new curriculum in a teacher’s hand won’t get the job done. He or she needs support in order to teach it well. Teachers also need time to learn how to communicate the material effectively to students, and students need time to develop academically while learning it. But “time” is not a welcomed word in education.
The good news is that students respond quickly when teachers deliver systematic phonics instruction. Students in the early grades can more readily recognize letters and letter sounds, segmenting, and blending if they are receiving systematic phonics instruction. (David Liben’s “Why a Structured Phonics Program is Effective” is a great summary on this topic.)
Putting a new curriculum in a teacher’s hand won’t get the job done.”
In my district’s first year of implementation with our chosen curriculum (Core Knowledge’s Skills Strand), we doubled the number of kindergarten students who scored above average on a phonics screener. This progress was mirrored by significant gains in the oral reading fluency of our 1st graders. Great instruction with strong materials can close skills gaps for our youngest students in a relatively short amount of time.
While students are making strides with their decoding skills, they must also be building the background knowledge on a wide array of topics needed to understand what they read. Instead of learning to read and then reading to learn, students can and should do both at the same time.
Many of the best curriculum options are structured this way. Embedding important historical figures and events, science concepts, exposure to a diverse array of cultures, and well-known fables and folktales in a coherent sequence within individual grades and across grade levels allows students to gradually connect meaning to otherwise unfamiliar topics as they read. But the key word here is “gradually.”
Vocabulary is like a tiny snowball at the top of a hill. If you can guide it down the right path, it will gradually grow bigger on its own. It just takes a plan and patience.
As a leader, developing this kind of vision for reading instruction requires the constant switching between a long-term and a short-term view. Seeing gains in foundational reading skills happens early and often. On the other hand, navigating a multi-year process of building students’ background knowledge is a more demanding journey. But the sooner we can all agree that there isn’t a bright and shiny program that will save us tomorrow, the sooner we can do right by our students by focusing on what will have the biggest impact in the long run.
If you pursue this course of action, your 3rd grade reading scores will be great, right? Maybe. It is possible to see signs of progress. After a year, the state of Tennessee defined the growth of our district’s 3rd grade students as “above expectations.” But deeper reading proficiency improves at a slow pace.
The knowledge-building required to turn proficient decoders into proficient readers is a long haul, especially for students living in poverty. Comprehension is dependent on understanding the vocabulary involved in any given reading topic, but the topics on high-stakes reading assessments rarely align with the exact topics that students read about in the classroom.
So how do we fix it? We rely on the research about systematic phonics instruction, and we keep students reading books, articles, and literature embedded in a coherent path of topics designed to build their background knowledge. It can be frustrating that there is no way to fast track knowledge-building. You just have to trust the process, and take it day by day.
The education field is notorious for giving up when the results aren’t immediate. But we should stick it out on this one and listen to the research on reading instruction. The rewards will come.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Hard Part About Reading Instruction