Opinion
Reading & Literacy Opinion

The Heavy Cost of Ignoring the Science of Reading for Teachers and Students

Teachers are struggling, students are the casualties
By Elise Lovejoy — December 15, 2022 5 min read
Conceptual surreal illustration of a young boy in a boat on a book heading for a whirlpool.
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The reading wars are back in full swing in the form of a very public battle that gives lots of attention to people and opinions instead of facts. An important fact, not opinion, is that children are struggling to read. To be exact, two-thirds of American 4th graders cannot read proficiently, according to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress. People fighting to keep their positions of power or assert their dominance in the reading field are causing a mess for our teachers to wade through.

The people with the most prestigious professional associations get their voices heard. The people with the most expensive degrees get their advice translated as truths. And the people with the biggest followings continue to have the final say even after their words have proved to be untruthful.

When I was a young K-2 teacher myself, I, too, listened to all the biggest voices in the reading field, assuming they had done their research on reading and knew the best ways to support students. I had graduated from college with a degree in elementary education, received a glossy curriculum in my first school district, and read the pedagogy manuals as if they contained absolute laws.

What I didn’t understand in all my naiveté is that I had learned about reading programs, not reading methods, and that my first district bought a reading program based on a sales pitch without the assertion that it taught reading in the way that children learned. Instead of focusing on phonics, the students and I huddled in guided-reading groups and did picture walks. I facilitated guessing words based on the sentence, the first letter sound, or the picture provided.

It wasn’t until I watched other teachers focus on sounds and sound spellings in my next district that I even knew there was a problem with how I had been teaching reading. All of a sudden, words began to make sense to me, and my students could read books and text without pictures or predictable sentence cues.

But even with my new understanding, the materials, resources, and support I needed were scarce. I spent my nights and weekends on the internet gathering decodable books and activities that required students to practice sound-based skills, not whole-language memorization. In my subsequent districts, I felt tension with my colleagues who did not question their curriculum or the sources they were derived from. I bumped up against administrators who encouraged methods that pushed children to guess at words.

When I began my own in-depth research on the cognitive science behind reading instruction, I threw myself into developing my own curriculum and resources. As I talk to colleagues who have traveled a similar path for reading instruction, as I fight my own sons’ school district to see the disparity in reading scores, and as I read emails and posts by other literacy teachers, there is a shattering theme: Teachers are struggling.

Teachers are forced to find best practices, training, and resources for literacy during their personal time and often on their own dime.

Teachers are finding that they did not learn the correct skills or knowledge in their own education programs to systematically teach reading.

Teachers are working in communities filled with infighting because some of their colleagues cling to the failing methods.

Teachers are angry that former “experts,” mentors, professors, and administrators pushed methods that were most effective for children of privilege who had supplemental resources and support at home—an approach that left countless students behind.

Teachers are mired with guilt for those students they left behind by following shoddy reading curricula.

Teachers are going against their districts’ outdated reading methods to ensure all their kids can read, even at the risk of retaliation or punishment.

Teachers are fighting their way through the noise, all while trying to do the million other jobs we have given them.

I was one of many teachers who once taught balanced literacy but struggled to learn the correct way—reading methods founded and based on sounds and sound-spellings supported by reliable research on how children learn to read. I am just one of many other teachers living in the ruins of the reading wars, often blamed for the failures even as we fought to find the solutions to help children.

As that teacher, I am still trying to forgive myself for the students I once taught to guess their way through books with pictures and predictable sentences until the books lost the pictures and became too hard to guess accurately. The children whose families do not have the financial means to support them when my districts’ chosen reading program couldn’t meet their needs. The students who never learned to read and now struggle academically. The students who felt stupid because I never taught them how to read.

I, too, am one of the countless parents of a struggling reader. As a mom, I want both my sons to feel supported so that one day they can find the joy in a good book.

I am one in a growing village of science of reading advocates speaking at school board meetings in our district about the inequity that comes from not teaching reading in a structured, scientific, and systematic way. As a community member, I want my district administrators to do their jobs, the research, and their due diligence instead of making excuses for low reading scores.

The reading wars have become a battlefield for influential adults to fight for their own reputations, personal feelings, and egos. Education should be grounded in science about how our children learn and how we can support that learning process as effectively as possible. The people who count most—the reason we became teachers and the ones who hold our hearts as parents—are the children, and we can’t afford to keep letting them down in service of the comfort of adults.

Our children need teachers who feel prepared, educated, and supported in methods based on the cognitive way children learn to read, before any more of them become collateral damage in this public battle. They need us to keep our focus on children, not the well-funded adults who are defending outdated and unfounded reading methods with their opinions.

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