Almost two decades ago, the National Reading Panel reviewed more than 100,000 studies and arrived at recommendations for how students should receive daily, explicit, systematic phonics instruction in the early grades. Why is this literacy research not more widely known? Why is the fact that reading skills need to be taught, and that there is a well-documented way to do it, not something highlighted in many teacher-preparation programs (or parenting books, for that matter)?
Recently, a remarkable audio-documentary by Emily Hanford went viral, shining a spotlight on such crucial literacy research—none of which is new, but much of which is unknown to today’s teachers. Like many in the literacy community, I worry about our failure to bring research into classroom practice. My concern is greatest for teachers who are being sent into classrooms without the tools they need to succeed. I’m hopeful this renewed interest will serve as a catalyst for overhauling reading instruction in our teacher-preparation programs. However, relying solely on better preparation for the next generation of teachers is a slow delivery system to children. The stakes are too high. We need more immediate solutions.
Only roughly one-third of our nation’s 4th and 8th graders can demonstrate proficiency on national tests, with students from low-income families and students of color faring the worst. When students can’t read, they have trouble learning; the great majority of students who fail to master reading by 3rd grade either drop out or finish high school with dismal lifetime earning potentials.
I’d like to build on the momentum Hanford’s piece has sparked to call attention to additional research-based practices that go hand-in-hand with the importance of phonics. As educators experience ‘aha’ moments about the need for stronger phonics instruction, let’s talk about some other literacy practices that need fixing in elementary classrooms. Here’s my short list of practices and resources to add to the conversation:
1. Let all kids read the good stuff. The pervasive practice of putting kids into reading groups according to their “just right” reading level has meant that large numbers of students receive a steady diet of below-grade-level instruction. The texts they’re reading don’t require them to decipher unfamiliar vocabulary, confront challenging concepts, or parse new and complicated language. Noted literacy researcher Timothy Shanahan has written extensively about why this is the wrong approach, documenting that “after 70 years there still isn’t any research supporting the idea of matching kids to just-right texts” after 1st grade—yet still the practice persists. This, despite research showing that the ability to handle complex text is the distinguishing characteristic between students who go on to do well in college and work and those who don’t.
Why would we deprive our youngsters of the opportunity to build this muscle in elementary school, when all that’s standing in the way of their doing so is the opportunity and the support that close reading can provide?
The Council of Chief State School Officers offers a host of resources to help teachers guide students with complex texts.
2. Build students’ general content knowledge. Some of the most profoundly important, yet under-recognized, reading research shows that students’ reading comprehension depends heavily on their background knowledge about the world—knowledge that comes largely from learning about science and social studies topics. When students know something about a topic, they are better able to read a text in which that topic is discussed, even when the sentence structure is complex or the words are unfamiliar. Cognitive science expert Daniel Willingham explains this principle clearly, and the Knowledge Matters Campaign expands on it further.
The implications for literacy instruction are enormous because young children are receiving less time with science and social studies content in their school day. According to a 2007 study, instructional time spent on these subjects dropped by an hour and a half per week since the 1990s. The diminished attention to these knowledge-building topics creates less fertile ground for reading comprehension to flourish and is a significant culprit in our stagnant national reading outcomes. Given that time is a scarce commodity in most schools, the takeaway for school leaders is to incorporate rich content, organized around conceptually-related topics, into the reading curriculum so that students learn new information about the world while they develop as readers. Student Achievement Partners has ready-made resources that teachers can pull into their classrooms.
3. Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy-lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools. It is not an overstatement to say that a school that doesn’t have a phonics program is doing its students a huge disservice. Increasingly, the same can be said about the lack of intentionality for building students’ knowledge of the world and access to complex text. The current lack of educator know-how can be remedied by curriculum that points the way.
Fortunately, bolstered by emerging research about the “curriculum effect,” we’re in the midst of a curriculum renaissance. In recent years, a number of respected organizations have developed curricula that are tailor-built to both state standards and the latest research. Educator reviews conducted by organizations such as the nonprofit EdReports or Louisiana Believes can help schools easily identify the best curriculum for their context. No longer should classroom teachers need to scour the internet for materials. Instead, educators can spend their time focusing on how to become the best possible deliverers of thoughtfully arranged, comprehensive, sequential curriculum that embeds standards, the science of reading, and the instructional shifts described above.
I have great empathy for teachers who have labored under the weight of misdirected teacher preparation, insufficient curriculum, ever-shifting educational fads, and ever-increasing professional demands—and welcome the attention of journalists who are shining a light on the opportunity represented by the convergence of science and a new class of high-quality curriculum materials. Based on my own experiences with educators taking this improvement journey, significant reading gains are possible with the right support. Our students’ reading future can be bright—if we seize the moment.