Reading & Literacy

Preservice Teachers Are Getting Mixed Messages on How to Teach Reading

By Madeline Will — January 22, 2020 10 min read
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Everyone agrees that the early years of reading instruction are critical. But there are still vigorous debates among practitioners about how exactly to teach children to read—and new data confirm that preservice teachers are often told competing information.

Decades of research have shown that teaching explicit, systematic phonics is the most reliable way to make sure that young students learn how to read words. Yet an Education Week analysis of nationally representative survey results found that professors who teach early-reading courses are introducing the work of researchers and authors whose findings and theories often conflict with one another, including some that may not be aligned with the greater body of scientific research.

For example, nearly the same number of professors say they introduce the work of Louisa Moats as the ones who cite Gay Su Pinnell. But the two are in different camps on reading instruction. Moats advocates for systematic, explicit phonics instruction, while Pinnell and her frequent collaborator Irene Fountas have written curriculum that includes some phonics instruction, but also encourages students to guess unfamiliar words based on context.

“It really reflects two very different approaches to teaching reading,” said Susan B. Neuman, a professor in early childhood education and literacy development at New York University’s school of education. “Do I think that preservice people are getting a mixed message? I think very definitely they are.”

Education Week’s survey of about 530 professors who teach early-reading courses found that 57 percent of professors ascribe to what’s known as a balanced literacy philosophy. Just 22 percent said their philosophy of teaching early reading centered on explicit, systematic phonics with comprehension as a separate focus.

Proponents say balanced literacy combines explicit instruction, guided practice, and independent reading and writing. But critics say that within balanced literacy, phonics is often included on an ad-hoc basis rather than systematically.

And exposure to researchers and authors in preservice often ends up influencing the content and instruction teachers use when they have a classroom of their own, Neuman said.

“They often use name recognition,” she said. “They’ve heard about Fountas and Pinnell, and as a result, they’re likely to grab onto it.”

It’s worth noting that just 65 percent of professors said they alone select the books, articles, and materials used for their early-reading courses. Nearly a fifth of professors adapt and supplement selections from their university or program, and 11 percent said the university makes the sole selections.

The survey asked professors to list which reading researchers’ work they introduce to their preservice classes. Here are the researchers or research teams most commonly cited, ranked in order with a tie for No. 8.

1. Marie Clay

Known for: The late New Zealand educator and a past president of the International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association) did extensive work on the formative years of literacy learning. Clay believed that students use multiple sources of information, or cues, to read words. She designed a system in which teachers can track which cues students are using to read: meaning (does it make sense in the story?), syntax (does it sound right in the sentence?), or visual (does it look right on the page?).

In the 1970s, Clay incorporated the tracking system into her early intervention program Reading Recovery, which is still widely used today. The research on the effectiveness of the program has been mixed—some studies have linked the program to gains in reading, reading comprehension, and decoding, but some critics have said many of those studies exclude the lowest-achieving students from the data analysis.

Quote: “[Beginning readers] need to use their knowledge of how the world works; the possible meanings of the text; the sentence structure; the importance of order of ideas, or words, or letters; the size of words or letters; special features of sound, shape, and layout; and special knowledge from past literary experiences before they resort to left-to-right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters,” Clay wrote in 1998.

2. Louisa C. Moats

Known for: Moats, the past vice president of the International Dyslexia Association, is a consultant and trainer on literacy education. She developed the research-based commercial professional development series LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling).

Moats has long been vocal about what she perceives as the need for teacher education to improve how teachers are prepared to teach reading, and for teachers to become better aligned with the cognitive research. She has criticized instructional tactics like the cueing system, saying that students must learn to first decode words in order to be successful readers.

Quote: “The tragedy here is that most reading failure is unnecessary. We now know that classroom teaching itself, when it includes a range of research-based components and practices, can prevent and ameliorate reading difficulty,” Moats wrote in a still widely cited 1999 paper for the American Federation of Teachers called “Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science.” “Learning to read is not natural or easy for most children. Reading is an acquired skill.”

3. & 4. Gay Su Pinnell and Irene C. Fountas

Known for: Pinnell, a professor emerita at the Ohio State University, and Fountas, a professor at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., are two former teachers who have developed widely used reading curricula for teachers. Their approach is known as guided or leveled reading. Students work with a teacher in small groups separated by their reading level to read “just-right” texts, rather than ones deemed too challenging or too easy.

Fountas and Pinnell have also endorsed cueing systems and predictable texts, which repeat the same sentence pattern multiple times with slight variations, for early readers. Their Leveled Literacy Intervention does include a scope and sequence for phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, but critics say it’s not systematic and that students might need more opportunities for practice than they are given.

Quote: “[Phonics instruction] cannot be allowed to consume the entire instructional time for reading so that kids learn a lot of phonics but don’t learn to read,” Pinnell said in a November webinar for their publisher Heinemann.

Fountas responded: “[T]here is a strong belief that children need to understand letter-sound relationships in every language, symbol-sound relationships in any language, and phonics knowledge is essential to effective reading. There is total agreement on that. But there can be various perspectives on how to achieve that.”

5. Richard L. Allington

Known for: Allington, a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is a past president of the International Literacy Association. He is a strong proponent of independent reading—allowing children to read what interests them. His research has found that when children from low-income families are given free, self-selected books during the summer, it can eliminate summer reading loss.

Allington has been sharply critical of commercial reading programs, which he says deliver “one-size-fits-all” instruction and require little actual reading. He also has disputed that some students have a learning disability that makes it difficult to process words and read and spell.

Quote: “I’m reasonably sure that [dyslexia] doesn’t exist,” Allington said in a December speech at a Tennessee literacy conference where he dismissed the idea that students with dyslexia need explicit phonics instruction or additional supports to learn to read. Instead, he said, students should be given “self-selected texts—not everybody reading the same decodable story, but everybody reading the book that they’re interested in.”

6. Timothy Shanahan

Known for: Shanahan, a professor emeritus of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a past president of the International Literacy Association, is the former director of reading for Chicago public schools. He helped lead the National Reading Panel in 2000, the congressionally mandated review board that evaluated the research on reading and concluded that phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were critical elements of early literacy teaching.

Shanahan’s research has focused on the connections between reading and how to improve reading achievement. He is an advocate for teaching children to read with more challenging texts, arguing that it gives them an opportunity to deal with complex vocabulary, syntax, and structures.

Quote: “Instead of teaching kids to mimic what readers do when they make mistakes, we need to teach them to do what successful readers do,” Shanahan wrote in a blog post last March criticizing cueing systems. “No doubt, when readers can’t read, they’ll come up with ways of trying to pretend to read. Our job is to teach them to read, not to guide them to pretend better.”

7. Sharon Vaughn

Known for: Vaughn is a professor in the department of special education at the University of Texas at Austin and the executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. Her research focuses on reading interventions for students with learning disabilities and English-language learners.

Quote: “Building vocabulary and concept knowledge through language development is essential to enhance the background knowledge of ELLs,” Vaughn said in an interview with the George W. Bush Presidential Center. “Building vocabulary and background knowledge will be the foundation for more successful reading, learning, and comprehension.”

8. Kenneth and Yetta Goodman

Known for: Kenneth Goodman, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and a past president of the International Literacy Association, is known as the father of whole language, which is the philosophy that literacy develops naturally as children are exposed to books. He and his wife and frequent co-author Yetta, who is also a professor emerita at the University of Arizona, argue that when teachers break “real and natural” language into abstract pieces, such as syllables and isolated sounds, it becomes more difficult for students to learn.

The Goodmans have also developed, and done extensive research on, miscue analysis, which is a tool teachers can use to observe the types of errors students make while they’re reading (similar to the work Clay did). The goal there is for readers to get the words right enough to make sense of the text—Kenneth Goodman has argued that if a student sees the word “horse” and reads it as “pony” based off context clues, he or she is better off than a student who reads the word as “house.” He has called reading a “psycholinguistic guessing game.”

Quote: “Word recognition is a preoccupation,” Kenneth Goodman told APM Reports correspondent Emily Hanford in an August interview. “I don’t teach word recognition. I teach people to make sense of language. And learning the words is incidental to that.”

Tied for 8. P. David Pearson

Known for: Pearson, a professor emeritus and the former dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, is the past chairman of the International Literacy Association’s literacy research panel.

While his current research focuses on literacy history and policy, Pearson has done extensive research on teaching reading comprehension. Good comprehension instruction, he writes, should include both explicit instruction in specific comprehension strategies and plenty of chances for actual reading, writing, and discussing texts.

Pearson has said that he’s in the “radical middle” of the reading wars—in between the whole language and explicit, systematic phonics camps.

Quote: “[T]here must be a higher order level of analysis in which both of these lines of inquiry can be reconciled,” he wrote in a 2001 essay about being in the “radical middle.” “That would be a level in which authentic activity and ambitious instruction were viewed as complements rather than alternatives to one another.”

10. Anita L. Archer

Known for: Archer is a curriculum writer and an educational consultant to school districts on explicit instruction and literacy. She defines explicit instruction as systematic, direct, engaging, and success-oriented instruction that she says is helpful for all students, but essential for students with learning challenges.

Archer delivers professional development on multiple components of reading instruction, including decoding and comprehension, as well as interventions for students with learning disabilities.

Quote: “There is no comprehension strategy powerful enough to compensate for the fact you can’t read the words,” Archer wrote in 2008.


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