Reading & Literacy

Schools Should Follow the ‘Science of Reading,’ Say National Education Groups

By Sarah Schwartz — November 12, 2019 3 min read
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In the wake of falling reading scores on the test known as the Nation’s Report Card, 12 major education groups are calling on schools to adopt evidence-based reading instruction.

On Tuesday, the collective—consisting of Achieve, Alliance for Excellent Education, Collaborative for Student Success, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Learning Heroes, Literacy How, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Council on Teacher Quality, the National Urban Alliance, the National Urban League, the Military Child Education Coalition, and the Education Trust—released a call to action, urging policymakers and education officials to prioritize evidence-based instruction, content-rich curriculum, and teacher training.

With this move, the 12 organizations join the growing number of education groups publicly advocating for the “science of reading"—the decades of psychology and cognitive science research that demonstrate best practices in teaching children how to comprehend text. This summer, for instance, the International Literacy Association endorsed systematic and explicit phonics in all early reading instruction.

See also: Getting Reading Right

The topic has seen a surge of interest recently, after a series of radio documentaries by American Public Media’s Emily Hanford reported that a lot of elementary schools aren’t delivering the kind of systematic phonics instruction that many beginning readers need in order to decode words.

“We’ve known for more than two decades—at least since the report of the National Reading Panel—that the successful instruction of almost all beginning readers must include phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension instruction,” the collective’s statement reads. “Yet, that isn’t what’s happening in many American schools.”

The results on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, released last month, painted a troubling picture of young students’ reading ability. Overall, 4th and 8th graders’ performance in reading is declining—and the lowest-performing students are losing the most ground.

Only 35 percent of 4th graders were considered proficient readers on the NAEP test, compared to 37 percent of 4th graders in 2017. Eighth graders’ scores dropped too, from 36 percent at proficient in 2017, to 34 percent this year. While the highest-performing students scores’ stagnated, the lowest-performing students scores dropped.

What’s causing this trend? It’s hard to know for sure. The NAEP test measures reading comprehension, but as EdWeek’s Liana Loewus pointed out after the scores were released, comprehension isn’t a single skill. Instead, it’s the product of two different factors.

Students need to be able to understand how to read the words off a page—how to decode. But they also need to have the vocabulary and background knowledge to understand the words that they read. While the NAEP scores can show that students are struggling, they can’t pinpoint which part of this comprehension equation students are struggling with.

See also: How Do Kids Learn to Read? What the Science Says

The first two points on the 12 groups’ agenda highlight both strands of reading comprehension, calling for schools to teach foundational skills, while also implementing curriculum that is designed to build student knowledge.

The group also called for teacher preparation programs to better train future educators in evidence-based instruction, for greater availability of high-quality books by diverse authors, and for an increased federal investment in literacy, from birth through 12th grade.

The collective cited Mississippi, one of the only two states to see an increase in reading achievement on NAEP, as an exemplar of “what’s possible when these strategies are implemented patiently and effectively.”

In 2013, the state passed a 3rd grade retention law, which allowed students to be held back if they couldn’t reach proficiency. In the years since, Mississippi has turned its attention to training teachers in evidence-based practices.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.