Reading & Literacy Project

States Are Pushing Changes to Reading Instruction. But Old Practices Prove Hard to Shake

By Sarah Schwartz — July 20, 2022 10 min read
The state of North Carolina is taking measures to improve reading rates in elementary schools, including this classroom at Lacy Elementary in Raleigh, N.C.
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More than half the states—29 of them—have passed laws or implemented policies over the past decade to bring teacher training, materials, interventions, or teacher preparation in line with evidence-based approaches to reading instruction. New data helps to illuminate where progress has been made—and how far states have to go.

Exclusive survey findings from the EdWeek Research Center show that old practices—like asking students to use multiple “cues” or sources of information to learn new words—persist. And educators also said that the past few years have been upended by the pandemic, making new initiatives more difficult to implement and maintain.

This patchwork worries some reading experts, who fear that these reading initiatives will fail without clear, consistent plans for implementation.

“Getting the law to pass is actually the easy part. … Just because you pass a law doesn’t mean anything changes for kids,” said Emily Solari, a professor of reading education at the University of Virginia. She worked with Virginia legislators to provide feedback on their reading law plan.

Many states have attempted to copy Mississippi’s 2013 approach and its subsequent academic gains. But officials in the Magnolia State say that simply passing the same legislative requirements won’t lead to the same outcomes.

“You’ll hear about some states that will say, ‘We’re doing all of these things.’ If you had a checklist, they could check everything off. But implementation truly matters,” said Kymyona Burk, a senior policy fellow at ExcelinEd, who led the implementation of Mississippi’s law as the state’s literacy director.

The shifts in reading teaching that many states are asking schools to make go beyond simply adding a few new practices to teachers’ toolboxes. Instead, the “science of reading” asks teachers and leaders to adopt a new framework of how skilled reading develops—and what educators need to do to support that process.

State legislation is ‘a mixed bag,’ researchers say

States have legislated dozens of different fixes designed to bring schools in line with the “science of reading,” which refers to approaches based on the decades of evidence on how students learn to read: mandating teacher training, putting out new lists of approved materials, and changing how schools support struggling readers.

The ambitious plans are costing millions of dollars and thousands of teacher and student hours.

Some states have made gains, like Mississippi, which made headlines in 2019 for its much-improved reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Key components of its legislation have since been copied by others seeking to replicate the “Mississippi model.”

Since the state passed its law in 2013, 29 other states have passed legislation or implemented policies that mandate changes to bring teacher training, materials, interventions, or teacher preparation in line with evidence-based approaches to reading instruction. Many have been completed just in the past few years. (See Education Week’s reading legislation tracker for more information about which steps different states are taking.)

In brief, the science of reading embraces the systematic, explicit teaching of sounds and letters. While they learn how to crack the code, students are also introduced to rich stories and texts that build their background knowledge. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more complex texts.

What is the "science of reading"?

The goal with all of these trainings, new materials, and new approaches is to align instruction to what’s now known as the “science of reading.” ...


In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds, and how those sounds combine to make words. At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.


Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.


Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

The most commonly cited requirement in legislation is for professional development—meant to increase teacher knowledge related to the science of reading, or to help them apply new learning to practice.

The policies proposed in these laws are “a real mixed bag” in how effective they might be in changing student outcomes, said Nell Duke, a professor of early literacy development at the University of Michigan.

Some are promising, like coaching. Research shows that good coaching systems, in which coaches are trained themselves and are strategically placed in schools, can improve teacher practice and student achievement. “We have a lot of reason to believe that that is going to move the needle” if it’s implemented carefully, Duke said.

Others don’t have the same evidence base. Policies to retain 3rd graders who aren’t yet reading at grade level —which are part of some of these laws—show some short-term gains for students, but show no effects, or sometimes negative effects, in the longer term.

And still other potential solutions will depend largely on how they’re implemented, Duke said. Take curriculum.

“We do know that curriculum makes a difference,” she said. But what curriculum schools end up with depends on how a state defines alignment to the research, and who determines whether certain materials fulfill that definition, Duke said.

Training is occurring, but old practices persist, new survey data show

In 2022, to gain a sense of how the instructional landscape has changed since Education Week last surveyed educators about reading in 2019, the media organization’s research center administered a new survey of teachers, principals, and district administrators who conduct or oversee early reading instruction.

Results suggest that, so far, any changes to reading teaching are happening slowly and unevenly across the country.

Almost all respondents—93 percent—said that they or the teachers they supervised had participated in some reading professional learning over the past five years. But this training didn’t always lead to changes in teaching.

Of all respondents who said they or the teachers they work with had taken reading training over the past five years, half said they had taken one of two programs: Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, also known as LETRS, or training in the Orton-Gillingham approach. Both are designed to help students support students with reading difficulties.

Education systems are also turning to COVID relief funding to support changes to reading instruction. Twenty-six states have used some federal COVID money to train teachers, run summer reading programs, purchase new curricula and assessments, or hire new staff such as reading coaches. Of the 22 states that planned to put these dollars toward training, at least 12 are using some funds for LETRS training.

Despite all this training, respondents felt that they or the teachers they worked with still needed more support across a range of areas involved in early reading instruction.

As demonstrated above, educators say they want more training on how to teach kids phonemic awareness and phonics—skills that help students understand the foundations of written language and decode words.

At the same time, though, teachers have continued to use some practices that can discourage students from attending to letters while they read. Sixty-one percent of teachers said that they use three-cueing to teach beginning readers. In that method, teachers tell students to use multiple sources of information—such as pictures and context, as well as letters—to predict what words say.

Schools have made some changes.

The survey asked what materials teachers used for instruction and intervention. This list of top 10 responses differs from the results of a 2019 EdWeek Research Center survey that asked the same question.

These results don’t offer insight into why teachers and administrators switched what they were using. The changes could be a result of state legislation around reading, but they could also be related to the changing needs of schools during the pandemic, said P. David Pearson, a professor emeritus of reading at the University of California, Berkeley.

Some of the programs most popular in 2022 are research-tested—such as some Orton-Gillingham-based programs, said Duke. But others don’t have the same research base to support their effectiveness in practice.

The top five programs listed are also all supplements or interventions. That speaks to the fact that many schools have to mix and match to cover all the bases—using one set of materials for foundational skills, for example, and another for reading comprehension, said Kelly Butler, the CEO of Mississippi’s Barksdale Reading Institute.

Some of the programs that made the top of the list in 2019, such as Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading and Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention, have declined in popularity. These data come after sharp criticism of these materials from reading researchers and literacy experts who say that they don’t follow evidence-based best practices.

Lessons learned from ‘Reading First’

Pearson sees the latest state action as “another substantiation of a movement that, as far as I can tell, has been going on since the 1960s.” For decades, he said, those who support a more skills-based approach to teaching beginning reading have battled it out with those who champion a more constructivist approach.

Gina Cervetti, an associate professor of literacy education at the University of Michigan, sees more nuance.

Most of these laws mandate that schools address multiple components of reading instruction, not just phonics, she said. But if “more phonics” is school districts’ only takeaway, they’ll be ignoring the need for research-based approaches to building students’ knowledge, comprehension skills, and language abilities. And they’ll miss opportunities to integrate all of these components of reading instruction into a cohesive whole.

“The dirt is in the details,” Cervetti said.

Getting the law to pass is actually the easy part. … Just because you pass a law doesn’t mean anything changes for kids.

This lack of a cohesive whole plagued the last big effort to get U.S. schools aligned to reading science, said Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University.

She knows firsthand: She implemented that federal program, Reading First, as U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education under George W. Bush. National evaluations of Reading First found that it had positive effects on students’ phonics skills, but not on comprehension.

The program identified the reading skills that students needed to learn, but it didn’t provide schools with a roadmap for the “implementation science of teaching,” Neuman said. And so schools didn’t get enough guidance on how to appropriately layer and integrate those skills—what that looks like in the classroom, and what leadership supports need to be in place to make it happen.

Neuman sees a similar trend in the new laws and the current science of reading movement.

“It’s missing an infrastructure piece,” she said. “What are the conditions in a school that have to come about in order for the science of reading to be actualized? What do we need from our principals, our leadership, districts, parents?”

Some states have found the implementation sweet spot. Others are ‘tinkering’

A few states have focused heavily on what Neuman calls the “infrastructure piece.”

“One thing that I really urged was to create a model,” said Burk, of ExcelinEd. The group has worked with states implementing reading overhauls. “There has to be some guidance for this in how this needs to be done for consistency across our state.”

In Mississippi, Burk said, they created lots of systems: for assigning and training coaches, for maintaining professional learning quality, for identifying schools that needed extra support, for providing principals with updates on school progress. And, the literacy work had centralized leadership at the state department of education. (North Carolina has recently adopted a similar coaching program—to read more, see this story.)

Tennessee designed its own teacher training and foundational skills curriculum with input from educators. Doing so allowed the department of education to respond directly to districts’ needs, and to align the training to a common set of materials, said Lisa Coons, the chief of standards and materials at the Tennessee Department of Education.

Still, this approach took a lot of time and work to customize, Coons said. “It’s not something I can put on a one pager and go shop to different states and say, ‘Do this, it’s magic.’”

Butler, with the Barksdale Reading Institute, has a similar perspective. She’s encouraged by states’ ambitions, even if these measures only affect one part of the system—like putting in place a screener to identify kids who need more support.

But to enact systemwide change, states need to pull on lots of levers at once, she said.

“As I talk to states and listen to what they’re doing, I do still think that they’re tinkering at the edges.”

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