Reading & Literacy

States Should Recommend Better ‘Science of Reading’ Content, Report Says

By Sarah Schwartz — October 11, 2022 6 min read
Side view of mixed ethnicity school kids sitting on cushions against bookshelves and reading  books in a library.
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Most curriculum decisions are made at the local level. It’s a fact that shapes the diverse and often fragmented instructional landscape in this country: While states often provide lists of recommended textbooks and materials, districts—and often individual schools and teachers—make the final call about what to use.

But a new report suggests that states still have significant influence on the decisions districts make about materials—even if they don’t mandate specific ones.

A case in point: Recent national advocacy to change how early reading is taught has done little to affect California, one of the biggest curriculum markets in the country.

The report from the California Reading Coalition, a statewide advocacy organization that pushes for evidence-based reading instruction, examines the K-5 reading curriculum choices of California districts. It found that the vast majority of districts use materials from the state-approved list.

On its face, this isn’t a surprising finding: The state recommends these curricula, and districts use them. But Todd Collins, one of the organizers of the California Reading Coalition, says that this indicates that if the state took a stronger stance on evidence-aligned materials, it could have a big effect on instruction.

Over the past few years, more than a dozen states have tightened control on what early reading curricula districts can use, with the goal of promoting materials aligned to the evidence base on how children learn to read.

What is the "science of reading"?

The goal with these changes to materials 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 Coalition has pushed for California to make similar pronouncements. But the California Department of Education hasn’t done so, with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond saying that the state would not take a “one-size-fits-all approach.”

“Yes, you have local control, but the vast majority of people do what the state guides them to do. So state guidance is actually incredibly important,” Collins said.

“You can’t say that we can’t have a uniform policy because there is local control, because in the absence of state policy, we have a de facto policy.”

In an emailed statement, California Department of Education Public Information Officer Scott Roark said that the superintendent and the department “have worked hard to secure billions of state and federal dollars for learning acceleration and literacy support, including a $250 million investment by the state for reading coaches.”

“The CDE remains committed to ensuring all California students can read at grade level by third grade,” Roark said.

Most districts in California favor ‘basals’

Doing a statewide scan of what materials districts use is challenging: Only a few states aggregate and publish this information or make it publicly available. Nebraska and Massachusetts both have created interactive maps—but they’re the exception to the rule.

Elsewhere, it’s necessary to look district by district. That’s what the California Reading Coalition did to conduct this analysis, pulling individual reports submitted to the state from 331 individual districts. The CRC followed up with some district leaders and teachers directly to confirm that the materials listed in these documents were actually in use.

They found that more than 80 percent of districts used one of the programs that are on the state adoption list. The three most popular programs also share another characteristic—they’re what’s commonly referred to as “basals.”

Basals are comprehensive programs that include many different resources by design, combining phonics lessons, vocabulary lists, and reading selections together in big volumes. In theory, this allows schools and teachers to tailor to student needs. But some reading advocates have argued that the sheer number of materials can be overwhelming for teachers, and could result in schools shortchanging key components of reading instruction.

After these three most-popular programs in the California Reading Coalition’s list, the fourth most commonly used curriculum is the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, created by Lucy Calkins and colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia University—which is not on the state-approved list.

The curriculum is popular nationwide, but has been the object of intense criticism from science of reading advocates over the past few years. Reviews of the program have shown that it uses some disproven strategies for teaching students how to read and have questioned the quality of the texts recommended. The report found that the program was more popular in districts with a higher share of lower-achieving students.

The California Reading Coalition also looked at which supplements to core curriculum and reading intervention materials districts used.

These results paint a complicated picture. Many districts are using resources designed to supplement lessons with extra instruction in phonemic awareness—the ability to identify and manipulate sounds in words—and phonics.

Also popular are intervention materials that researchers have said don’t follow evidence-based methods, such as Fountas and Pinnell’s Leveled Literacy Intervention.

In this way, the landscape in California reflects a national trend. As the science of reading movement has gained momentum, more schools have implemented explicit phonics programs as a supplement to their core reading instruction.

But researchers say that mixing and matching systematic foundational skills instruction with—for example—interventions that encourage other, disproven strategies for identifying words can undermine the effectiveness of that initial instruction.

Competing factors influence curriculum choice

The Coalition believes the department of education should explicitly tell districts that they can go off-list, using ESSER funds to adopt other, high-quality materials rather than basals.

The report promotes “knowledge-oriented” curricula that are designed to systematically build content knowledge in science, arts and culture, and history across grade levels. Research shows that knowing a lot about many different topics is a key component in reading comprehension.

States have a “strong responsibility” to ensure that the reading curricula they recommend develops students’ language comprehension and word recognition abilities, provides systematic instruction in foundational skills, and is aligned to research-based principles and state standards, said Charlene Evans-Smith. She is the managing director of early literacy at Instruction Partners, a nonprofit that works with districts on issues including curriculum implementation.

But that doesn’t mean that a district can’t achieve good results with a curriculum that doesn’t check all of those boxes, she added. “It’s important to meet schools where they are,” she said.

This could mean working with a school district to figure out which pieces of a curriculum to “elevate,” she said, and which to leave on the table. Continuing professional development is key to this process, Evans-Smith said.

Yes, you have local control, but the vast majority of people do what the state guides them to do. So state guidance is actually incredibly important.

Still, research-alignment isn’t the only factor schools have to consider when making curriculum decisions.

The California Literacy Coalition notes that few of the knowledge-building curricula they endorse have Spanish-language versions—a feature that’s important in California, where 18 percent of students are English learners.

This issue came up in Denver two years ago. District leadership there wanted to continue using a version of Benchmark Advance, an ELA curriculum, even though the state education department found that it did not meet standards for alignment to reading science.

The district said that Benchmark Advance was one of the few programs available that also had a comparable Spanish-language version—a requirement in Denver Public Schools. (The Colorado department of education has since approved more recent versions of Advance and its Spanish-language counterpart, Adelante.)

The full findings from the California Reading Coalition report can be found here.


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