Reading & Literacy

States to Schools: Teach Reading the Right Way

By Catherine Gewertz — February 20, 2020 11 min read
Elize'a Scott, a 3rd grade student at Key Elementary School in Jackson, Miss., reads under the watchful eyes of teacher Crystal McKinnis in April 2019. Mississippi has become a national leader in requiring teachers to know research-based strategies for teaching reading. Many other states are following suit, passing a flurry of laws in the last three years.
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Worried that far too many students have weak reading skills, states are passing new laws that require aspiring teachers—and, increasingly, teachers who are already in the classroom—to master reading instruction that’s solidly grounded in research.

In the past three years alone, at least 11 states have enacted laws designed to expand evidence-based reading instruction in grades K-3. Legislative analysts and activists who monitor the issue have noticed a flurry of recent state action on it.

“There is an absolute buzz around the science of reading. There’s no question that states are getting on board with this,” said Laura Stewart, the director of the Reading League, a group that works to build understanding of what research says about good reading instruction.

The “science of reading” generally refers to the body of research that’s piled up over decades on how children learn to read. The National Reading Panel Report, in 2000, articulated what have come to be known as the “big five” essential components of effective reading instruction for young children. The federally funded panel found that most children will become better readers with explicit, systematic phonemic awareness and phonics instruction, as well as instruction in fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

Those findings have been reaffirmed in so many studies that they’re widely considered settled science. But many elementary schools and teacher-preparation programs still favor a balanced-literacy approach, which draws from the “whole language” movement popular in the ’90s, and is based on the idea that children learn to read if they’re given good books and the right supports and strategies. Some phonics instruction is generally included, but it’s not necessarily systematic.

Balanced literacy is increasingly coming under attack, however, as educators notice stubborn reading problems, mirrored in national reading scores. The 2019 National Assessment for Educational Progress showed that 4th and 8th grade students have made no progress in reading in the past decade, and between 2017 and 2019, reading performance actually declined. Barely one-third of those students are proficient readers.

A Sharper Focus

Those results added new urgency to what was already a mushrooming cloud of legislative activity on reading. Passing laws to improve reading is nothing new; many states have ambitious reading-improvement programs enshrined in law, and some don’t let 3rd graders move to 4th grade unless they read proficiently. In 2015, the Education Commission of the States found that requiring aspiring teachers to pass a test in reading instruction was an “emerging trend.”

But what distinguishes the newer crop of laws in the last few years is their sharpened focus. Many are spelling out the elements of research-proven reading instruction, specifying the big-five components of reading from the National Reading Panel report, or citing other foundational skills known to be important to reading, such as building students’ base of content knowledge.

Recent laws also put the entire pipeline of reading instruction directly in their crosshairs, imposing new requirements not only on aspiring teachers but also on district leaders, principals, and classroom teachers. Most target K-3 teachers, but some laws impose new requirements on all K-6 teachers, and some even reach into high school.

States are working together on this new breed of requirements. State superintendents organized a national convening last month, where they brainstormed about how to hold teacher-prep programs accountable for new teachers’ competency in reading instruction; how to press for high-quality, research-based curriculum; and how to work with districts to ensure that current teachers are skilled reading teachers.

States are sharing strategies in other ways, too. The Foundation for Excellence in Education, a policy group, drafted model legislation on the science of reading in 2018, and 18 states have requested it, according to foundation spokesman Joe Follick.

A Comprehensive Approach: Arkansas

A recent batch of laws in Arkansas illustrates the comprehensive approach that states are increasingly taking as they codify new expectations for reading instruction. Starting with the 2017 Right to Read Act, which grew out of the state’s major literacy campaign, a half-dozen laws there have imposed new requirements on all parts of the state’s reading-instruction pipeline.

Colleges of education must teach “scientific reading instruction” and administer a stand-alone reading test on it, and new teachers must pass it to get a license. School districts must provide training in evidence-based reading instruction and can choose one of a dozen “pathways” by which K-6 teachers can demonstrate proficiency, including taking a test or being observed by an administrator trained to evaluate their reading-instruction skill.

Teachers in all other grades and subjects, as well as all administrators, are also affected: They must demonstrate “awareness” of the science of reading. The state must also prepare a list of literacy-curriculum materials that reflect evidence-based reading instruction, and after 2021, districts must buy from that list.

It’s a massive lift to comply with all the new laws’ requirements, including shepherding all 33,000 of the state’s certified teachers through training, said Stacy Smith, Arkansas’ assistant commissioner for learning services. The K-6 trainings are moving forward, powered in part by a $1 million annual allotment from the governor’s rainy-day fund that helps pay for 45 to 50 literacy specialists around the state, Smith said.

About 75 percent of teacher-candidates passed the most recent reading test, she said, a rate she expects will improve. The other 25 percent can work with provisional licenses for a year while they try again to pass it.

Some of the work is about changing attitudes. When the state’s science-based reading push kicked off in 2017, Smith said she encountered no shortage of skepticism.

“For 20 years, all our PD had been whole-language-based, balanced literacy,” she said. “[We] spent a lot of time figuring out how to turn that ship around for all these literacy specialists who were supposedly the experts. There were a lot of crossed arms, a lot of tough meetings. But we never wavered. We said, ‘Either you’re on our ship or you’re not.’”

Being on that ship is no simple matter for district leaders, even if they believe in the mission. Bruce Orr, the assistant superintendent in the Arkansas’ Lakeside district, chose the face-to-face training route for his 90-plus K-6 teachers, with a skilled observation that unfolds over time, rather than letting them take a test to show proficiency in reading instruction.

To lead that process effectively, Orr joined the six-day training his K-2 teachers took. His principals are taking two-day “assessor academy” training to become observers and evaluators of teachers’ reading instruction.

‘I Had to Swallow My Pride’

“I was the least knowledgeable person at the table in those sessions,” he said. “I had to swallow my pride and just get in there and start learning how kids learn to read.”

The district’s academic coach, its principals, and assistant principals are now taking their training into classrooms to provide feedback to teachers, Orr said. And he’s using his new knowledge on the district’s language-arts-curriculum committee, which is choosing new reading materials aligned to evidence-based practices.

Orr worries a little that all his staff members might not meet the proficiency bar when the rubber meets the road. And it’s been tough for teachers to find time to accommodate the expanded blocks of reading instruction.

But he sees signs for optimism: Student scores on DIBELS, an early-literacy test, have improved “drastically,” Orr said.

He’s eager to build on those gains in all his classrooms. As the state’s literacy campaign took off three years ago, Orr knew his district had profound academic problems he couldn’t pinpoint. Its average ACT scores were high, and its schools routinely got A and B grades from the state. But state test scores showed fewer than 6 in 10 3rd and 4th graders reading proficiently. In middle and high school, it’s barely half or less.

His teachers knew there was a problem and were “hungry” for a solution, Orr said. “We didn’t have to waste time with them fighting us or saying I don’t believe in this.”

Tennessee, too, is taking a broad-based approach to tackle reading instruction. Legislation filed Feb. 3, proposed by the department of education and backed by the governor, would provide a free, evidence-based early-literacy curriculum to districts, and they’d be required to use it or show that their own curricula is evidence-based. Districts would also have to use approved curricula designed to build students’ content knowledge. All K-3 teachers would be trained in research-based foundational reading instruction, and teacher- and principal-preparation programs would have to teach evidence-based reading instruction.

“If you are in an educator-prep program in the state of Tennessee, you will teach teachers to teach reading in the right way,” Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in an interview hours before the bill was filed. A comprehensive approach that touches all parts of the teacher pipeline is necessary, she said. Tackling only teacher prep, or only professional development, results in a “game of Whac-A-Mole” that won’t address the roots of students’ poor reading skills.

Mississippi Eyes Ed. School Faculty

The roots of many new reading laws trace back to Mississippi, which has emerged as a leader in science-based reading instruction since 2003, when it started requiring colleges of education to teach two courses focused on the key components of good reading instruction. Later, it added more requirements: Teacher-candidates must pass a test in reading science, and elementary schools must certify that their curricula address the key components of reading. The state appropriates $15 million each year to pay for professional development, literacy coaches—the state has 74 this year—and other supports.

Mississippi’s work has paid off in ways that have drawn national notice: It was the only state to improve 4th grade reading scores on the 2019 NAEP. Only 21 percent of Mississippi’s 4th graders scored “proficient” in reading on NAEP in 2013; by 2019, 32 percent did. Scores on the state’s own 3rd grade reading test—which students must pass to move to 4th grade—have risen, too.

Leaders of the science-based-reading movement in Mississippi now have a new target in their sights: the faculty of educator-prep programs. Sparked by studies showing persistent deficiencies in research-based reading instruction in colleges of education, a governor’s task force recommended requiring faculty who teach reading instruction to pass a test in the science of reading, said Kelly Butler, the CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, which conducted those studies and is a key player in the work to improve reading instruction in Mississippi.

Education school deans have opposed that proposal, so no new rule has been implemented yet, said Kymyona Burk, who oversaw Mississippi’s literacy work from 2013 to 2019 and is now the early-literacy policy director for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

Even as momentum builds for a sharper focus on evidence-based reading instruction, however, support is hardly universal. In schools, some teachers resist moving away from the methods they’re used to. One activist in Tennessee said she anticipates pushback from “some board members [who] would die on the hill for balanced literacy.”

P. David Pearson, a widely respected literacy expert, is skeptical of the new movement for “evidence-based” reading instruction. Teaching literacy for more than 50 years, he’s seen these cycles unfold before.

“With remarkable regularity, every 10 to 12 years, we’ve had movements to reinfuse phonics and foundational skills into reading,” said Pearson, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Berkeley.

More Training, More Support, More Coaching

He pointed to Jean Chall’s 1967 book, Learning To Read: The Great Debate, which emphasized the importance of decoding skills; a “back to basics” movement in the 1990s in response to whole-language instruction; and the early 2000s, when the National Reading Panel and the No Child Left Behind Act produced a renewed focus on reading skills.

This latest cycle, he said, is based on research citations that rely too heavily on brain imaging and not enough on “careful experimental studies” of which instructional approaches produce achievement results. The new push for reading is “obsessed with decoding” at the expense of other crucial skills, such as the development of children’s oral language and knowledge base, and “rich discussions of text with the guidance of a teacher.”

Even the most ardent backers of good reading instruction say that while state laws can be powerful levers for change, they’re not enough. Passing a 2013 law that required 3rd graders to be proficient readers, was a crucial “wakeup call” in Mississippi, Butler said. Also key was the state department of education’s control of state funding to supply training and coaching, she said.

Steven Dykstra, who monitors state action on reading as an adviser for the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction, said that teachers work hard and want the best for their students, but “giving them a little information or dropping a new reading curriculum into their classrooms isn’t going to be enough.”

“They’re going to need more training, more support, more coaching than people ever imagine will be necessary,” Dysktra said. “Passing a state law is just a first step. If you’re not prepared to take on the rest of it, you’re not going to get where you want to go.”

Education Week Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research for this report.


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