Reading & Literacy

Teachers Are Still Teaching Older Students Basic Reading Skills, Survey Finds

By Elizabeth Heubeck — May 01, 2024 4 min read
Group of kids reading while sitting on the floor in the library
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Phonics gets more attention in elementary English/language arts classrooms than other core foundational reading skills, like fluency. More generally, states’ new reading laws emphasizing foundational reading skills seem to have little bearing on how frequently elementary teachers engage in those activities with students. And secondary ELA teachers are spending a considerable chunk of time on these skills, too, possibly pointing to older students’ need to master reading basics.

These are some of the key findings from a RAND report released April 30 that analyzed responses from 3,500-plus ELA teachers across the K-12 spectrum. It focuses on foundational reading skills—how students learn to associate sounds with the letters in print and use this knowledge to identify new words.

The timely research comes amid K-12 learners’ low reading proficiency levels and a subsequent push by many states to attack the literacy crisis with legislation designed to get evidence-based reading instruction into classrooms. It is among the first national gauges of teachers’ use of core reading skills.

The findings offer insights into which teachers across the K-12 spectrum engage in foundational reading activities; which skills are emphasized and which may be overlooked; and how reading laws affect what’s taught in classrooms.

Unexpected findings: who’s engaging in foundational reading activities and who’s not

Almost three-quarters of kindergarten and 1st grade teachers surveyed reported frequently engaging students in activities related to each of four foundational reading skills: print concepts, the ability to understand basic organization and features of print, such as following words left to right; phonological awareness, or the ability to recognize and manipulate the sounds in English; phonics and word recognition; and fluency.

But that also means about one-quarter of K-1 teachers are not engaging students in these activities frequently, a finding the report authors described as “surprising and perhaps concerning.” (The report defines “frequently” as engaging every student in a class in activities related to the foundational reading skills for more than a few minutes within the past five class lessons.)

That wasn’t the only unexpected finding.

“What is a little surprising is that phonics comes out on top, and not phonological awareness,” said Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood education and literacy development at New York University, who was not involved in the survey. “If you can’t hear the individual sounds, you can’t do phonics. … Phonological awareness is the predecessor to phonics. I would hope that in kindergarten they’re still doing that.”

The terminology used in the survey could have influenced these responses, as respondents might not have been familiar with all of it, said Anna Shapiro, lead author of the RAND report.

Shapiro expressed surprise at how often teachers of older students reported engaging in foundational reading skill activities. More than 25 percent of middle and high school ELA teachers surveyed said they frequently engage students in phonological awareness-related activities, and between 22 percent and 40 percent of secondary teachers reported frequent engagement in activities related to individual foundational reading skills with students.

“This tells me that secondary teachers are perceiving a big need among their students to go back to fundamentals,” said Shapiro.

What the survey didn’t capture

The survey did not measure teacher engagement in every skill that builds reading proficiency, the authors acknowledged.

“These four measures [print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, and fluency] do not comprehensively capture all the components of an effective reading instructional program … [A]lthough reading is based on both oral and written language, we do not include measures that capture language or writing skills,” they wrote in the final report.

Neuman suggested that this omission reflects the legacy of the 2000 federally commissioned National Reading Panel report, which espoused the following five pillars of reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

“At the time [of the National Reading Panel report], I don’t think there was a great deal of research on oral language development,” said Neuman. “Many states really hold to the old five-pillar notion, rather than a broader notion.”

This broader notion encompasses oral language skills, which are especially important for English learners. It’s espoused by a growing number of literacy experts, including Tiffany Hogan, a professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston and the director of its speech and language literacy lab.

“Right now, we see a lot of focus on word reading. And people have argued that the science of reading only covers word reading. But no, it doesn’t. It covers all of the science around reading and reading comprehension,” Hogan said. “There’s also a large and rich science around language comprehension, and how to improve it in the classroom, and how to measure it as well.”

Notably, study authors found that elementary teachers were “equally likely“ to report frequent engagement in foundational reading activities—regardless of whether they teach in states with reading laws. Education Week has documented 38 states that have passed a reading law or other policy related to evidence-based reading instruction since 2013.

“To me, the laws are strong signals that the way we talk about reading instruction and the general philosophy of how children learn to read has shifted considerably,” Shapiro said. “The laws are probably the first step, definitely not the last step, in terms of how we think about reading instruction.”

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