Reading & Literacy

U.S. Parents Think Reading Instruction Is Going OK—Until They See National Test Results

By Sarah Schwartz — November 14, 2023 5 min read
Photo of mother working with young son on his reading.
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About half of all parents say that their children have struggled to learn how to read at some point in their education.

Still, the majority think that their child’s elementary school is putting the right amount of emphasis on reading skills, and that instruction in the subject is going “pretty well,” or “ok.”

These are the findings from a nationally representative survey of 800 parents of children in grades K-5 conducted by the polling firms Public Opinion Strategies and Impact Research.

The results shine a light on parents’ understanding of the “science of reading” movement—a recent push to align classroom instruction with evidence-based practice. Since 2019, more than half of states have passed laws or taken other measures to mandate that schools change their approach to reading instruction, often introducing new teacher training and materials.

Even as states have called for these overhauls, the survey shows that most parents have generally positive views of their children’s schools and the reading instruction they currently receive.

This preference for local school systems and teachers is “a phenomenon we see in education polling a lot,” said Brian Stryker, the managing partner at Impact Research, in a briefing on the results on Tuesday.

Still, very few—only 6 percent—of parents say reading instruction is going “very well,” he noted.

“There is a belief that there is potentially room for improvement here, even if they don’t see a huge problem today,” Stryker said.

Parents are more concerned after seeing national test results

In general, parents in the survey were split on the state of education in the country—about half rated schools in America as excellent or good, while half rated them poor or not so good. But when it came to teachers, most respondents had higher opinions. Three quarters of parents rated teachers as excellent or good.

For reading instruction specifically, 46 percent felt that instruction had declined in recent generations. A quarter said it was about the same, and 27 percent said it was a little or a lot better.

Parents’ views on their children’s reading instruction varied slightly across different demographic groups.

But then, the survey presented parents with data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, showing that only 32 percent of 4th graders met the “proficient” standard on the test in 2022. After parents read this statistic, their perception of reading instruction in the U.S. changed.

Thirty-seven percent said that there was “a crisis,” while 24 percent said it was going poorly.

Often in political polling, new information like this doesn’t change minds to a large extent, but it did in this instance, said Stryker.

“We’ve seen this play out,” he said. “As parents learn more, they get a lot more concerned about how reading is going in America.”

(Meeting “proficient” on NAEP is a high bar to clear—it represents “competency over challenging subject matter” and is not the same as meeting grade-level standards. For more on the different NAEP achievement levels, see this story.)

Despite these concerns about the national landscape, parents had a generally positive view of their own children’s reading. Most—87 percent—said their child enjoyed reading “a lot” or “somewhat,” and 82 percent were either very or somewhat confident in their children’s progress in learning to read. Only 13 percent of parents thought their children were behind grade level.

The findings from this poll echo other recent surveys, which demonstrate that parents generally think their children are doing better in school than national tests of student achievement find that they are.

There are a couple of reasons for this, Stryker said: “One, people like to think their kids are above average. And two, people do see their kids making progress.”

But the 13 percent of parents who say their children are behind “doesn’t square” with the low proportion of students who are proficient according to NAEP, he said.

“There’s a gap there that is making parents feel more confident than maybe they should about their kids’ reading ability,” Stryker said.

When asked to choose between instructional approaches, parents prefer phonics

When asked about specific reading instructional practices, parents said they were familiar with many of the approaches used in U.S. classrooms.

But they’re less sure about which methods are most effective.

Research has demonstrated that the most effective way to teach children how to read words is to teach them how letters correspond to sounds, and how to blend those sounds together to lift the words off of the page.

But other methods of word-reading have proliferated in U.S. schools, including one known as “cueing.”

In this approach, students are encouraged to use multiple sources of information—the letters in words, but also pictures and the context of the story—to guess what the words on the page say. However, studies have shown that encouraging students to rely on context clues can take their focus away from the word itself, lowering the chances that they’ll use their phonics knowledge to read it and store it in their memory.

When asked what research has shown is the most effective way to teach kids to read, most parents in the survey—64 percent—said a combination of sounding words out and having them guess words from context or pictures on the page.

“I largely believe that’s just because people aren’t sure,” said Robert Blizzard, a partner at Public Opinion Strategies. “They kind of take the Goldilocks position.”

But when asked to pick one of two methods as the most effective, three-quarters of those parents that originally said “both” picked phonics. About three-quarters of all survey respondents also favored their district schools teaching phonics and not cueing.

“Parents don’t need to be moved on this,” Stryker said. “If anything, lawmakers are behind parents on this.”

The survey did not ask about other important elements of reading, including fluency, vocabulary, language structure, comprehension, and background knowledge.

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