Reading & Literacy

What ‘Science of Reading’ Laws Emphasize—And What They Omit

By Sarah Schwartz — July 19, 2023 6 min read
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State legislation aimed at improving how reading is taught has been changing the instructional landscape in the country’s elementary schools over the past few years. A new report examines what these laws emphasize—and what they leave out.

The analysis, conducted by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, surveyed state reading legislation passed between 2019 and 2022.

The researchers found that while most measures mandate an evidence-based approach to reading instruction, few define exactly what that means. And though the majority require teacher professional learning and preservice training, most don’t offer the implementation support needed to change school systems on a broad scale.

“It’s really important to us that this report be used as a learning agenda for anyone who cares to strengthen reading instruction,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the executive director of the institute. “The evidence we collected … can be a bit of a road map for what’s next.”

In many states, lawmakers have introduced these bills in response to the “science of reading” movement—a call from researchers, parents, and education advocates to bring instruction in line with the evidence base on how children learn to read. Education Week has followed these legislative developments in our tracker.

The laws have been praised by advocates who see them as key tools for getting students the support they need to become readers and criticized by some who are wary that they restrict teacher autonomy in the classroom or mandate wholesale changes to instruction without the necessary support.

The AFT, which established the Shanker Institute, has walked a careful line in the current debates over reading instruction, emphasizing the importance of evidence-based practice while opposing scripted curricula, which President Randi Weingarten has called “disrespectful.”

The union, though, has long endorsed evidence-based approaches to reading. In 1999, the AFT published a seminal resource in translating research into practice, reading researcher Louisa Moats’ article “Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science.” It issued an updated version in 2020.

Some local affiliates have spoken out against proposed legislation in their states. A sticking point has developed around bans on cueing—an instructional practice that isn’t aligned with the reading-research evidence base. In March, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers said that while she supports following the science, “to ban any type of teaching is a slap in the face to educators.”

How these laws define reading

The wave of action is far from the first big legislative effort to improve reading instruction. But this report finds that laws passed over the last few years differ from previous attempts in a few significant ways.

The report compares the current moment to Reading First, the George W. Bush-era grant program that incentivized schools to adopt practices aligned with scientifically based reading research. Reading First had mixed results: Analyses of the program showed that it improved students’ foundational reading skills but not their overall comprehension abilities.

The report’s authors highlight several key differences between that program and these laws. While Reading First targeted low-performing Title I schools, new laws are more expansive, requiring changes to instruction to all schools. They also generally have a broader scope than Reading First’s focus on K-3, with many extending down into preschool and up beyond 3rd grade through elementary school.

Still, some in the field have raised concerns that new laws might follow a similar trajectory, resulting in schools emphasizing foundational skills at the expense of all else, particularly key avenues for building students’ comprehension.

“A lot of the anecdotal rhetoric that I was hearing and reading often used ‘phonics’ as shorthand,” said Ricker.

The analysis shows that the text of the laws goes far beyond phonics. Legislation in a majority of states—34—outlines the five components of reading identified by the 2000 National Reading Panel Report: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

But though the laws aren’t phonics-only, most don’t highlight findings from research that’s occurred over the two decades since the panel’s report was published.

“We’re sort of stuck with those five pillars that were identified 20 years ago, and there’s been additional research showing that other pieces are just as important,” said Esther Quintero, a senior fellow at the Shanker Institute and an author on the report. “It’s not completely missing from the conversation, but it’s not emphasized.”

Oral language—a key component of reading development—gets short shrift, she said. And the idea that students’ background knowledge contributes to their reading comprehension is almost entirely absent, she added.

Dyslexia is prominent in most of these laws: 40 states have incorporated language related to teacher preparation for supporting students with dyslexia, dyslexia screening for students, or other supports. But other student groups aren’t discussed as extensively. English learners, for example, are mentioned in most states—32—but only about a third of those states’ laws discuss ELs’ needs at length.

The goal in noting these disparities isn’t to pit the needs of students with dyslexia against those of English learners or other groups, said Ricker, but to pose the question: “How can we apply that thinking, that activism, that dedication to [other] student groups who also deserve that sort of expert attention and dedicated practice?”

Support for implementation

These laws set a destination: Schools should be using evidence-based strategies to teach reading. But the researchers also want to know whether the legislation provides the support to help teachers get there.

“It’s not just about individual teachers learning or not learning about the science of reading but also having the infrastructure necessary to put in place that knowledge—the school leaders, the instructional materials,” said Quintero. “We wanted to shine a light on this infrastructure systems piece.”

For many schools, these laws mandate a wholesale change in how reading is taught, requiring new methods, new curriculum materials, new tests, and new ways of using time during the school day. Putting all these changes into practice, and making sure they work together, requires leadership, planning, and continuous support, implementation science experts have said. (For more, see this story.)

Other research has shown that literacy laws that account for all these moving pieces tend to be more successful in raising student achievement. A study this year from researchers at Michigan State University found that, over the past decade, states with “comprehensive” literacy policies—those that included training, funding, and lots of supports for struggling students—were correlated with better student outcomes.

The Shanker Institute report finds that most states’ laws do address preservice training and in-service professional development, with 25 and 32, respectively, discussing them in depth. But fewer states—only about a third—discuss curriculum or leadership responsibilities in depth. Even when states do mention curriculum, they don’t make explicit that materials and training should connect and reinforce each other.

Exactly how this will work is going to vary depending on local context, and it’s not the place of state legislation to spell out all the details, said Quintero. But laws can highlight the importance of implementation science and a coordinated approach to instructional change, she said.

“We wish [it was seen] as a systems issue—not an issue that we’re going to solve teacher by teacher, by converting,” Quintero said.

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