When I began my teaching career in the early 1990s, it quickly became clear that the approach to teaching kids to read had changed dramatically since I was in elementary school. The phonics-based approach to learning to read had been swept aside by what is called the whole-language approach to learning to read. Instead of students learning the structure of how words are put together – the phonics skills of decoding – and using those decoding skills, whole language believed the best way for kids to learn to read was to expose them to reading materials of subjects that interested them. For example, the whole-language approach to improve the reading skills of a struggling boy might be to give him books on sports. Similarly, girls might be given books on unicorns or other animals (gender stereotypes aside). In other words, find out what the kids like and give them books on those topics.
Not surprisingly, whole language has been a flop, the effects of which are still evident today. Public education, as is true in any matters except getting more money, has been slow to react to kids’ overall lack of reading and comprehension skills. Results from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) provide evidence of that fact.
For the last two NAEP results, 2019 and 2022, more than a third of fourth-grade students nationwide scored in the lowest defined level (“Below Basic). Note that the 2019 exam was prior to COVID-19.
Enter the “science of reading.” Although not a brand new concept, it’s rightly been gaining traction for sometime, largely in response to those unacceptably low scores. Indeed, the debate has been going on since at least the NCLB days and recently enjoyed a revival because of the “Sold a Story” podcast an coverage in the NYTimes.
A recent publication from EAB – a nationwide education support organization – called “Narrowing the Third-Grade Reading Gap” succinctly describes (1) the problem with poor reading, (2) how the science of how the brain works, and (3) how those principles can be applied to improving reading abilities of elementary students.
Here are some key takeaways from the report:
- Poor reading transcends demographics. It’s not just low-income, special ed, or minority students who struggle with reading.
- According to the National Institute of Health, 95% of students have the capacity to read, while only 5% have cognitive impairments.
- Even though school districts across the nation “invest significant time and resources, yet, most districts report seeing little improvement.”
- EAD cites a Vanderbilt study that shows improving kindergarten readiness through Pre-K has no lasting effect on reading ability.
- Scientific research shows that strong readers decode. In other words, strong phonics skills lead to better readers. “Insufficient phonics instruction in early grades can impede students’ reading ability in later grades.”
- Unfortunately, most teacher prep programs fail to teach the science of reading to future teachers, leaving most teachers ill-prepared to use science in teaching reading.
- Ultimately, EAB concludes that “nearly every aspect of what most districts are doing is disconnected from the science of reading.”
- EAB suggests a 14-point approach to utilizing science to improve students’ reading.
It is very important to recognize not only that the whole-language approach to reading was (is) a dismal failure, but that applying scientific methods to teaching reading would vastly improve student achievement.
But don’t hold your breath. There is a plethora of reasons why test scores will not improve even if the “science of reading” is adopted across the nation. Kansas has already taken the first steps in embracing this approach by allocating millions of ESSR (pandemic-related) dollars to districts to train teachers.
The fundamental reason why scores will not improve is that public education is organized around the adults, not the students. And too many changes in the behavior of adults would have to be altered to see significant improvement in students’ reading abilities. In short, the status quo/bureaucracy/vested interests will prevent the “science of reading” from achieving the promise it holds. Keep in mind there is no silver bullet in education reform but even if there were then entrenched interests would have a say in if it were even used.
Let’s start with the EAB recommendation that teacher prep programs change their curriculum to include teaching prospective teachers the “science of reading.” Good luck with that. Why would colleges and universities change the way they do business? What exactly is their incentive? The same complaint has been made for years the way teacher prep programs have failed to adequately prepare elementary teachers to teach math. Do you really think they are going to have an epiphany regarding reading?
Even if a change were to come to pass at the college level, there are too many adult-first reasons that will preclude change at the elementary school level. For one, the structure of those schools is incongruent with any science-based approach to any kind of learning, reading included. As EAB points out regarding reading, the “science of reading” is based on the development of the brain, not an artificially imposed grade level system that is based in a child’s age. Even EAB falls into the trappings of the age-based system in the report’s title: Narrowing the Third Grade Reading Gap. There is nothing magic about learning to read and comprehend by the end of the third grade. That is just a social construct applied by the public education system.
One of the biggest criticisms of public education is the devotion to social promotion to the next grade. How does the science of anything fit in that model? The goal is to teach kids to read as quickly and efficiently as possible, not to reach some artificial milestone like “end of grade level.” In my experience in the classroom for two decades, most of them here in Kansas, social promotion took the pressure off the system to get students to a benchmark by the “end of the year.” The system just passes the students on to the next grade level regardless of ability. Just look at state assessment results as evidence. It’s not just coincidence that third-graders score higher than any other grade level on those tests.
The point is, if we are serious about getting kids to read, the grade-level system, especially at the lower levels need to change. I have been an advocate for decades that in the early years of education students shouldn’t be put into “grades”, but placed in school depending on their ability to master basic concepts in reading AND math. But, of course, that is never going to happen because it is too much of a burden on the adults to change the way teaching is done.
Alas, the “science of reading” will become just another education buzzword and will be something that gets a little trendy attention. Sure, teachers will be “trained,” money will be spent, new reading curricula will be inaccurately developed around the “science of reading” (so as not to be an inconvenience to the adults), and it will slowly fade away like, oh, so many preceding education fads. Again, this isn’t to say that the “science of reading” is wrong, in fact its the opposite, but that it is incredibly hard for an ossified system and the adults in it change. The saying about an old dog and new tricks exists for a reason.
Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced. Hopefully we’re emerging from a long national nightmare of misguided reading curriculum. States like Florida have adopted the “science of reading” which has contributed to increased student success in reading comprehension. Locally, the Kansas legislature is keeping a wary eye on districts that employ the “three cueing” model of teaching reading. This is a method that has been prohibited in several states because it fails to teach kids to decode words; rather, it encourages kids to find context cues to help them read new words. Also, Governor Kelly earlier this month signed into law that includes dyslexia under the list of covered special education disabilities. But unless things dramatically change in Kansas – education being student-centered instead of adult-centered – far too many kids will continue to go through school with very limited reading and comprehension skills.