EXPLAINED: Why the ‘Science of Reading’ is Vital in Classrooms

Jan 30, 2023 12:00:00 PM


Reading is a vital skill. Yet there are approximately 25 million children in the U.S. who cannot read proficiently, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). 

In shutting down schools, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this crisis. Many students, especially younger learners and children in poverty, have regressed in reading (and math) abilities. 

In the last few years, states have begun turning to instruction based on cognitive research, known as the “science of reading,” to help children learn more effectively. 

Why aren’t all teachers teaching phonics and who’s being left behind? 

The science of reading has consistently shown that children become better readers when they receive explicit and systematic phonics instruction. So why haven’t teachers been teaching phonics to beginning readers? 

First, there is a prevailing misconception that reading is a natural process for children if they are surrounded by literature. Influenced by a few prominent, yet misguided thought leaders, many teachers have viewed the systematic approach to phonics instruction as old-fashioned and mechanical, believing that it might even hinder children from developing a love of reading. 

Second, teachers are not being given the training and support to teach phonics. Before 2019, only a handful of states had established specific requirements to teach phonics to aspiring teachers. As a result, many colleges of education do not include training in the mechanics of decoding English, either because they are unaware of the research, or they’ve dismissed it. 

Research has demonstrated that children who don’t learn to read by the third grade are likely to remain poor readers for life and much more likely to drop out of school than are better readers. Although children in all demographic groups have been affected by the literacy crisis, Black and Latinx children, kids from low-income families, ESL students and kids with learning disabilities have fallen the furthest behind.

When kids are not being taught phonics and how to decode words in school, parents who can afford it are forced to turn to private tutoring to help students struggling with reading. Meanwhile, kids from poor families and historically marginalized communities without the means to afford expensive private tutors are left behind. 

The NAEP reported in 2022 that while 45% of white fourth graders scored proficient or above in the national reading assessment, only 18% of Black fourth graders did the same. 

In other words, more than 8 in 10 Black fourth graders are not proficient readers, which makes them disproportionately more likely to drop out of high school and end up in the criminal justice system. Advocates say that universal access to scientifically-based reading instruction will be the most effective way to narrow this racial achievement gap and a crucial step toward social justice for Black and Hispanic children. 

How are states incorporating the science of reading into curriculums? 

Today, ensuring that students experience excellent early reading instruction that puts cognitive science research to work is a top priority, especially among southern states with high poverty and low literacy rates. It's a key civil rights and educational equity issue, especially in the wake of pandemic-learning disruptions.

As of July 2022, 29 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented policies to emphasize the science of reading in school curriculums. For instance, Delaware’s literacy plan includes professional development for teachers, high-quality teaching materials and an investment in early literacy programs. The state allocated a portion of federal COVID funds into the literacy tutoring program Reading Assist, which targets  children who score in the bottom 10 percent for reading proficiency.

The Tennessee and Mississippi Examples

Notably, the states of Tennessee and Mississippi have been making great strides in supporting literacy development. 

Following an overhaul of how schools teach reading in 2013, Mississippi has been ranked first in the nation for improvement in reading scores from 2017 to 2019. The state made a sizable investment in funding pre-k institutions and training teachers. Teacher candidates in the state are now required to pass the Foundations of Reading test on reading sciences to be licensed to teach elementary school. All third graders in the state are also required to pass the “Reading Gate Assessment” or risk being held back. 

Similarly, last year, Tennessee leveraged approximately $60 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to launch Reading 360 as part of a decade-long rehaul of K-12 education. The initiative trains all teachers in phonics through the research-backed program LETRS and provides them with high-quality reading curricula, accurate assessments and support. In 2021, Gov. Bill Lee signed the Tennessee Literacy Success Act, requiring all elementary school teachers to be trained in the phonics approach to teaching reading. So far, more than 40,000 teachers across the state have participated in the training. Data shows that 75% of Tennessee districts saw an improvement in students’ reading scores and the progress was even sustained despite the pandemic. 

To learn more about how states are implementing new policies targeting literacy, check out this chart from Education Week. 

Is the science of reading just for young kids? 

Instructional strategies considered part of the science of reading have been proven to help all children learn to read, especially those with dyslexia. Children with dyslexia, who struggle with  recognizing words and decoding texts, benefit from early identification and explicit, comprehensive reading instruction. While many of these students will need extra instructional attention, effective, research-based reading instruction in all primary-grade classrooms will support their success and may reduce the need for supplemental instruction. 

While much of the talk about reading has focused squarely on the need for more attention to phonics for young beginning readers, older students also benefit from phonics and basic etymology to help decode complex academic words. According to NAEP, two  in three eighth graders nationwide are not reading with proficiency. The phonics movement in Memphis seeks to address this particular demographic through a literacy curriculum embedded in all subject areas, from social studies to math. The program focuses on helping teenage students expand their vocabularies and strengthen reading skills learned in elementary school. 

Is teaching phonics enough to ensure literacy? 

The science of reading has demonstrated the importance of phonics instruction in teaching reading, but phonics alone is not enough for literacy. Just because kids know how to read the words on a page does not mean they fully understand what the words mean. Other key areas of reading instruction include fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. 

In a recent Forbes article, education thought leader Natalie Wexler powerfully argues that the most effective ways to increase vocabulary and comprehension are to build elementary students’ background knowledge in science and social studies and to expose them early and often to complex words and sentences. While phonics is the foundation for learning to read, to reach full proficiency, students must build their background knowledge, too. 

In the past year, frictions have risen between the science of literacy proponents and multilingual educators, most notably over the Illinois Right to Read Act. Latino Policy Forum, which led the opposition against the act, argued that the strong push for phonics could potentially hinder other important areas of reading instruction that are crucial for English as a second language learners. 

Recent discoveries have shown that multilingual speakers use their brains differently when reading than do monolingual speakers and, thus, may require different methods of instruction. Proponents also brought up the lack of socio-cultural support and resources for non-native English language learners. Currently, there is a growing shortage of English as a second language teachers across 33 states and the District of Columbia. 

The good news is there is common ground between both sides. Flexible approaches to teaching literacy need to be put in place in order to ensure that all children, regardless of background, gain the skills to read in U.S. classrooms. In February 2022, The National Committee for Effective Literacy (NCEL) released a set of best practices for teaching multilingual children. Guidelines include extra instruction time, fostering the five pillars of literacy and helping the students connect their understanding of phonetic letters in English to sounds in their native languages.  

The science of reading shows us how proficient reading skills develop, how we can most effectively assess and teach literacy and why some have more difficulties gaining reading proficiency. Developments over the last decade have shown us the importance of state investment in reading instruction. 

The first step to address our country’s reading crisis demands that we ensure teachers are explicitly and systematically teaching all kids how to connect sounds with letters.

Lami Zhang

Lami Zhang is an editorial intern at Brightbeam. She is currently a fourth year undergraduate student at Northwestern University studying Journalism and Political Science.

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