If We Want Citizens Who Are Critical Thinkers, We Need to Support Them in Becoming Readers and Writers

In March, the National Education Policy Center published a policy statement claiming that policymakers “should realize there is no settled science of reading” and should avoid “prescriptions that will tie the hands of professional educators.”

But the science of reading is not a new trend—it is, in fact, well-established. We know young readers need to learn a code that is a human invention. In order to read, they must apply that code fluently when translating symbols into sounds, and those sounds into words.

For some, learning to break the code may happen rather easily; however, for many, it will not happen without explicit and systematic instruction. Greater attention to teaching teachers how best to deploy this key pillar of reading instruction will support their success and, most importantly, the success of their students.

Teachers are professionals and want their students to be readers. For all students to read well, teachers must know how to support them to manipulate the sounds of spoken words and connect sounds with letters.

Teachers must explicitly teach them how to say sounds, blend them to read words and how to map the sounds with the letters and patterns to spell them. Reading and spelling for all students will not happen merely by exposing them to literature and encouraging them to guess at words. Further, most children learn to read along a common trajectory, and teachers must know that trajectory well enough to identify children who do not make progress and address their challenges.

Phonics Need Not Be Kill-and-Drill to Be Effective

I do not believe that teachers should spend all day helping students learn to break the code. Of course, they need to conduct engaging read-alouds. Of course, they need to help children develop fluency, vocabulary and background knowledge. Of course, students need to spend time reading books of interest. Reading is more than phonics and understanding how to connect sounds with letters. Reading is about making meaning

But phonological awareness—recognizing the sounds of spoken words—and phonics are needed foundations to make meaning. Without explicit, systematic instruction in these foundational skills, too many children in my home state, Tennessee, and in the nation, will continue to struggle. 

Whose responsibility is it to make the science of reading a reality in schools? I believe it is a responsibility for all. That requires all of us—universities, teachers and parents—to speak the same language and work in concert. Unfortunately, for too long we have worked in a fragmented, uncoordinated way. Now, that must change.

Tennessee Is Showing Us How To Get Everyone on the Same Page

Universities must take responsibility for ensuring their teacher graduates know the science of reading and are ready to teach it. They must ensure their graduates know how to differentiate instruction to support all learners, and how to address all components of reading. Schools and district leaders must expect their teachers to apply the science of reading in their classrooms and provide them with high-quality materials, coaching and professional development. 

On the ground, teachers can communicate with parents to help them understand how their children are learning the code of written English as part of the larger project of learning to make meaning from written text. Teachers can share activities to try at home—like dialogic reading, where a parent and child discuss a book while the parent reads the story aloud.

My state, Tennessee, has taken some bold initial steps to get all these education stakeholders on the same page regarding how reading is taught. Governor Bill Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn recently announced clear expectations that our state will finally put to work the “science of reading”—the practices of teaching systematic phonics that research has repeatedly shown benefit early readers. Leaders here are setting clear expectations for universities, districts and teachers. 

Next comes promoting collaborations between universities, districts and individual schools, and directing funding purposely to support those partnerships. We need to collaborate and communicate to support our children to reach their full potential. If we want equity in education and citizens who are critical thinkers, we need to support them in becoming readers and writers.

Zoi A. Traga Philippakos
Zoi A. Traga Philippakos, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of theory and practice in teacher education (TPTE) at the College of Education at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research interests include reading and writing instruction for students in K to 12 and postsecondary education, genre-based strategy instruction, self-regulation, motivation and approaches to ...

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