There is much buzz in the school districts I frequent regarding two recent articles: “Why American students haven’t gotten better at reading in 20 years,” from The Atlantic (Wexler, 2018); and “We Have a National Reading Crisis,” from EdWeek (Myracle, Kinglsey, & McClellan, 2019). Although we’ve had significant research in the field of reading in the past thirty years, our students are still woefully behind. Why? I think there are several reasons:
Research is often misinterpreted and misunderstood.
Our teachers are not taught the science of reading (especially at the middle school and high school level) in their teacher licensure programs.
Schools lack the resources to effectively implement scientific-based practices for reading instruction.
True, there are probably more reasons. But when I’ve posed the question, “Why aren’t we getting better reading achievement and progress in our students?” to colleagues in the 40+ schools I’ve worked with during this past academic year, these are the ones that are echoed the most often.
Let’s tackle these point by point.
Research is often misunderstood and misinterpreted.
Misinformation about the science of learning how to read abounds – and I cannot emphasize this enough. For example, I was recently in a middle school where I discussed with a group of teachers, the importance of reading more in all classes, not just the English language arts class. A very talented teacher said to me, “Katie, we can’t do sustained silent reading (SSR) in class because there is no research that supports it.” I knew that this wasn’t true. On the contrary, the research is actually quite definitive that the more pages a student reads, the greater the achievement. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst (2017) also addressed this common misunderstanding in their recent book, Disrupting Thinking.
The National Reading Panel’s (2000) analysis of SSR found that, based on fourteen studies, there wasn’t conclusive evidence indicting that SSR was either valuable or not valuable. But while the initial report was inconclusive, a deeper study indicated that, by including additional studies that were not factored into the first analysis, researchers were able to clearly show that SSR had value. Reading is a complex process and we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions based on incomplete data.
When I offered this explanation to this teacher, she indicated that she wasn’t aware of the larger context. Her district issued the directive to the middle school teachers, and they were simply instructed to no longer allow students to engage in SSR during class time. This was district policy, in spite of the fact that students do improve comprehension skills when they read more. The research is quite clear on this point.
Our teachers are not taught the science of reading (especially middle school and high school level) in their teacher licensure programs.
Let me begin by saying that I think there are teacher licensure programs that do teach the science of reading. But the fact of the matter is, the overwhelming majority of them do not. Many teachers, including myself, did not receive adequate coursework in the science of reading. I received my teacher license, and was considered trained to teach middle and high school, without taking one single course on reading. It wasn’t until I earned my Ph.D. in reading that I understood the science of reading and its implications for effective instructional practice. Yet, as I work side-by-side with educators all over the United States and internationally, it’s clear to me that, when teachers know the science of reading (and writing), a sort of magic happens.
The connection between a teacher’s knowledge about the science of reading and his student’s performance is strong (Durrance, 2017).
…[M]ore than 2,200 preservice teachers about how much their preparation programs focused on the essential components of reading instruction. Only 25 percent of the preservice teachers … reported that their preparation programs included a strong overall focus on reading instruction.
The National Council on Teacher Quality also found that teachers do not have enough training in the teaching of reading. Finding,
more than 800 undergraduate programs for elementary teacher education determined that only 39 percent of programs examined included instruction in all five essential components of reading. Nearly 1 in 5 programs examined addressed one or none of the components (as quoted in Durrance, 2017).
Now is not the time to blame the victims. It is not the fault of teachers and administrators that they don’t know about the science of reading. They need and deserve ongoing professional development to build that knowledge base and skill set for teaching in elementary, middle school, and high school. Most teachers I know make personal financial investment in their professional development by taking courses, attending seminars, conferences and workshops. School districts should shoulder the cost of professional development.
Schools lack the resources to effectively implement scientific-based practices for reading.
The teacher, along with his/her instruction, is the most important influence on a student’s success. Yet, teachers need materials and resources (and that doesn’t mean a purchased “program”).
About two months ago, I met a reading interventionist at a midwestern school. As she and I discussed her students’ needs, I looked around the room and asked, “Hey, where’s the classroom library?” She sheepishly replied, “I don’t have one.” I was angry, though not with the teacher, since she was digging for free resources and articles for her students. No, I was angry because this teacher had nothing, nothing, to provide for the students in her reading intervention class. Yet, the administration repeatedly tells her to, “get the test scores up.” If we want to raise student performance, buy books that kids want to read.
I love classrooms! I love that I am able to witness the unselfish giving that so many teachers and administrators offer their students in my partner schools. And I love the unbridled excitement that students display when they “get it.” All children are entitled to an outstanding education and the foundational component is proficient reading. To get there, teachers need to possess the knowledge of the science of reading and they need the tools and resources to get there. A purchased program can’t do that; but a teacher, armed with the knowledge and resources, can.
Beers, G. K., & Probst, R. E. (2017). Disrupting thinking: Why how we read matters. Scholastic Incorporated.
Durrance, S. (2017). Are teachers prepared to teach reading? Southern Regional Education Board. Retrieved March 19, 2019, from https://www.sreb.org/blog-post/are-teachers-prepared-teach-reading.
Myracle, J., Kingsley, B., & McClellan, R. (2019). We Have a National Reading Crisis. Ed Week. Retrieved March 19, 2019, from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/03/07/we-have-a-national-reading-crisis.html.
National Reading Panel (US), National Institute of Child Health, & Human Development (US). (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.
Wexler, N. (2018). Why American students haven’t gotten better at reading in 20 years. The Atlantic. https://www. theatlantic. com/education/archive/2018/04/-american-students-reading/557915.