Every school has a soul.
I spend many of my days in buildings around the country of every shape and size: large and small, new and old, well-funded and shoestring. I often meet in empty classrooms with layer upon layer of evidence of teaching and learning on the walls. There could be 600 people who call that school home, and it’s humbling to sit quietly and consider the gravity of the work we are called to do as educators.
Our world never stands still
Whether you are in your preservice years, well into your tenure, or a veteran like me, we are poised for yet another seismic shift in practices around reading instruction. It will take time, patience, and selflessness—the heart of what defines an educator—because this is very hard work.
Many of us are or will soon be immersed in the study of the science of reading—what the latest research says works for helping our children evolve from emergent to extraordinary readers. It is a time of great learning for us all, but theory will only get us halfway home. We need clarity of practices that will enable the enactment of that science in classrooms across America every day for every child.
D. Ray Reutzel’s perspective
In the spirit of “look back to move forward,” I spent some quality time about four years ago with D. Ray Reutzel, a titan of academic research. Ray can turn a casual conversation into a master class on the history of American reading. We met before Emily Hanford’s brilliant journalism shook America awake, before the science of reading became a movement. After recounting some of the wrong turns in our pedagogy over the last 40 years, Ray said, “Of course, all of this could have been avoided if every educator at every level would simply learn to demand—show me the science.”
Ray’s insightful whitepaper, ”Putting the Science of Reading to Work,” is the story of how we got here, and how we can get it right this time. It will help us move past various interpretations of the “how” and stay focused on the “why”—the proof.
He reminds us that science guides us beyond foundational skills and informs both theory and teacher moves. The science of reading is based on empirical research studies that describe the underlying processes of how children become proficient readers and how to effectively teach humans to read.
What doesn’t work
Let’s take the painful underperformance of Reading First, our last foray into sweeping explicit instruction as a nation. Despite the deluge of dollars, high-integrity training channels, and the best scientifically research-based reading research available to us at the time, we were not successful in realizing the dream of getting all children reading by Grade 3:
Well into Reading First, evaluations concluded that there had been “no consistent pattern of effects over time in the impact estimates for reading instruction in grade one or in reading comprehension in any grade.”¹ The fourth graders who took the NAEP Reading assessment in 2009 had been three years old when Reading First began to be implemented. Consequently, they should have benefited from the program in every grade, from kindergarten through Grade 4.
Nevertheless, 67% of them scored below the proficient level in reading.² This and other evidence led to the conclusion that there was “almost no improvement in student performance” during Reading First.³
A superintendent shares: ‘We are building new schools and new curricula’
How could that be? And how can we not waste our moment and our momentum this time? How will we not recreate the flaws of the past?
Getting the science of reading right this time
Many agree that these findings are at least partly due to how we focused the entire reading instruction solely on the code (i.e., the alphabetic principle) and ignored the rich world of language comprehension. We honored the science over the science of instruction. This time, we must afford instructional time for all the enmeshed, interdependent skills children need to become automatic in the complex work of making meaning.
This time let’s make space for high engagement, wonder, the development of a positive reading identity, and the “honoring of the young bilingual mind.” These elements are as important as our work to ensure facility in our challenging and sometimes perplexing written word.
We can say we were triumphant when our children read broadly, with pleasure and purpose, for deep transferable knowledge of the world and themselves. To get there, let’s project the perfect “yes, and” instead of our decades-long “either/or” and end the philosophical tug-of-war that put fashion over facts, star power over substance, and ego over efficacy. It is time to teach reading based on what we know those young, beautiful brains before us need.
To learn more, check out the Science of Reading webinar series featuring D. Ray Reutzel and download his whitepaper. Listen to Elizabeth Bassford’s episode on The Extraordinary Educators podcast.
- Gamse, Jacob, Horst, Boulay, and Unlu, 2008
- National Center for Educational Statistics, 2010
- Cunningham, 2017