Picture yourself entering your classroom every day – confident – that each phonics lesson you teach is:
- Supported by rigorous scientific research, and
- Consistently leads to remarkable success for all your students.
The truth is – if you teach reading in 2023 – that is exactly what you should be experiencing.
Yet, many classrooms across the world still have students lagging behind their classmates and teachers feeling hopeless about how to help them.
Despite the Science of Reading research being available for years, why do we still struggle to achieve consistent improvements in reading outcomes?
In this post,
Kimberlynn Lavelle invited me to be her guest on the podcast Decoding Learning Differences to discuss my thoughts on the Science of Reading movement.
- The shifts toward science-based reading instruction,
- The development of Reading Simplified in the light of the surge of interest, and
- The challenges I still see in the landscape around reading.
Whether you're a parent or an educator, grab a snack and join us as we discuss the real story behind the Science of Reading movement and what you can do to impact your readers.
Learn more about Kimberlynn Lavelle on her site, Decoding Learning Differences.
We've Had the Science for Years
Although we have decades of science around reading and how our brain learns to read, the public’s understanding of these findings has only recently begun to emerge through this Science of Reading Movement.
But this information is hardly new.
As a 6th grade teacher with a master’s degree, I learned the significance of sound-based decoding for teaching struggling readers.
This was in the late 90s and 2000s!
During that time, I quietly promoted this approach due to the lack of interest in the science at the time
It wasn’t widely accepted in mainstream education, so I felt like a fish swimming against the current.
Alongside my fellow educators in my PhD program, we developed the Targeted Reading Intervention, a reading intervention designed to empower teachers to guide young learners in deciphering unfamiliar words using the power of sound-based decoding and phonics.
It was a journey marked by challenges and successes over a span of seven years.
The Balanced Literacy Current
And looking back now,
It seems crazy that we kind of had to hide what we were doing because the work was mainly in balanced literacy districts.
For over 20 years, we’ve been swimming in this balanced literacy current, but at the same time, the science has marched steadily forward all these years,
So science hasn't changed, of course it keeps building knowledge, but, in general, we've known some of these basic principles, at least about beginning reading since the sixties.
And the data got much more convincing in the eighties and nineties.
But now – this theory that we had about how the brain learns to read – has even been depicted using brain scans.
You can see how the brain's recognition of words is tied to sound or speech, which was a really revolutionary insight in the sixties and seventies because people thought of reading as so visual.
Of course, you have to be able to see the words, but you are also co-opting the language system, perceiving sounds so that you can match those perceptions of sounds onto those little squiggles, which we call phonics.
That's that insight that science has had, and continues to expand on, for decades.
It's just that the culture of teaching has been out of alignment with that.
And in the earlier years, we didn't say, “This is what science says about how you should read,” because we didn't want to have a head-on collision with belief systems.
We said, “What if this would help your struggling readers?”
Those who struggle or have learning difficulties in the content area of reading don’t need something different.
They generally just need more intensity and more expert instruction.
So I did that work, which then led me to create Reading Simplified.
Because unfortunately, even though that work at the Targeted Reading Intervention was very profound – it wasn't getting disseminated.
So Reading Simplified was my attempt to take some of the things that I had seen work with the TRI and fold them into a program that reaches the masses – both teachers and parents all over the world.
And that idea started in 2013, but I really didn't have something available to train teachers with until 2016.
Driven by the goal of taking these effective techniques and making them accessible to teachers and parents across the globe, I launched Reading Simplified Academy.
As time moved forward, my vision of what could be done for students expanded.
But I was certainly in for an uphill battle.
Overcoming Literacy Challenges From Outdated Practices
Traditional teaching methods, which lean heavily toward whole word approaches and the three cueing system had been dominating for years.
And with that,
Millions of teachers since their university years, and even with ongoing professional development, have been taught misunderstandings at best – or myths even – about how the brain learns to read.
The three cueing approach, which is dominant notion on how to teach word reading in the balanced literacy model, kind of keeps the decoding skills hidden from the child.
So some kids deduce the code no matter how we teach them.
But probably well over 60% are struggling with how the code works.
Because they're directed to look at the picture or they're directed to just look at the first sound. Or they're directed to use their reasoning instead of using their eyes to attack the word left to right.
And it pains me, with all we now know, that to this day I see these difficult districts that are reluctant to make any changes.
The children in districts still practicing out-dated approaches to reading are suffering because of the instruction.
This is particularly upsetting because in the beginning years, with good instruction, it is possible for kids to pick up the code quickly and begin reading widely.
But, instead, we are kind of throttling that early opportunity to develop strong early readers who will read widely when we aren’t willing to embrace the science and teach the way kids learn best.
And we know that changing the instruction for instance just in the domain of phonics – that's not all that's needed.
But it is a huge, quick win for a large percentage of our students.
So what kept me going back then (and still keeps me going) was the conviction that science was strong and needed to be shared.
Research consistently highlighted the vital role of phonics and sound recognition in the reading process.
Embracing the Science: A Movement Begins
Despite the resistance of established teaching practices, many, including myself, dedicated themselves to bridging the gap between groundbreaking research and practical classroom application.
The Science of Reading Movement has no doubt brought on a remarkable shift.
During the 2020 pandemic, parents started noticing how their kid was or was not learning to read.
And teachers who took their instruction online were finding that their curricula weren’t working.
And of course we have the APM journalist and producer Emily Hanford to thank for her amazing documentaries that created an awareness about the science.
She now has a very popular and influential podcast called Sold a Story that’s persuasively sharing this story of how we've been teaching out of alignment with the science.
So, I've been witnessing a remarkable shift in the way we teach reading. The science of how we teach reading is moving from the sidelines to the mainstream, with more and more people showing interest in it.
Empowering Educators: Training and Transformation
Teachers are beginning to seek knowledge to make changes to their teaching methods.
Unfortunately it’s often on their own.
But, they’re joining organizations, reading books, watching webinars, listening to podcasts, and having discussions with researchers in online forums.
Teachers like Margaret Goldberg who once only taught with leveled books in a balanced literacy school are making changes and cautioning teachers:
Personally, even with decades in the field, I feel more empowered to speak candidly, frankly even, about what I know regarding learning to read in this space.
The focus has also allowed those who have been training teachers and designing approaches more in alignment with the science of reading to focus on making learning activities clearer and more effective for the masses.
This movement has led to significant changes in education systems as well.
States and districts are adopting new policies and curricula, and many parents are becoming more aware of how their children are learning to read.
A lot of things are shifting and we're seeing some improvements in bright light… but there's still a long way to go.
Two Areas of Focus Moving Forward
#1 Changing Instruction
Issue #1 While there's progress, there's still much work to be done, especially considering the many years of flawed teaching methods that need to be overturned.
One major issue we already mentioned is that a significant number of teachers have been trained using outdated or inaccurate methods.
Teaching is a science and an art
Teachers' experience, intuition, and understanding of each student's unique needs play a significant role.
As I've discussed,
We know a ton about how the brain learns to read and it's super exciting.
But there will always be room for personalized teaching methods and diagnostic decisions to make about what to do on Monday with Johnny.
Teacher judgment and insight, intuition and experience will always come into play.
So while the science of reading movement is very exciting, and we have a lot of answers –
– We don't have answers for every minute decision.
In other words, it's a tricky balance where we want to encourage teachers and parents to be interested in what the science says,
but we don't want to mislead them into thinking that science has figured everything out.
We’re still going to have an art to our practice.
A teacher must factor in a student’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral needs with an understanding of the developmental sequence of how reading happens.
And then match that with activities that are high leverage based in science.
All of that–putting those pieces together–is a sophisticated challenge.
Looking ahead then, as we elevate the science,
We shouldn’t be misled into thinking that every instructional turn has already been answered by a researcher at Harvard. Right?
It’s still up to the teacher to be a good teacher – and that’s a big job!
That's why we love to help teachers streamline the science and the instruction and make diagnostic decision, inside the Reading Simplified Academy.
We not only help teachers,
We help entire districts.
Go here to learn more about solutions for districts.
#2 Reading Comprehension
In addition, reading comprehension is still misunderstood.
Beyond these understandings:
- Integration of PA and phonics,
- The alphabetic principle, and
- Early sound-based decoding,
Children need word level skills, a voluminous vocabulary, and background knowledge to really accelerate reading comprehension.
There are two critical aspects of reading comprehension I would like to see improved upon:
1. Aligning instruction with how children learn to read through decoding
Children are struggling in schools due to inadequate code based instruction. There’s a need to shift to more effective teaching strategies, particularly in the early years when children are just beginning to learn the code.
At Reading Simplified, we excel at sound-based decoding.
2. Emphasizing the importance of building knowledge and vocabulary systematically
Reading comprehension is closely tied to acquiring knowledge in various domains.
Focusing on subjects like science, history, and art can greatly enhance reading abilities.
But there are also shifts that need to be made for unlocking comprehension that require much more coherent systems for building knowledge and vocabulary – spanning multiple grades.
No one teacher or tutor can do all the work required.
Knowledge building and vocabulary require systems change at a minimum. Systems need to adopt high quality curriculum materials; attend to schedules during the school day; and have higher expectations for grade level knowledge building.
These may be even larger cultural shifts in reading than those we take with decoding – requiring abandonment of even more practices and beliefs about reading.
In the Reading Simplified Academy’s advanced workshops and on blogs for the public, I’ve attempted to give direction and pointed to Dr. Freddie Hiebert’s work in this series.
We also encourage the building of knowledge and vocabulary with simple things like reading along with audiobooks that highlight the text as it's narrated.
For example, interactive tools like Kindle, allow synchronized reading and listening, enhancing the overall learning experience.
We offer tools and measures to assess your child's reading skills and provide guidance on effective strategies to improve their reading abilities.
Many systems still need to be proactive
Even as more knowledge about the science of reading is being spread, we need to remain active.
Parents need to be proactive if their child is struggling with reading.
Find out with easy Reading Tests That Inform Instruction if phonemic awareness and decoding are a challenge for your student.
That’s the first step.
Many schools may not provide adequate support, so seeking additional resources and interventions outside of school can be highly beneficial.
As an individual teacher, you may need to retrain or form a cohort if movement is not yet happening in your district. Remember, it's a combination of science and art that can truly transform a child's reading journey.
If you're interested in learning more about our approach and resources, reach out to us at Readingsimplified.com.
Let's wrap this up, shall we?
Recent developments in reading science have shed new light on the importance of sound and speech when learning to read – but the science has also been around a long time – it just doesn’t always answer the question of what to do tomorrow with 32 kids in front of you.
….Meaning, teachers will still have to use their experience, their intuition, and their best judgment
With the Reading Simplified Academy, we help teachers streamline the science and instruction and assist them in the how of diagnostic decision-making.
And while we focus on streamlining decoding, we never lose sight of the vocabulary and knowledge building that needs to occur in tandem with decoding instruction.
What practices have you replaced recently to be more in line with science? I'd love to hear! Comment below: