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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Following the reading science: It's not easy

If Mississippi can "follow the science" of reading, retrain teachers, provide teaching coaches and switch to effective curricula -- and improve students' reading -- there's not much excuse for other states.

Other states are trying to adopt the "Mississippi model," writes Dale Chu. But we've been here before: Is this time for real -- or another swing of the pendulum?

Photo: Josh Applegate/Unsplash

There's been a lot of excellent reporting on the push to use research to improve reading instruction.

The Science of Reading: Where Rhetoric Meets Reality, an Education Week series by Sarah Schwartz, explains how difficult it is to change "hearts, minds, and practices among teachers, administrators, and policymakers," as Chu puts it.

Schwartz focuses on North Carolina's literacy reform. Kindergarten teacher Raul Olivares Jr. was trained to rely on three-cueing -- educated guesses -- rather than phonics to help students read unfamiliar words. Now he's a science of reading believer. “I almost feel like I need to say ‘I’m sorry’ to some of the kids I taught before,” he told Schwartz. But many of his colleagues don't want to change or don't know how to turn their training into lessons.

Reading scores are up in Tennessee, another high-poverty state, writes Holly Korbey. The state "established Reading 360, which brought all its teachers online and in-person training, improved literacy coaching, and high-quality reading curricula supported by scientific research."

In rural Haywood County, almost 26 percent of third graders scored as "proficient" on a state test. It may not sound like much, but was 8 percent last year.

Tennessee also "invested in free decodable books families can read with students at home— more than 70,000 books in families’ hands so far," writes Korbey.

California Superintendent Tony Thurmond has launched a literacy initiative to get all third-grade students reading by 2026 (how well?), writes Karen D'Souza on EdSource. However, Thurmond "does not support a comprehensive statewide strategy," calling it “a one-size-fits-all approach.”

D'Souza nails it:

Without clear guidance, schools and districts often pivot from one approach to another, experts say, creating confusion for students and teachers alike. Oakland and New York City have both flipped back and forth in recent years.Note that the superintendent will not pick a winner.

It's not enough to teach phonics, notes the Knowledge Matters Campaign. Students need to understand the words they decode.

Six English language arts curricula build students' knowledge, avoid "fluff" and motivate students, according to the campaign. These are: ARC Core, Bookworms, Core Knowledge/Amplify, EL Education, Fishtank EL and Wit & Wisdom.

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Aug 19, 2022

I'd like every school to issue quality dictionaries to each student to be used in the classroom. The idea that only the teacher dispenses knowledge is holding students back from acheiving. Even worse is when the teacher is incorrect and claims s/he isn't. Mr. Webster's products are quite helpful to learners.


Aug 19, 2022

Me, I would elevate literacy -- the skill of reading aloud from an English work from the 19th century or earlier* and offering a simple paraphrase interpretation -- to a requirement for full citizenship. You can't own real estate, or a gun, or a car, or buy cigarettes or beer or CBD, or otherwise participate in our society as an adult UNLESS you can read. In particular you can't vote. Or serve on a jury. Or hold a civil service job -- even street sweeper -- with the traditional perqs of insurance and pension.**. If you can't read you don't count towards a minyan for prayers in the temple. The US Census will not count your "head" towards apportionmen…


Aug 19, 2022

"But many of his colleagues don't want to change or don't know how to turn their training into lessons."

There is no reason for early grade teachers to turn their training into lessons. There are good curricula (like Open Court) that provide lessons/lesson plans. I used one many years ago, and would have been stumped if I had been told to create lessons that reflected the science of reading, even though I had been exposed to the science of reading in teacher training. Undewrstanding the science is one thing; creating a full system of lessons is an entirely different thing, and classroom teachers have neither the time nor the resources to do the latter.

Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Aug 20, 2022
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Which is exactly why they ought to turn to an English international curriculum like those available from Oxford and Cambridge, as in use in European schools in the UK, where synthetic phonics is established state policy: spinoff schools are established worldwide, and draw on texts from world literature, which of course includes American.

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