Putting the Science of Reading to Work

Putting the Science of Reading to Work
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How do students learn to read? Although this deceptively simple question has inspired decades of research and yielded an array of science-backed instructional methods, many students are still not making the progress educators would like to see, with the most recent Nation’s Report Card indicating that fourth- and eighth-graders' average reading scores have decreased over the past two years. So, why is student reading proficiency so low when there is a wealth of research devoted to reading instruction?

A disconnect between research and practice

The Education Week Reporting Center surveyed 1,200 education professors, special educators, and K–2 teachers to gain valuable insight into what educators know about science-based reading instruction, where they learned their instruction techniques, and what methods they actually use in the classroom. The resulting special report, titled Getting Reading Right, honed in on a disconnect between research and practice—simply put, the effective methods of reading instruction identified in research aren’t being taught to educators, and thus educators aren’t teaching these methods to their students.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), neuroscientists, psychologists, and reading experts are in agreement about the science of teaching reading, with research data confirming that students need explicit instruction in the five components of essential early reading skills: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Moreover, rigorous state standards for elementary grades are aligned with recommendations put forth by the National Reading Panel in a 2000 research report that outlined science-backed reading methods.

It certainly seems as if a nationwide commitment to enacting data-proven methods of instruction is in existence, so why are these approaches not being put into effect in the classroom?

Is teacher training falling short?

Although scientifically backed reading instruction may be supported at a policy level, that doesn't mean teachers themselves are being trained and empowered to use such techniques. Indeed, six years after the National Reading Report published its recommendations for reading instruction, the NCTQ reported that only 17% of undergraduate education programs were teaching these methods. When the NCTQ re-examined the issue a decade later in 2016, this percentage had increased—but to just 39%. If educators aren’t being taught accurate, science-backed methods of instruction in their teacher prep courses, they can hardly be expected to use these in their own classrooms. 

So, if education professors aren't teaching the data-proven, phonics-based method of instruction to their students, what are they teaching? Nearly 60% of the education professors surveyed by Education Week named their education philosophy as “balanced literacy,” a broad term that encompasses a focus on comprehension and the use of authentic texts rather than decoding skills. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that more than two-thirds (68%) of elementary educators describe their philosophy of teaching early readers as “balanced literacy” compared to the 22% who pointed to “explicit, systematic phonics (with comprehension as a separate focus).”

Per Education Week, 86% of surveyed professors said they modeled teaching phonics—a heartening finding given the fact that direct phonics instruction has been identified by myriad research studies as the most effective teaching method for early readers. Less encouragingly, about 20% of these individuals confused phonemic awareness with letter/sound correspondence, a statistic that was similarly reflected in the pool of elementary teachers.

How is reading being taught in the elementary classroom?

According to the Education Week survey, 75% of educators who teach early readers adhere to the “three-cueing” system in which students confronted by an unfamiliar word are prompted to look at context, pictures, and other clues beyond the letters of the word itself. As Education Week noted, this technique is not backed by science; rather, it is a method recommended for struggling readers, while “proficient readers attend to the letters.”

Although a majority of survey respondents stated that they spent 20 to 30 minutes a day teaching phonics, Education Week brought up a troubling point: teaching other methods in conjunction can actually work against phonics instruction.

While the current gap between education research and classroom practice is concerning, there is a way forward. One-third (33%) of teachers surveyed by Education Week reported incorporating what they learned from professional development into the classroom, with lower numbers of respondents pointing to other influences such as personal interactions with students, a school-implemented curriculum, their own research, and advice from colleagues. The core takeaway? Because strategies promoted by a single school or educator have the potential to greatly influence the school community as a whole, it is important to emphasize science-based education research in professional development sessions, with administrators, and with teachers themselves.

The good news is that effective, science-backed reading instruction models already exist—we simply need to put the right tools in the teachers’ hands.

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