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New Report Reveals Something Is Missing From Reading Legislation
Many state laws mention "comprehension" but few say anything about building the knowledge that enables it.
A new report on state laws on reading instruction reveals widespread misunderstanding about how to address reading comprehension—and a lack of information about whether the standard ineffective approach is changing.
The report, released by the Albert Shanker Institute, surveyed legislation enacted between 2019 and 2022 in 45 states and the District of Columbia. According to the Institute—a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers—the “good news” is that states aren’t just focusing on phonics.
In 34 states, the report found, reading-related legislation refers to the “five pillars” of early literacy instruction: phonemic awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate the individual sounds in words); phonics (the ability to connect those sounds to the letters that represent them); reading fluency; vocabulary; and comprehension.
Those components, drawn from the National Reading Panel report issued in 2000, are now commonly used to define the “science of reading,” a phrase that appears in legislation from 18 states.
It's certainly good news that states aren’t just looking at phonics, because—as everyone acknowledges—there’s much more to reading than that. Lack of phonemic awareness, for example, has come to be seen as a major contributing factor to dyslexia and difficulties with “decoding” words generally. Flawed teacher-training and instructional materials have led to ineffective approaches to both aspects of reading.
But when it comes to comprehension, there’s some bad news wrapped up in the report’s “good news.” As I and others have argued, the “five pillars” framework has led to widespread misconceptions about how to enable students to understand what they’re expected to read.
For decades, schools have attempted to “teach” comprehension by reducing it to practicing skills and strategies, like “making inferences” or “finding the main idea,” using texts on random topics. And the five-pillars framework appears to endorse that approach.
By including comprehension as a pillar alongside phonics, the framework gives the impression that those two components of reading should be approached the same way: by having students practice certain skills until they’ve mastered them. Anyone who reads the National Reading Panel report itself might well come to the same conclusion.
So when faced with legislation requiring them to cover the five pillars, educators are likely to conclude they don’t need to change their approach to comprehension. After all, they’re already spending hours every week teaching comprehension skills and strategies, year after year.
Legislation Ignores the Role of Knowledge
But as cognitive scientists have known for decades—including for years before the National Reading Panel issued its report—comprehension is far more complex than that. As a proponent of strategy instruction recently acknowledged, strategies will only work if a reader has enough relevant knowledge and vocabulary to understand a text at least at a superficial level.
When students reach middle and high school, they’re expected to read texts that use increasingly sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure. Most students don’t become familiar with that kind of vocabulary and syntax merely from conversation—or from the simple texts that they’re limited to reading in elementary school. In almost all schools, students are assigned individual reading levels, based on what they can read independently, that may be years below their grade level. So the texts they read are likely to contain only vocabulary and syntax they can already understand.
Studies suggest that if state policies only address problems with decoding instruction, without simultaneously addressing problems with comprehension instruction, they’ll see only a short-term bump in reading scores. After fifth grade, the boost from better decoding instruction disappears. That’s probably because as grades go up, success on reading tests reflects comprehension ability more than decoding ability.
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Maybe you’re thinking that the state legislators who cited the “five pillars” actually have a more nuanced understanding of comprehension—one that does encompass the need to build children’s knowledge. But there’s evidence that in most instances, that’s not the case.
“Building content and background knowledge as a foundation for reading comprehension are almost completely absent from this legislation,” the authors of the Shanker report conclude.
Legislation in only six states even mentions the phrase “background knowledge” as a component of skilled reading—and those mentions vary. Florida’s law is the most comprehensive, providing for an office in the state’s department of education that will “develop and provide access to sequenced, content-rich curriculum programming, instructional practices, and resources that help elementary schools use state-adopted instructional materials to increase students’ background knowledge and literacy skills.”
But the mentions of knowledge in the other five states are pretty cursory. In Minnesota, for example, schools are directed to “monitor students’ continuous development of and growth in requisite knowledge and skills”—but only in eighth grade. (The language in the legislation from these six states is not included in the report itself but was provided to me by the Shanker Institute.)
Laws in some additional states mention backgroun knowledge but only to allude to the lack of it as a result of reading difficulties rather than their cause.
“The secondary consequences of dyslexia,” an Arizona reading law states, “may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that may impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.”
Here’s the assumption behind statements like that: If we just do a good job teaching children to decode in the early years of school, they’ll be able to acquire all the vocabulary and knowledge they need to become proficient readers through their own reading. For most kids, however, that won’t happen.
If you’re faced with text that includes a lot of words that aren’t in your oral vocabulary—if you’ve never heard or spoken them—you may be able to decode the text, but you won’t be able to understand it. And, as the Shanker report notes, another crucial component of reading that’s missing from state legislation is oral language.
Any effective approach to literacy instruction should include lots of reading aloud to children from books they can’t yet read themselves, along with class discussion of the content. That will familiarize students with the more sophisticated vocabulary and sentence structure of written language, enabling them to eventually read more complex text on their own.
In addition, the report found, very few state laws mention another crucial component of literacy: writing, which is closely related to reading comprehension. Studies show that when students write about what they’ve been reading, they understand it better. And if they’re taught how to use complex sentence structure in their own writing, they’re better equipped to understand that kind of structure when they come across it in their reading.
Moving Away from “Pillars”
Although the Shanker report suggests adding pillars for oral language, writing, and background knowledge, one of its authors told me she sees problems with the “pillar” concept itself.
“The pillars tend to convey a sense of rigidity, of things being static and compartmentalized,” Esther Quintero, a senior fellow at the Shanker Institute, wrote in an email. “Simply adding more pillars won’t necessarily improve our understanding of how reading works.”
The report argues for a more integrated, holistic concept of literacy instruction—one that relies not just on ensuring that individual teachers understand the “science of reading,” however that’s defined, but also that they have a curriculum grounded in that science to guide their instruction.
In addition, teachers need support in delivering whatever curriculum their district or school adopts. School and district leaders also need to be on board.
The report found that few if any states have enacted legislation that takes this kind of comprehensive approach to reform. But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
An important caveat is that the report looked only at legislation. There are other ways to spur changes in reading instruction. For example, a state department of education could require or recommend that school districts choose a curriculum from a list it has created—ideally, one that includes only curricula that focus on building knowledge along with foundational reading skills, or that can be paired with a separate foundational skills curriculum.
“There are state school leaders, superintendents, building administrators, site councils, and more making decisions to strengthen reading instruction that don’t get captured by the legislative survey,” Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive director of the Shanker Institute, told me in an email. “I don’t know how many states may be addressing knowledge through other means at this point.”
No one else seems to know either, because that data isn’t being collected. Due to our extremely localized education system, even state education officials often don’t know what curricula are being used in their states’ districts. But it’s clear that several states have promoted knowledge-building through non-legislative initiatives, including Louisiana, Texas, and Delaware.
Tennessee may be the state with the most successful approach, providing a list of approved curricula—now in use in virtually every district in the state—and other supports, including training linked to the curriculum a district has chosen. Perhaps not coincidentally, the state has seen its reading scores not only rebound to prepandemic levels but even exceed them.
It's possible that state legislation isn’t the best way to address the specifics of reading instruction, crucial though they are. After all, state legislators can’t be expected to become literacy experts. But it would be helpful if reading legislation at least moved away from the misleading five pillars framework and mentioned the need to build knowledge and vocabulary beginning in the earliest grades.
We Need Better Data
I’m not holding my breath for that to happen. In the meantime, we desperately need data that doesn’t view all reading reform through the lens of “phonics,” or even the five pillars. At least the Shanker report tried to find mentions of knowledge-building in state efforts. Other surveys simply ignore that criterion.
For example, a chart in Education Week showing which states have passed “science of reading” laws makes no mention of knowledge. Another recent study of state policies on reading reform does the same, as does the survey it was based on.
Media coverage hasn’t helped. With few exceptions, education journalists have treated the reading crisis as though it’s due only to problems with phonics instruction.
Meanwhile, in the relatively few schools using curricula that build knowledge along with foundational reading skills, exciting things are happening. I’ve visited some of those schools and spoken with many teachers and school leaders who work in them. You can hear from some of them in a six-episode podcast I recently hosted.
My fear, though, is that most people will never know about those developments because of the overwhelming attention now focused on phonics and the five pillars. If educators don’t get the news, most will continue using the same old ineffective approach to reading comprehension—believing, as with phonics, that they’re teaching it when they’re really not. And the result may be that, as has been the case for far too long, millions of children never get to show us what they’re truly capable of doing.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a slightly different form.