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Teachers Need the Why, the What, and the How for Change to Happen
"Science of Reading" initiatives are unlikely to work unless educators get all the components that will enable them to be successful.
There’s a dizzying amount of activity going on in some states and school districts, spurred by the push to bring classroom practice in line with the “science of reading.” But not all of that activity translates into better reading instruction.
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Some teachers are being required to take rigorous courses that ask them to re-examine and abandon deeply held beliefs about how children learn to read. Even if they become convinced that change is needed—that is, they have the why—they may not be equipped to put their new understanding into practice.
Other teachers are simply being asked to follow a radically different kind of literacy curriculum. They have the what—the instructional materials. But they may not understand why change is necessary. That could lead them to depart from the new curriculum or implement it in a way that doesn’t work.
Even if teachers have both the why and the what, a radical shift in practice can be challenging. Many teachers will also need the how: ongoing support in adapting a curriculum to the needs of their students and delivering it effectively, from someone who understands it well—like an instructional “coach.”
If any one of these elements is missing, many students are likely to continue to struggle with reading.
Changing something as fundamental to teachers as their approach to reading instruction isn’t easy. Prospective teachers are encouraged to develop their own “philosophies” of reading, but most absorb the idea that only a few children need systematic instruction in phonics and other foundational reading skills. They’re also usually taught that teaching reading comprehension “skills and strategies,” like “finding the main idea,” is more important than developing kids’ substantive academic knowledge.
It’s not surprising then, that some teachers are resistant or at least puzzled if they’re simply told to use a literacy curriculum that provides systematic phonics instruction for all students and focuses on building knowledge—even though both those approaches are grounded in scientific evidence. (You can find more information about this kind of curriculum on the website of the Knowledge Matters Campaign, which goes into detail about six of them.)
Some educators have said that while they’re glad their district switched to that kind of curriculum, they wish the first step had been explaining the reasons. A literacy coach in Iowa, Megan Kruse, recently wrote that a sense of urgency had led her to push for quick adoption of a high-quality curriculum, but she now feels her district should have first dedicated a year to “professional learning” about the science of reading—specifically mentioning a popular program called LETRS. “We have the WHAT,” she observed, “but only pockets of our staff have the WHY.” Teachers and students “continue to struggle” as a result.
At the same time, some educators who live in districts where LETRS training has been mandated—but lack a curriculum aligned with its teachings—are also struggling. In North Carolina, every K-5 teacher is required to undergo the two-year program, which takes about 160 hours to complete. The course covers the importance of both systematically teaching foundational reading skills and building students’ knowledge and vocabulary. But as Louisa Moats, one of the program’s creators, told Ed Week—LETRS isn’t “a curriculum or a set of activities.” Rather, the goal is to “give people a knowledge base for doing the job.”
Another article in Ed Week explored what that can lead to: harried, overburdened teachers, some of whom just go through the motions. Even those who find the information valuable aren’t always sure what to do with it. “I felt like a lot of it was giving me background knowledge, background knowledge,” one kindergarten teacher said. “But I wasn’t getting—how do you apply it?”
In fact, studies have shown that while LETRS training increases teacher knowledge, it doesn’t necessarily boost student achievement.
What factors can help ensure that a switch to an approach grounded in the science of reading will work? Here are some suggestions:
Start with the why—but don’t spend too much time on it. Emily Solari, an education professor at the University of Virginia, told Ed Week that a less intensive program than LETRS—currently in use in 23 states—could produce strong outcomes if paired with coaching. Like North Carolina and other states, Tennessee is requiring teachers to take a course on the science of reading—but it takes 60 hours rather than 160, and it’s offered during the summer.
Tennessee is also providing teachers who take the course with a $1,000 stipend, something that North Carolina left up to districts to provide—or not. The program, which began in 2021, is still ongoing, but Tennessee has seen gains in reading scores despite disruptions caused by the pandemic.
Adopt a coherent literacy curriculum that provides the what. Teachers are already overburdened, and asking each one to figure out how to convert general principles into classroom practice, from scratch, is unrealistic. Nor does it work to retain a curriculum that conflicts with science-backed principles teachers have just been introduced to—or to add a new program that conflicts with another that’s left in place.
And a curriculum that only covers foundational reading skills, no matter how well, isn’t enough to ensure kids become literate. If teachers in the early grades don’t simultaneously build children’s academic knowledge, through read-alouds of rich texts grouped around specific topics, many students will hit a wall at upper grade levels, where texts assume knowledge they may not have.
The best bet is to adopt one of the half-dozen or so curricula that both cover foundational skills and build knowledge. Tennessee requires districts to choose from a list of curricula that meet its standards for both components—and part of its training for educators has them adapting the theory they’ve learned to the curriculum they’ll be using. That could help explain why more than 97% of teachers who took the training said it prepared them to better support students in learning to read.
Other states, including North Carolina, leave curriculum decisions entirely to districts. But even they could provide guidance to districts in choosing an effective curriculum. as has been done in Louisiana and Texas.
Bring in professional learning that provides the how. Curricula include lesson plans and teacher guides, but that’s often not enough to ensure effective implementation. Professional learning or “development” has generally had little effect on teacher practice or student achievement. But that’s because it’s usually a one-off session on a general topic like “how to get students to think critically.”
Evidence indicates that a different kind of professional learning works much better: ongoing support, such as coaching, that is grounded in the specifics of whatever curriculum a school is using. An organization called Rivet Education helps schools and districts find professional-learning providers that understand a specific curriculum and can provide support.
Be patient—and encourage teachers to give a new curriculum their best shot. The results of a new approach may not be immediately reflected in test scores, especially with regard to comprehension. Because standardized reading tests aren’t tied to the knowledge built by any particular curriculum, it may take years for students to acquire the critical mass of vocabulary that can enable them to understand a grade-level passage on any topic.
It can also take time for teachers to adjust to and embrace a new approach. Some may never be on board. But even if teachers are skeptical, it’s important that they don’t convey their lack of enthusiasm to students.
One teacher in Tennessee whose school was experimenting with a knowledge-building curriculum told me she was dubious at first. She didn’t think her third-graders would be interested in subjects like the Vikings and Ancient Rome. And she wasn’t captivated by every text she was supposed to read aloud. Nevertheless, she said, she read each one as though it was the most fascinating thing in the world. And she found that her students actually were fascinated—an experience that helped convince her that the new curriculum was exactly what they needed.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.
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