April 19, 2023
Between 1992 and 2022, approximately one-third of U.S. 4th and 8th graders demonstrated proficiency in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The persistence of this crisis – and it is a crisis when 1 in 3 students are not reading at grade level – is tragic not only for the implications of how this deficit will impact the future of these children (higher dropout rates, lower lifetime wages) but also for the fact that there are effective, proven methods to improve reading outcomes for all learners.
These alarming scores do not reflect the level of educators’ dedication to teaching, nor do they reflect students’ motivation to learn, but rather, these scores signal a need to standardize our approaches to literacy to better align with research-based practices.
Many states have enacted legislation to explicitly transform reading within their state by prioritizing well-researched, proven methods for instruction and bringing consistency across schools and districts. As a result, educators have turned to practices supported by decades of research and data. The new approach requires that districts implement Science of Reading-aligned practices in their classrooms.
What is the Science of Reading?
The Science of Reading (SoR) is the body of evidence of approaches to reading instruction. An abundance of that research suggests that a structured literacy approach is the most effective way to teach reading.
Phonological Awareness: The ability to recognize and manipulate the parts of sentences and words said aloud. For example, a student who has acquired phonological awareness can identify words that rhyme or count the number of syllables in a word. Phonemic awareness is a critical piece to learning to read. It is the ability to recognize the smallest unit of sound in a word “phonemes.” For example, understanding that cat is made up of three distinct sounds /c/ ./a/ /t/.
Phonics: The ability to match the individual sounds of language (phonemes) with the letter or letter that represents the sounds (graphemes).
Fluency: The ability to read smoothly, without interruption or pausing, results from students reading and rereading texts early in the developmental process. Fluency is an explicit goal achieved by persistent, repeated, engagement with text.
Vocabulary: Knowing what words mean and how to say and use them properly.
Text Comprehension: The ability to understand what the text means. This may be determining the author's intent, the responses it evokes in the reader, and how the text relates to the broader body of knowledge in the world.
The challenges of transforming literacy instruction for district leaders
As many districts transition to using Science of Reading-aligned instruction, they have found that some practices are already present. Unfortunately, they have also found that these practices may have gaps or were sequenced improperly to maximally benefit students. Empowering teachers to transition to practices that ensure a complete foundational understanding of how reading works requires administrators to articulate, train, monitor, and support professional practice.
How can district leaders make this shift in instruction successful?
Ensuring that teachers employ the proven practices of Science of Reading, and helping teachers transition to these practices, is critically important if students are to be successful readers. District and school leaders can catalyze a successful implementation of Science of Reading principles by providing educators with a shared purpose, meaningful professional learning, ample time, effective resources, and a commitment to ongoing support.
Build a common understanding and expectations: When entire districts are adopting a new instructional approach, it is critical that all stakeholders have a shared understanding, language, and set of expectations. Before implementation, it is vital for district leaders to share information about the research basis, steps for rollout, and desired outcomes with educators so they understand the reasons for the change and are, therefore, more likely to embrace the approach.
Provide the right tools: As an initial step in implementation, districts should audit current tools and resources and identify those that utilize SoR principles. Resources and tools that do not align with SoR should be removed from instructional use. Districts should then assess what additional tools and resources are needed for teaching and learning to successfully implement SoR for students. It is important that districts pair adoption of these new tools with meaningful professional learning for educators.
Prioritize professional development: A shift to implementing Science of Reading practices may mean restructuring the entire approach to literacy. This requires that district and school leaders invest time, resources, and energy to ensure that classroom teachers and interventionists understand pedagogical practices and how to implement them for their specific students. Further, many teachers have been trained in and utilized balanced literacy for their entire careers. Professional learning needs to include explicit descriptions of how SoR practices are different and which practices are no longer justified by SoR research.
Learn from others: District leaders should regularly connect with colleagues in other districts and their own team to support one another, share lessons learned, and strategize about how to enable successful implementation. Utilize Facebook groups, Twitter chats, webinars, and resources from professional organizations to engage in additional opportunities to learn from others and to inform the broader conversation. It’s also important to acknowledge that classroom teachers are in a similar position. Leaders can facilitate structured opportunities for them to connect with colleagues and peers in professional learning communities.
Engage learning guardians and communities: Reading development is a primary focus of learning in the early grades and, in its ideal form, transcends both the classroom and the home. It’s critical to have clear and consistent messaging throughout the entire district on why educators are shifting to SoR, what that will look like for students, and how families and learning guardians can support students in their literacy development. District leaders can work with their office of communications, family and community outreach teams, and any other relevant professionals to engage families in building understanding and momentum.
Invest in ongoing and systematic efforts: This kind of shift requires changes at every level of a school district and requires time and iterative effort. To truly transform reading instruction, district leaders must provide structures for consistent and ongoing support, guidance, and regular feedback loops to ensure that educators have access to the information and professional learning they need when it is relevant to their instruction and the phase of implementation.
Transforming Literacy for Long-Term Success
Aligning reading instruction with research and best practices proven to be effective means that all students will have access to the tools, instructional materials, and pedagogy to become proficient readers. These students will be able to engage deeply with academic content in the years ahead, paving the way for them to become adults who can actively participate in and contribute to the world around them–elevating the long-term overall success of the district and the broader community.
Click the download button below for our Science of Reading Roles and Responsibilities Guide for tips, considerations, suggestions, and action items to help support this transition to Science of Reading at the district, school, and classroom levels.