Oftentimes when we think about those early elementary school years, we envision primary colors, making friends, hands-on learning, classroom number lines, and ABCs. At the core of it though, is the early stages of reading comprehension. Students need to be able to read texts and make meaning from those texts. This forms the basis for all of the learning that occurs in later elementary and extends through middle school, high school, and beyond. Yet, throughout the years, there has been much debate regarding the best instructional strategies that get students to the goal of reading comprehension.
How do we best teach students to read text and make meaning from it?
The debate around how best to teach students to learn to read has come to be known as ‘the reading wars.’ There are two primary positions: phonics advocates and whole language advocates. (Note: The balanced literacy approach refers to the same key tenets as the whole language approach, and the two terms are often used interchangeably).
Advocates for Whole Language state that not all students need explicit phonics instruction to learn to read. They argue that the focus should be on reading comprehension, which is the ultimate goal of reading instruction. Proponents of this methodology believe that if students are immersed in high quality texts and given ample opportunities to engage in reading, they will indeed learn to read. On the other side, phonics advocates maintain that students must have a way to decode unfamiliar words. They argue that the Whole Language Approach only teaches students to memorize words.
In 1997, the National Reading Panel was formed at the request of Congress. Their goal was to examine the research in reading instruction and determine what is effective in teaching students to read. In 2000, the panel released the famous report identifying 5 key areas of reading instruction that together lead to skilled readers:
Subsequent research since the release of the report has confirmed that these areas are critical to achieving reading comprehension. But have any of these changes in reading instruction positively impacted students’ reading abilities?
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests fourth grade and eighth grade students in the United States on their reading proficiency by having them read passages and then answer questions about the passages. Results are reported as percentages of students performing at or above three NAEP achievement levels (NAEP Basic, NAEP Proficient, and NAEP Advanced). As of 2022, reading scores nationwide show:
These scores have been similar for the past 30 years. The scores for students with disabilities are even more concerning. Only 17% of students with disabilities score at Basic levels of reading and only 8% score at Proficient levels. And this is after approximately 10% of all students with disabilities do not participate in NAEP testing (for reasons such as disability type, severity, and testing accommodations).
If educators have had access to the NRP’s findings that include what research says is effective in teaching students to be skilled readers who comprehend texts, why have scores not changed dramatically in the past 30 years?
One reason for lagging NAEP scores is the unclear recommendations for how to implement the findings of the National Reading Panel. Though the NRP Report summarized what research studies identified as effective reading instruction, it fell short on providing clear next steps for educators to implement in their classrooms. Questions such as these surfaced for educators at all grade levels: How much phonics is enough? What should be chosen as vocabulary targets? When do we stop teaching phonological and phonemic awareness skills? How do I support my struggling readers in the older grades? What about students with disabilities? No recommendations on how to assess these skills were provided either.
Another explanation for the NAEP scores is that instruction in classrooms across the United States has not been reflective of what reading research says is effective. The key tenets of the Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches have been shown to be ineffective. These instructional methodologies do not consistently lead to skilled readers who are able to comprehend what they read. In fact, the three cueing system has been shown to be a strategy that struggling readers use when reading. Yet, until the past year or two, Balanced Literacy practices have remained in classrooms across the U.S..
The most recent movement in reading instruction has come to be known as The Science of Reading. Because of the relative stability of poor reading scores across our country over the past 30 years, there has been another push to improve the quality of reading instruction within classrooms. Emily Hanford, a journalist, brought increased attention to the issue in 2018 with her podcast, Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?, as well as with her subsequent articles and other podcasts (see Sold a Story). In addition, digital learning during the COVID-19 pandemic increased parent engagement and awareness of practices in reading instruction. As of July 2023, 32 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation requiring public school reading curriculum and instruction to adhere to the key tenets of The Science of Reading.
Some mischaracterize it as a synonym for phonics instruction and nothing more. However, the Science of Reading more accurately refers to the body of research that has been conducted across different fields of study, including neuroscience, cognitive science, education, developmental psychology, and other fields that have examined how children learn to read and what practices are critical to reading instruction. The body of research is summarized by the ‘Big 5’ identified in the NRP report: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.
The National Center on Improving Literacy offers a succinct list of what the Science of Reading is and what it is not.
The report from the National Reading Panel’s findings was released over 20 years ago. A significant amount of new research has been conducted and disseminated since the initial report was released that time.
Shanahan (2021) provides a great summary of other areas that should be included in Science of Reading instruction: writing and spelling instruction because of their influence on reading abilities, incorporating literature of varying text complexity, using science and social studies to also focus on reading comprehension, differentiating instruction, and teaching various text structures. The Active View of Reading (2021) also documents the important contributions of active self regulation skills to reading comprehension. Active self-regulation skills include motivation and engagement, executive function skills (cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, working memory, planning, and attentional control), and strategy use.
There is still much work to be done to translate the research into practice. In other words, how do literacy teachers incorporate evidence-based instruction identified in research into day-to-day classroom practice?
A large gap still exists between research and practice. We know that instruction in the Big 5 is essential AND it should be integrated. Meaning, students are taught to decode words that are in their lexicon and that contribute to comprehending the books that they are reading in the classroom. Seidenberg, Borkenhagen, and Kearns (2020) outline six steps needed to bridge the gap between current reading research and educational practice:
The difficulty in finding clearly communicated information and research on implementing Science of Reading instruction affects teacher buy-in. A group of reading researchers acknowledge in a 2021 report that teachers are critical, the Science of Reading research base is complex, and instructional change will take time to lead to encouraging results.
Recommendations from IES Practice Guides (2010 and 2016) include:
As we continue to grow our knowledge in effective implementation of reading instruction, future recommendations will add to the current Science of Reading base. We must all work together to continue to educate ourselves and others on current best practices, to support educators on implementing best practices in classrooms, and to invest in our students.
Providing effective literacy instruction to all students is a key piece in raising NAEP test scores, but more importantly improving lifelong literacy. Reading comprehension affects all aspects of adult independence – such as understanding the financial consequences of owning a credit card, understanding potential side effects of different medications, being able to understand an employee handbook, etc. Educators have a significant opportunity to make a lasting impact on student success, independence, and self-direction. Building a strong literacy foundation through evidence-based reading practices will achieve the goal of reading comprehension and lead to life-long benefits for our students.
Jessica Godsey, Ph.D., currently serves as TeachTown’s Senior Editorial Director of Curriculum Development. She received her master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from The University of Memphis and her Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining TeachTown, Jessica served students with language and literacy disorders in a variety of clinical and school settings. She also taught courses in language development and disorders and supervised students at Western Michigan University. Additionally, Jessica has co-authored a reading program for students with dyslexia and speaks frequently about the Science of Reading.