A Teacher’s View: How the Science of Reading Helped Me Make the Most of Limited Time With My Students & Adapt Lessons to Meet Their Needs

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March 12, 2020, was my last typical day in the classroom before COVID-19 changed everything. When my district closed the following day, I assumed, as did many, that this was a temporary precaution. As the closure continued, fear began to set it in. With each passing week, I worried that the growth in reading my first-graders and I worked so hard for would fade away.

Many schools have been closed for in-person instruction for over a year. While models of hybrid and remote instruction have evolved, many students have not re-entered the classroom. Teachers and caregivers rightfully worry about the long-term adverse effects of interrupted instruction.

Many pre-pandemic instructional approaches to teaching reading were already failing students and teachers. Only one-third of students in the U.S. had achieved reading proficiency at grade level in 2019. As the years go by, the gaps become larger, and as instruction shifts from learning to read to reading to learn, students who are reading below grade level seldom catch up to their peers. And for many children, the consequences of reading failure extend beyond difficulty in the classroom. These students often confront significant social and emotional challenges as they become increasingly aware of their differences from their classmates.

Teachers are not immune from the consequences of reading failure. They want nothing more than to help their students experience success, and the pressure they feel to ensure their students succeed despite factors beyond their control can be overwhelming. It is unsurprising that nearly half of new teachers leave the field within the first five years.

The stress of COVID-19 has only exacerbated these challenges. When my district reopened for in-person classes in the fall of 2020, we were faced with difficult decisions about how to best deliver instruction. One factor that helped streamline this transition for educators at my school was our background in and knowledge of instructional practices aligned with the science of reading. Having an extensive knowledge base of what we needed to teach allowed us to focus on how we would teach.

The science of reading is a vast body of scientifically based research about reading and writing. This research has been conducted over the last five decades and has resulted in thousands of studies that inform effective literacy assessment and teaching practices. The findings from the science of reading can inform educators about which approaches and programs provide the most benefit to the most learners, closing gaps in foundational skills and other aspects of reading and writing.

At our school, all students take a series of short screening tests to assess reading ability at the beginning of the school year. Using results from these tests and other ongoing student progress assessments, I then tailor lesson plans and provide supplemental instruction throughout the year. If a student receives a low score in a particular area, I conduct a follow-up assessment to learn the underlying reason for the difficulty. For example, if students score poorly on a measure of oral reading fluency, I then administer a phonics test to see if their fluency is being hampered by phonic patterns they have not yet learned.

Next, I analyze data from all the students’ assessments and create small groups focused on the literacy skill(s) students need to work on. One group may receive additional instruction on reading and writing words with a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern, while another practices words featuring the silent E. If a student is not making adequate progress, I adjust the intensity of reading instruction, the amount of one-on-one time spent with that student or the group’s size. Implementing evidence-aligned instructional practices in small groups focused specifically on topics students need the most practice with allows me to maximize limited instruction time — which has become especially critical in ever-evolving distance learning environments.

This model shifted minimally during the 2020-21 school year, even in the midst of school closures. As educators training in the findings derived from the science of reading, my colleagues and I built virtual lessons that center on the critical components of foundational reading skills. We conducted reading exercises to practice skills such as phonemic awareness, the ability to identify and manipulate the individual sounds in spoken words, on video with small groups of students. Using other online platforms, we created interactive lessons in which students practiced reading and writing specific words, and reading full sentences and answering corresponding comprehension questions. The software enabled us to see all students’ screens at once and gauge who was on target and who needed additional support. It also provided information for planning subsequent lessons.

Understanding evidence-based approaches to learning dictated our lesson planning, while the digital tools help bring them to fruition. Having a strong understanding of the science of reading also allowed us to teach creatively and flexibly, to effectively meet each student’s needs.

Educators at my school learned a great deal during our brief time teaching remotely, and we applied some of these methods when we resumed in-person instruction. A major obstacle of COVID-era teaching, even in person, is that students cannot leave their classrooms and I cannot pull together students from multiple classrooms who have similar skill levels. To ensure small-group instruction could continue, we leveraged our student teachers, who were able to participate only in remote instruction even after we returned to the classroom. The student teachers virtually led small groups composed of students needing intervention on the same skills from the four classrooms in our grade level.

There are multiple factors that teachers cannot control; one person alone cannot make the systematic changes needed for all children to reach proficiency in literacy. But one knowledgeable teacher can forever change the trajectory of a student’s life. Students will face many challenges once they leave the classroom. Low literacy does not need to be one of them.

Jessica Pasik is a reading specialist with the Fulton City School District in New York, an adjunct professor of literacy at SUNY Oswego and a board member of the national literacy education nonprofit The Reading League.

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