Schmidt: The Evidence Behind Effective Reading Instruction Is Clear. Now, Classroom Practices Need to Follow

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Few areas of instruction are as critical in the early elementary grades as reading. The good news is that thanks to extensive research on reading instruction, we know how to teach it effectively. The bad news? Too often, reading is not taught effectively. The research, though plentiful, is not put into practice.

The evidence is pretty clear. Only one-third of fourth-graders are proficient in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics’s The Condition of Education 2018 report. That leaves two-thirds of our students at a disadvantage, with little chance of ever catching up. Additional research reveals that a deficiency in vocabulary or decoding ability makes matters worse as reading demands increase across grade levels. So what can we do to ensure that students leaving the primary grades are equipped to read well in school and beyond?

Here’s what we know. Early literacy instruction requires an intentional focus in developing two core competencies: systematic, explicit lessons in mastering the code of our language system, known as phonics, and building vocabulary and scientific, historical, and technical knowledge. According to reading research summarized by the National Reading Panel, students need high-quality general education in building those two competencies.

Despite all this evidence, for many years, philosophical reading wars have caused pendulum swings in education, and phonics in particular has fallen in and out of vogue. The problem starts early in an aspiring teacher’s career. Schools of education do not engage their students in the most current reading research, leaving them with gaps in their knowledge of teaching reading. Moreover, many schools and districts do not provide classroom teachers with a comprehensive and well-reviewed English language arts curriculum. Teachers are left to find materials themselves. Developing coherent curriculum to support reading instruction is a complex process, and while teacher expertise should be leveraged, full-time educators should not be required to pull together and field test materials on top of teaching a classroom full of students.

When schools do provide elementary teachers with textbook reading programs, sequenced sets of grade-level anthologies, and lengthy teacher editions with suggested daily lesson plans, they often have serious limitations. Those published right after the National Reading Panel report was released two decades ago practically eliminated rich science and social studies content from reading-related curricula in the early grades. Teachers using those programs focused only on discrete skills and reading strategies and generally neglected content knowledge and vocabulary. As a result, the understanding that students gained from reading became inconsequential, and collections of books lacking depth, rich vocabulary, and meaningful content proliferated.

Many of those textbook reading programs are still in use, and even newer editions continue to focus on teaching reading as a set of skills that can be applied to any text, often in “leveled” books. These books, frequently labeled “ELL”, “below,” “on,” or “above” grade level, constrain the type of vocabulary, syntax, and amount of text students encounter and can further exacerbate language gaps.

To picture the problem clearly, contrast the learning opportunities in two second-grade classrooms. In one, the teacher allows students time to read an informational text about how two types of volcanoes form and the impact they have on an area. The students use information gained from reading to discuss shield and cone volcanoes, taking notes on how the volcanoes form. In the second classroom, the teacher reads aloud a simple, nonfiction book about animal habitats and then models finding text features such as headings, captions, diagrams, and labels in the book. The focus of the lesson is to identify text features. The students are then instructed to read their own leveled book to identify the text features and put sticky notes with page numbers to indicate where they found them.

There is no question as to which students are understanding what their text is about. The students in one classroom learn words such as “properties,” “solid,” “plates,” and “inactive.” They learn how eruptions change the surface of the earth. In contrast, identifying text features does not help students understand the information itself; the knowledge gained from reading is an afterthought. Moreover, if students work only on leveled texts, some will get a steady diet of low-level vocabulary rather than exposure to the rich vocabulary they need to become better readers. To ensure all students grow vocabulary and knowledge, every student should be guided in making meaning from quality fiction and nonfiction. Unfortunately, this is not a common practice in many classrooms across the country.

Against this backdrop, schools scramble to find reading resources that allow students to build knowledge on substantive topics, trying to patch together materials that will help align instruction with the demands of college- and career-readiness standards that reflect the priorities that research has shown improve early literacy.

For years, the choice in curriculum and student reading materials has been limited. It has been either/or — educators could have either simple, often silly books that offered only decoding practice, or engaging, rich texts that were too challenging for students to read on their own. Students missed opportunities to practice with accessible texts, to build knowledge of the world, to engage with worthy topics, and to grow their vocabulary.

The good news is that better options are becoming available. There are comprehensive reading programs that focus both on foundational skills and on building knowledge and vocabulary. Publishers are releasing collections of books that expose children to the wider world — history, art, and science — in accessible language so students can practice learned foundational skills.

Offering students anything less than both rich content that grows knowledge and vocabulary and accessible language is a disservice. We know what the research says. Let’s follow it up with the kind of instructional practices and curricular materials that will develop strong readers.

Catherine Schmidt supports districts, states, and partners in implementing college and career-readiness standards in English language arts and literacy. She also serves as a title editor and author on the Great Minds® Geodes™ team and is grateful to be an elementary teacher on special assignment. Her best days are in schools with teachers and students.

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