Solari: To Stem the Nation’s Reading Crisis, Made Worse by COVID-19, Teachers, Districts & States Must Push Multiple Levers

In the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, much attention was drawn to how the nation’s schools were teaching young children to read. Renewed public attention to reading instruction was palpable and resurrected a decades-old debate on the best way to teach young children to read.

The discussion was fueled by the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results, released well before the pandemic, which indicated decreases in reading achievement across many states. NAEP scores serve as a snapshot of educational progress; however, a single test score does not fully reflect the complex system in which individual children are served and therefore should not be the only metric we use to determine reading success or failure. This was a critical conversation before COVID-19, but it is an even more urgent one now.

In the past two months, the national conversation around education has rightfully pivoted to the implementation of online content and remote learning. In this process, our nation has been forced to see the great inequities in educational access and opportunity. Education stakeholders are justifiably concerned about dramatic learning losses, and it is likely that inequities, once lurking just below the surface, will bubble over.

Although it is not entirely clear when and in what format schools will resume in-person instruction, there is every reason to believe that the instructional needs in reading will be great. Critical face-to-face reading instructional time has been lost, and students with reading difficulties before the pandemic are likely to be the most severely impacted. Children around the country are experiencing anxiety and, in some cases, trauma as a result of the current situation. It is unclear how these social-emotional factors playing out across the nation will impact academic engagement and performance.

For many years, a profound research-to-practice gap has existed, meaning reading research findings are not adequately implemented in our nation’s classrooms. This has differential impacts on particular subgroups of students. For example, children living below the poverty line and who are ethnic and linguistic minorities are more likely to display reading difficulties, and students diagnosed with reading disabilities such as dyslexia are being underserved in school.

As we begin to think about how we can best serve students as they return to their classrooms after the pandemic, we need to think critically about how to best address their multiple and varied needs.

How does the education system use the existing evidence base in reading acquisition, assessment and intervention to thoughtfully plan instruction? How can we think about training for both practicing and future teachers in a way that is supported by this evidence? As before the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to address the reading needs of all students, multiple levers must be pushed simultaneously.

At the school and classroom levels, the key to providing adequate instruction rests in developing teachers’ knowledge of reading research and providing them with both reliable and valid screening tools to help determine which students are at risk and in need of more intensive support. Further, teachers need to be equipped with evidence-based instructional practices — those that have been shown, through multiple research studies, to develop adequate word reading and fluency and that practice related comprehension development.

Research-based early reading instruction targets phonological awareness (the ability to detect and manipulate sounds in speech) and alphabet knowledge, particularly when conducted in a systematic and explicit manner. Teaching children to decode (apply knowledge of letter-sounds correspondences to accurately read words) using explicit phonics also has a solid research base. Especially for our youngest learners, these practices will need to be readily and efficiently implemented when children return to school. They must receive robust professional development that prepares them to efficiently screen reading performance no matter the child’s background and use the data to guide and target their reading instruction.

Current debates center on a push for teachers to be trained in the delivery of explicit phonics instruction. Often, this is falsely portrayed as one side pushing a phonics-only agenda and the other highlighting the importance of having students engage with high-quality literature. This oversimplification is counterproductive and does not serve children; phonics and engagement with high-quality literature should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

While building foundational reading skills — the early skills necessary to equip children to be ready to decode and read text fluently — is an evidence-based practice and essential to developing successful readers, the training of teachers in explicit phonics alone is not a silver bullet. Successful reading is much more than learning to decode words and reading text fluently. It is an essential early milestone, but reaching it does not guarantee that students are adequately prepared to read complex texts. Simultaneous instruction in vocabulary, oral language and knowledge building are important for reading comprehension development.

For educators to be properly prepared, future teachers must be provided adequate preparation in the teaching of reading while they’re still in their teacher-preparation programs. The recently released International Literacy Association’s “What’s Hot in Literacy” report noted that although educational stakeholders (including teachers, administrators and professors) agree that reading research is very important to inform practice, only 40 percent of teacher preparation programs use this evidence in their curriculum.

Deep philosophical differences as to the best approach for preparing future teachers to teach reading exist within many schools of education. It is imperative that colleges and universities use the existing evidence base to develop future teachers so they are prepared to recognize when children are struggling to learn how to read and to advocate for these students.

Changes are needed at the policy level as well. Many states control which screening measures schools must use to identify children at risk for reading difficulties, as well as reading curricula. This, in turn, determines the reading instruction that districts adopt and implement. It is not uncommon for districts and schools to provide reading professional development for teachers that is not aligned to the research base. A recent survey of K-2 reading curricula indicates that many classrooms across the country use reading programs that are in direct conflict with the science of reading and do not adequately address the instructional needs of all children. A closer look at the curriculum selection and implementation process is necessary.

Without a concerted effort to push on multiple levers, the research-to-practice gap will remain profound. Every child has the right to receive reading instruction that is based on sound research. In order to make this a reality, broad, systems-level change that addresses the complex web of state policies, teacher training inadequacies and systemic inequities is necessary.

Our teachers and students are well worth the investment.

Emily Solari is a professor of education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, where she serves as coordinator of the reading education program. She serves on the executive board of the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Learning Disabilities and as associate editor for Journal of Learning Disabilities and Remedial and Special Education.

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