Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don't know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.
The stakes were high. Research shows that children who don’t learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they’re likely to fall behind in other academic areas, too.People who struggle with reading are more likely to drop out of high school, to end up in the criminal justice system, and to live in poverty. But as a nation, we’ve come to accept a high percentage of kids not reading well. More than 60 percent of American fourth-graders are not proficient readers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and it’s been that way since testing began in the 1990s.
Mapping out NAEP scores paints an even more dire problem.
Much of the challenge comes from how we teach children to read in American elementary schools.
The basic assumption that underlies typical reading instruction in many schools is that learning to read is a natural process, much like learning to talk. But decades of scientific research has revealed that reading doesn’t come naturally. The human brain isn’t wired to read. Kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters — phonics.
Much of the research on the brain, and language acquisition has not made it into teacher prep or professional development programs.
The prevailing approaches to reading instruction in American schools are inconsistent with basic things scientists have discovered about how children learn to read. Many educators don’t know the science, and in some cases actively resist it. The resistance is the result of beliefs about reading that have been deeply held in the educational establishment for decades, even though those beliefs have been proven wrong by scientists over and over again.
Work needs to be done to understand that we are wired to talk, we’re not wired to read.
We are born wired to talk. Kids learn to talk by being talked to, by being surrounded with spoken language. That’s all it takes. No one has to teach them to talk.
But, as numerous studies have shown, reading is different. Our brains don’t know how to do it. That’s because human beings didn’t invent written language until relatively recently in human history, just a few thousand years ago. To be able to read, structures in our brain that were designed for things such as object recognition have to get rewired a bit.
Part of this involves helping children crack the code between symbols on a page, and the sounds we’re supposed to make with them. I spend a lot of time on this in my classes. This involves first recognizing this symbol (A) not as a letter…but identifying, and making the sounds that are associated with that symbol. We then get into the fact that this is the “letter A” and build from there.
Another big takeaway from decades of scientific research is that, while we use our eyes to read, the starting point for reading is sound. What a child must do to become a reader is to figure out how the words she hears and knows how to say connect to letters on the page. Writing is a code humans invented to represent speech sounds. Kids have to crack that code to become readers.
Instead, what happens in teacher prep programs, and literacy professional development is often a battle between whole language/phonics instruction/balanced literacy.
Whole language was a movement of people who believed that children and teachers needed to be freed from the tedium of phonics instruction. Phonics lessons were seen as rote, old-fashioned, and kind of conservative. The essential idea in whole language was that children construct their own knowledge and meaning from experience. Teaching them phonics wasn’t necessary because learning to read was a natural process that would occur if they were immersed in a print-rich environment. Whole language proponents thought phonics lessons might actually be bad for kids, might inhibit children from developing a love of reading by making them focus on tedious skills like breaking words into parts.
This was ultimately studied by the National Reading Report in 2000.
The battle between whole language and phonics got so heated that the U.S. Congress eventually got involved, convening a National Reading Panel to review all the research on reading. In 2000, the panel released a report. The sum of the research showed that explicitly teaching children the relationship between sounds and letters improved reading achievement. The panel concluded that phonics lessons help kids become better readers. There is no evidence to say the same about whole language.
The challenge is that even though we see the reports from brain research, and the work of the National Reading Panel, there is still a reticence to teach phonics, and instead focus on a “balance” between phonics instruction and whole language.
After the National Reading Panel report, whole language proponents could no longer deny the importance of phonics. But they didn’t give up their core belief that learning to read is a natural process, and they didn’t give up the reading programs they were selling, either. Instead they advocated for doing both, a balance. So, whole language didn’t disappear; it just got repackaged as balanced literacy. And in balanced literacy, phonics is treated a bit like salt on a meal: a little here and there, but not too much, because it could be bad for you.
The solution to making this happen in current elementary grades is a mix of teacher-directed whole-class phonics lessons with small-group activities to meet the needs of children at different points in the process of learning to read.
The challenges still exist in teacher prep programs as “ill-formed, ineffective reading instruction is the norm.”
A big part of the problem is at the university level, in schools of education, according to the authors of a 2016 article in the Journal of Childhood & Developmental Disorders. “Faculty have ignored the scientific knowledge that informs reading acquisition,” the authors wrote. “As a result, the pre-service teachers who are being educated at these institutions fail to receive the necessary training.”
The piece makes an interesting point about whether this is due to the beliefs about facts and experience in education.
Education as a practice has placed a much higher value on observation and hands-on experience than on scientific evidence, Seidenberg said. “We have to change the culture of education from one based on beliefs to one based on facts.”
There is also a culture in higher education of closing the door and letting faculty do whatever they think is “right” in terms of teaching and learning.
Colleges and universities generally don’t like state officials telling them what to do. “Professors pretty much have academic freedom to construct learning in the way they think best,” Butler said.
The response to this may be professional development for faculty in education and teacher prep. A PD experience that includes the same phonics instruction as provided to elementary students. The challenge is that you’ll still battle the fears, misconceptions, and paradigms that faculty bring to reading instruction and language development.
The challenge is that many fear phonics as they view it as a discrete set of skills, and boring lessons. The focus should be on progression of literacy practices.
But the science shows clearly that when reading instruction is organized around a defined progression of concepts about how speech is represented by print, kids become better readers. There is also widespread support in the research for the effectiveness of teacher-directed lessons as opposed to letting children discover key concepts about reading on their own.
This progression moves from these discrete skills to surrounding the child with good books they want to read.
What’s also clear in the research is that phonics isn’t enough. Children can learn to decode words without knowing what the words mean. To comprehend what they’re reading, kids need a good vocabulary, too. That’s why reading to kids and surrounding them with quality books is a good idea. The whole language proponents are right about that.
There is no debate at this point among scientists that reading is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught by showing children the ways that sounds and letters correspond.