Newsletter 181 - Teach teachers the science of "teaching children to read"

"Teach teachers the science of teaching children to read"

Hard Words

Why aren't kids being taught to read?

“An American Story”

Nic Spaull argues that  "I don't think it's overstepping the mark to say that the 'reading wars' of old, which pitted Whole Language against Phonics are over. There is no empirical support for a Whole Language approach, and much of the earlier WL theories have now been debunked by neuroscience. In short, we need to do better when training Foundation Phase teachers (both current and prospective) and focus on scientifically-validated methods of instruction rather than theories or beliefs that have no empirical base. As Schleicher says "Without data you are just another person with an opinion."

 Katherine Zhou for APM Reports

“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.”

“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.
  • 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.”

One of the excuses educators have long offered to explain America's poor reading performance

  • Is poverty.
  • There is plenty of poverty in Bethlehem, a small city in eastern Pennsylvania that was once a booming steel town.
  • But there are fancy homes here, too.
  • This was not just poverty.
  • In fact, by some estimates, one-third of America's struggling readers are from college-educated families.

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.

"There are thousands of studies," said Louisa Moats, an education consultant and researcher who has been teaching and studying reading since the 1970s. "This is the most studied aspect of human learning."

  • But this research hasn't made its way into many elementary school classrooms.
  • 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.
  • Most teachers nationwide are not being taught reading science in their teacher preparation programs because many deans and faculty in colleges of education either don't know the science or dismiss it.
  • As a result of their intransigence, millions of kids have been set up to fail.

We are not born wired to read

  • The scientific research on reading goes back decades
  • Researchers have been doing their work in labs that were sometimes right across the quad from schools of education, but reading researchers and education researchers kind of live in separate universes; they go to different conferences, publish in different journals.
  • The big takeaway from all the scientific research on reading is that learning to read is not a natural process.
  • We are not born 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.
  • 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.

Children don't crack the code naturally. They need to be taught how letters represent speech sounds. But by the time scientists had done all the studies to conclude this for sure, a different set of beliefs about reading was already deeply entrenched in many American schools and colleges of education.

Balanced literacy

  • Debates about reading go back centuries.
  • On the other side of the debate were people who believed in phonics. That means teaching children that words are made up of parts and showing them how different letters and combinations of letters connect to the speech sounds in words.
  • By the early 1990s, the idea that kids didn't need phonics had taken hold in many schools and teacher preparation programs, and was even a guiding principle behind reading instruction across the entire state of California.
  • 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.

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