This piece – authored by Jared Myracle – was originally published in the February 2020 edition of Educational Leadership and can be viewed online in that format. It has been reposted with permission from ASCD.
Why I decided our district needed to move in a new direction.
This past year has seen a significant uptick in discussion about reading instruction in schools. Despite reforms to standards, teacher evaluation, and a push for more technology in classrooms, reading scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress—among other worrisome literacy indicators—have declined slightly. As the national conversation grows, many school and district leaders are trying to move quickly up the learning curve on the question of how kids actually learn to read proficiently—and how best to support the process in their schools.
I was a high school history teacher, so my training and classroom experience were not grounded in helping children learn to read. My time as a middle school and high school administrator did little to further my knowledge. At the same time, those experiences gave me a powerful window into the consequences of poor early reading instruction and the challenges students face when their literacy skills are below grade level.
When I became a district chief academic officer and began looking into the research on reading, I found, to my surprise, that there was a fair amount of consensus among experts on how kids learn to read. A number of interlocking approaches are consistently recommended. While you might see debate about implementation issues, the big picture on developing proficient readers is pretty clear from the research I was seeing.
Here are the common refrains I found:
- Daily systematic phonics instruction in early elementary grades is essential and is supported by overwhelming evidence from the National Reading Panel and subsequent studies. Experts typically recommend 30 to 60 minutes of explicit phonics instruction daily, followed by opportunities for practice and reinforcement (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
- Assuming basic proficiency in decoding, students’ knowledge of a topic greatly influences how well they can read and comprehend text about that topic. Recht and Leslie’s famous “Baseball Study” (1988)—finding that students’ prior knowledge of baseball significantly determined their understanding of a passage about the sport—memorably demonstrates this and reinforces the need for curricula to begin building knowledge on a variety of topics found in literature, science, and social studies in early elementary grades. E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s Why Knowledge Matters (Harvard Education Press, 2016) and Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap (Avery, 2019) are more recent illuminating reads on this topic.
- Too much time is spent in schools trying to teach students reading “skills” such as “finding the main idea” or “determining the author’s purpose,” under the faulty assumption that there are discrete, learnable skills that will bolster comprehension. While there is value in focusing on vocabulary, other aspects of language, and some broad comprehension strategies (such as summarization), research shows that training in isolated textual-analysis skills (which proficient readers do with a high degree of automaticity) has little effect on students’ understanding of a reading passage (Shanahan, 2016; Steiner et al., 2019). The surest way to improve students’ comprehension is to increase their reading of knowledge-based texts and their writing about such texts (Steiner et al., 2019).
- Meanwhile, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of one of the most pervasive English language arts approaches—grouping students based on reading level for Tier-1 reading instruction (Shanahan, 2017; Sparks, 2018). Such practices can in fact reinforce achievement gaps, and they derive from a flawed basis for differentiation, since a student’s reading “level” can fluctuate dramatically, depending on the topic being read, and often doesn’t tell us much about what he or she needs to grow as a reader. Instead of grouping students by reading levels, some experts believe that challenging all students with grade-level texts, with scaffolding as necessary, best serves reading outcomes (Shanahan, 2017).
I mentioned that the level of consensus on these findings was surprising to me. Part of the reason for this was that I hadn’t seen much evidence of practices reflecting them in classrooms. Prior to assuming my current role as chief academic officer of Jackson-Madison County Schools in Tennessee, I had spent the better part of two years working for Instruction Partners, a consulting organization that partners with districts to improve core academics. As I moved from school to school and room to room, I saw a whole host of reading-instruction practices but very little consistency—and very little that matched up with what I eventually learned about the research on the science of reading. Reflecting on this disconnect was an “aha” moment for me.
An even bigger light-bulb moment for me was when I fully considered the significance of Recht and Leslie’s “Baseball Study” and the importance of background knowledge to reading proficiency. As I reflected on this finding, it seemed to me that, as a chief academic officer, I had a moral obligation to ensure our students had the opportunity to systematically build knowledge by spending significant time going deep into specific topics, rather than jumping from story to story (or skills activity to skills activity) on a day-to-day basis.
And I should clarify that the fragmented curricular approach we often see in schools is not the fault of teachers. As leaders, we have not placed enough emphasis on providing our teachers with the cohesive instructional materials they need—we have spent far too long assuming they can simply create everything they teach. This is not working. If we want improvements in students’ reading abilities, it is incumbent upon us to place a laser-like focus on getting teachers the resources and knowledge they need to develop proficient readers.
When I started in my current role a little over two years ago, our teachers had little to go by in terms of teaching reading. There were remnants of a previous reading curriculum in some classrooms, but one glance at the reviews on EdReports.org or Louisiana Believes—free online resources that publish detailed reviews of curricula—revealed major deficits in the program’s phonics and knowledge-building components. From what I’d learned already about improving early literacy, I knew we had to make a change.
After I did some additional research and set up a period of review and feedback for teachers, our district selected two new language arts curricula. One is for grades K–2 and centers on knowledge-building read-alouds and a structured phonics strand. The other, for grades 3–5, continues the knowledge-building process and provides students opportunities to read multiple authentic texts in each of the four modules that make up a grade level.
While neither of these curricula are perfect, they both check the big boxes indicated by the research: systematic phonics instruction, knowledge-building opportunities in fiction and non-fiction texts, and access to grade-level texts for all children.
Nine months after we decided to make a switch, these new curricula were implemented in every K–5 classroom in our district. Teacher training was an important part of the transition, and multiple curriculum-specific professional development opportunities were offered within the first few months. After one semester of implementation, more than twice as many of our kindergarten students scored above average on a phonemic awareness screener than ever before. Although gains in this area would be expected after explicit instruction on it, the pace of those gains was highly encouraging.
But even more important than the initial quantitative gains we’ve seen is the level of engagement our students are demonstrating as they build knowledge on a variety of reading topics. It’s impressive and encouraging to listen to 1st grade students talk about the purpose of the body’s skeletal system or to hear a 2nd grader explain why the Yellow River is yellow and how it sustains the surrounding farmland. We’ve also seen dramatic improvements in our 3rd–5th graders’ writing as a result of their knowledge-rich reading and class discussions.
My favorite moments come when students make connections between the foundational skills they are acquiring through systematic phonics instruction and the knowledge they are developing through their read-alouds. Recently, for example, I observed a kindergarten teacher conclude a lesson by asking for examples of words that start with the /l/ sound. One student promptly responded with “leaf,” and then added an explanation of the difference between the leaves on evergreen and deciduous trees (and yes, the student used the words evergreen and deciduous, both learned in our new curriculum’s domain on plants). I knew we were on the right track.
“Don’t Overcomplicate It”
For school leaders, one major challenge of making significant instructional changes, such as implementing new reading curricula, is the tendency to get hung up on the many factors involved and options available and to suffer from “paralysis by analysis” in decision making. This is compounded if you are a district leader who, like me, has little formal training in the science of reading. My advice to you is simple: Don’t overcomplicate it. The research indicates a clear path forward for a majority of students to learn to read proficiently, and there are a number of strong curricula available that can jump-start this process in your district.
In discussions around adopting a new reading curriculum, a number of administrator and faculty voices will raise questions about specific points of reading instruction. Do you teach letter names after letter sounds, or simultaneously? Who gets to choose what books and topics students will read about? Where does grammar fit in? In every district, there will also be teachers who harbor doubts about “off-the-shelf” curriculum and about having to change their practices.
Such issues are worthy of discussion, but they are not worthy of holding up an informed and necessary plan for curriculum adoption. Perfection is truly the enemy of progress if debates about the finer points of reading instruction delay action on the major components that are already agreed upon by the research. Improving outcomes at scale begins by painting with broad strokes. Maximizing impact locally, particularly at the school and classroom level, involves a finer brush and can be done as a school adapts to a curriculum. Acknowledging that both these processes are needed is not disingenuous; it is the reality of change.
School leaders must be willing to acknowledge that most teachers are not trained to write curriculum, despite the responsibilities we’ve often foisted on them. They are largely trained in pedagogy, which helps them tailor instruction to meet the needs of individual students. It is the pairing of coherent curriculum with pedagogical skill that translates into the art and science of teaching and truly drives learning.
The good news for leaders is that available curriculum options, particularly in early literacy, have become dramatically better in recent years, and the best new options are truly aligned to the research on reading development. They are “educative” curricula that empower professional learning about reading practice. Further, there are now reputable curriculum-review services, such as EdReports and Louisiana Believes, that can help educators evaluate available options. Knowledge is power, of course, and in the area of early literacy especially, school leaders must be willing to use it.
Leading for Reading
I am not aware of a school or district that is completely satisfied with the reading capabilities of its students. Year after year, we lament reading scores on state assessments and national assessments and the prevalence of students who are below-level readers. Yet, despite these shared concerns, an overwhelming number of schools and districts still allow for fragmentary and uneven curricula and instruction in early reading. If we are ready to address our national reading crisis at scale, we must stop assuming that teachers have what they need and that what we’re already doing will somehow work out. Instead, we need to lead thoughtful processes to adopt and implement strong curricula supported by the science of reading.
Jared can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter, @JaredMyracle.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Recht, D. R., & Leslie, L. (1988). Effect of prior knowledge on good and poor readers’ memory of text. Journal of Educational Psychology, 80(1), 16–20.
Shanahan, T. (2016. January 19). Teaching reading comprehension and comprehension strategies. [Blog post]. Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved from https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/teaching-reading-comprehension-and-comprehension-strategies
Shanahan, T. (2017, February 7). The instructional level concept revisited: Teaching with complex text. [Blog post]. Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved from https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/the-instructional-level-concept-revisited-teaching-with-complex-text
Sparks, S. (2018, August 26.) Are classroom reading groups the best way to teach reading? Maybe not. Education Week.
Steiner, D., Magee, J., Jensen, B., & Button, J. (2019). The problem with “finding the main idea.” Learning First, Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.