Pre-Service Educators: Building Knowledge in the Science of Reading
To all the pre-service teachers pursuing a career in education, we say thank you. Teaching is a rewarding career that allows you to have a direct impact on our nation’s future.
To all who are considering entering the field of education, it will be important to evaluate how various programs will prepare you to teach literacy. Does the coursework include examining scientifically-based reading research and understanding the neurobiological process of how the brain learns to read? Will teacher candidates develop an understanding of the English language in order to explicitly and systematically teach it to students? Do courses include textbooks that are rated as exemplary by NCTQ’s Instructional Materials Used by Teacher Preparation Programs? Were the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards used as a guiding framework for program and syllabi development? Are any ineffective, “red flag” practices named in The Reading League’s Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines taught as acceptable methods for teaching reading? Ensuring your teaching journey begins with instructional methods supported by decades of research will empower you to prevent and support struggling readers and improve outcomes for ALL of your students.
In-Service Educators: Building Knowledge in the Science of Reading
Educator preparation programs are making great strides to ensure their pre-service educators graduate with knowledge that aligns with the body of knowledge known as the science of reading. They are finally beginning to eliminate promotion of practices that have been proven by the scientific evidence base to be ineffective. Unfortunately, this was not always the case.
In the last number of years, professional development for educators has increasingly featured evidence-aligned approaches to reading instruction based on the findings from the science of reading.
When planning professional development, it is critical to select a provider that prioritizes delivering knowledge about the science of reading first. Without basic understandings related to how the brain learns to read, why it has difficulty doing so sometimes, and how to prevent and remediate reading difficulties, any professional development related to instructional practices, programs, and assessment will fail to be fully appreciated and effectively applied.
It is also important to select a provider that is “curriculum agnostic,” so educators can build their professional knowledge separate from instructional materials which will ultimately change as time moves on.
Finally, professional development should focus on Tier 1, whole class instruction. Of course, educators must make sure that interventions are based on findings from the science of reading and align with Tier 1 instruction. However, in order to gain successful reading outcomes for up to 95% of students, core classroom instruction must result in 85% of students becoming proficient readers, so that only 10% require supplemental instruction. When professional development providers prioritize ensuring that Tier 1 instruction and assessments are delivered with maximum effectiveness, the majority of students will benefit.
Other important considerations include the following:
- School administrators must first understand the science of reading so that they value its potential and promise for being the solution to low reading performance. Buying curricula has been the typical go-to solution for decades, and that has never been a solution that works or lasts.
- School administrators must attend all professional development along with their educators, demonstrating a commitment to their own learning and to the educators they support. This will ensure that subsequent meetings, evaluations, and decisions made about materials and approaches are maximally effective. This will also ensure that systems support evidence-aligned reading instruction across grade levels.
- All educators in the building must participate in the professional development. This includes administration, classroom teachers, and any specialists. Instruction across tiers will be cohesive and consistent, strengthening student outcomes. Professional development must take place in an interactive environment. Standalone virtual training or modules are helpful in providing initial information about the science of reading, but ongoing deep learning with all staff involved is necessary for building a sustainable culture of professional knowledge. “One and done” professional development sessions have never provided solutions to low reading outcomes and should be avoided.
- Professional development training has proven to be most successful when knowledgeable coaches or experts can support educators in implementing the newly learned practices in their classroom.
- Professional development should not focus on a single aspect of instruction such as phoneme awareness or phonics. Schools cannot “patch” a problem; they must strive to include evidence-aligned assessment, materials, instruction, and systems in order to support the development of word recognition, language comprehension, English language development for English learner/emergent bilingual students, content knowledge, and writing.
Building Knowledge of the English Language
Researchers from Middle Tennessee State University have recently conducted several studies examining how teacher knowledge of components of language affect student achievement. Because these studies are not publicly available due to paywalls, this section offers brief summaries of the findings. Anyone interested in receiving copies of the research can contact Middle Tennessee State University’s Dyslexia Center: email@example.com
Characterizing the Knowledge of Educators Receiving Training in Systematic Literacy Instruction (2019)
This study examined the effectiveness of teacher training and professional development aimed at educators working with struggling readers, focusing on educators’ acquisition of knowledge and skills in fundamental language components, namely phonological sensitivity, phonemic awareness, decoding, encoding, and morphology. Overall, no significant differences were observed in the knowledge of educators with varying levels of education (i.e., having a bachelor’s degree vs. a master’s degree). However, a significant difference was found between educators who underwent specific training including both knowledge and supervised practica experiences such as IMSLEC-accredited training at the therapist level. Educators who received this training had higher levels of knowledge than those who did not receive this training.
The study highlights the importance of both prioritizing educators’ professional knowledge as well as supporting them with time and administrative support so that they can effectively apply their knowledge and positively impact the reading achievement. Furthermore, a crucial point made in this paper is that a scripted curriculum cannot compensate for deficiencies in teachers’ knowledge.
Characterizing the Knowledge of Educators Across the Tiers of Instructional Support (2021)
This study assessed educators’ knowledge in key language components:: phonological sensitivity, phonemic awareness, decoding, encoding, and morphology, particularly among those working with struggling readers. Data from 1,369 classroom teachers, 74 reading interventionists, and 131 special educators indicated that classroom teachers had higher knowledge levels than special educators in phonological sensitivity and decoding, but similar levels in phonemic awareness, encoding, and morphology. Among these groups, reading interventionists exhibited the highest knowledge.
The study emphasized the crucial role of educators’ knowledge of language’s phonological, orthographic, and morphological structures as it impacts students’ word reading ability, vocabulary development, and comprehension. The research team was surprised to find that special educators, despite working with students with the most complex needs, showed lower knowledge levels compared to classroom educators and reading specialists. This gap may impact their instructional effectiveness, including misinterpretation of assessments, inappropriate word selection and corrective feedback, and instructional goals that may not align to student need.
Ensuring that educators across all tiers of instruction are knowledgeable in language components must be a priority when providing educators with professional development.
Effects of Teacher Knowledge of Early Reading on Students’ Gains in Reading Foundational Skills and Comprehension (2023)
In previous research, assessment of educators’ knowledge of language constructs was explored. This study focused on clarifying the influence of this knowledge on student achievement. The primary finding is that teacher knowledge of language and literacy consistently forecast students’ spring foundational skills scores, but did not predict reading comprehension scores. A noteworthy observation is that effective teaching must start with teacher knowledge of both language constructs and instructional methods.
In contrast to other areas such as mathematics and science, where the delivery of high-quality instruction presupposes that educators possess domain-specific knowledge, it can be argued that educators responsible for teaching reading to students should possess a comprehensive knowledge of the language of instruction. This knowledge includes proficiency in phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, spelling, and writing.
Understanding the Science of Learning
In addition to learning from 50 years of reading research, it is also helpful to learn from the decades of research about how learning itself works. Educators may be teaching the right concepts, but does the data show that students are learning what is being taught effectively? Why is explicit instruction necessary? What is the role of practice, and how is it done most efficiently? The science of learning can support connecting knowledge building to classroom practice and can inform instructional decisions to maximize student achievement.
The Science of Reading: A Defining Guide (2022) defines the science of reading as
a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based* research about reading and issues related to reading and writing. This research has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. The science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and how we can most effectively assess and teach and, therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties.
So, what is this research? There are tens of thousands of studies from which we can draw a consensus on how students learn to read. Much of this research is included in The Reading League’s Curriculum Evaluation Guidelines. These major research reports are a good place to start. Unfortunately, one barrier that educators and educational leaders have faced is the paywall that much of this research is behind. For access to this research, interested learners can email authors directly to request a copy.
Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Intervention
It is essential for schools to build a system to support their work in transforming to alignment with the evidence base. Instruction aligned with the science of reading should appear across grade levels beginning in general education classrooms, and throughout targeted small group, Tier II, instruction and intensified in Tier III instruction. If approaches to teaching reading are misaligned, this will result in student confusion and precious instructional minutes wasted. A multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) is also a mechanism to gather and review data to understand the overall systems-level efficacy of the Local Education Agency’s approach to instruction and intervention.
Defining Guide Video Series: Dr. Stephanie Stollar describes MTSS
Culturally Relevant Instruction and the Science of Reading
Dr. Altheria Caldera, TRL DEIB Consultant, offers the following advice for The Reading League Compass on culturally relevant instruction:
Theories advancing what is known about how teachers should respond to culturally diverse students can be traced to the early 1970s. Throughout this fifty year period, over a dozen terms have been put forth to describe teaching practices that take culture into consideration, or what Banks called “equity pedagogy.” Scholars who study pedagogy, which can be defined as the theory and practice of learning, argue that teaching must be subjective in that it is responsive to students’ socio-cultural backgrounds.
It would make sense, then, that educators might question how to employ objective science of reading in a culturally relevant way. This is a topic that Burns addresses in a 2021 article, “The Universal Implications of Science of Reading,” in which he proclaims, “From the instructional perspective, it’s uncontroversial that educators should be attuned to both the sociocultural context and local factors within the learning environment.”
Educators can apply knowledge from these two bodies of research by centering their instruction around the 4 Rs:
- Relevance: Use reading instructional materials and resources that reflect students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds and that build upon their existing knowledge.
- Rigor: Hold high expectations that all students can read rigorously, which includes complex texts that are approached from a critical literacy perspective.
- Real-world application: Provide reading experiences that students might encounter in their everyday lives.
- Relationships: Build relationships with students that are rooted in care and respect, not rescue and saviorism. Students are motivated to read by teachers with whom they have caring and respectful relationships.
While the science of reading might be objective and universal (based on current knowledge), the science of the teaching of reading must be culturally and linguistically responsive. Students deserve reading instruction that is evidence-based. This evidence must include the expansive nearly 50-year body of research on teaching that recognizes and respects students’ socio-cultural backgrounds that began when Cardenas proposed her theory of cultural incompatibility in 1974.
In order to be effective with diverse student populations, reading instructional strategies that align with the science of reading must be “compatible with and responsive to the characteristics of the population.” This can be done by starting with the 4 Rs.
The Reading League’s Resources
Visit The Reading League’s Resources tab to explore helpful webinars, books, podcasts, articles, and more.
Resources by Topic
Not sure where to begin? These resources listed below are the best way for educators and specialists to learn more about the science of reading and evidence-aligned instruction.
These resources are helpful to build understanding in the following topics:
How the Brain Learns to Read
Phoneme Awareness / Phonology
Phonics (Decoding and Encoding)
Building Content Knowledge