The Reading Crisis
'I Had No Tools': Why Every Teacher Prep Program Should Include the Science of Reading
- By Kristal Kuykendall
For decades, reading scores have remained stagnant at best, and the pandemic made things even worse. K–12 teachers at every grade level have students who struggle to read, and regardless of their subject expertise, today’s teachers are facing a reading crisis.
Making the crisis worse is the fact that more than half the nation’s educators were never equipped to teach literacy, according to statistics from the National Council on Teacher Quality. The council’s 2020 report on teacher programsshowed that the percentage of teacher prep programs effectively including the Science of Reading in their curriculum had risen to 51%, widely framed as “significant progress” in the nation’s goals to improve literacy instruction and outcomes.
But that report also meant that about half of the nation’s new teachers are still graduating without an understanding of high-quality reading instruction.
To understand the statistics and their ramifications, THE Journal recently spoke with Kathleen Law, a reading coach, Structured Literacy, an Orton-Gillingham-certified teacher, and current instructional content specialist for IMSE, or Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. Law taught first, second, and fourth grades in Oregon for more than 14 years. She is also certified by the Center for Effective Reading Instruction.
THE Journal: Having had the benefit of 14 years teaching and then working as a reading coach and a content specialist, what do you wish now that you had experienced or learned more about during your teacher prep education?
KATHLEEN LAW: Coming out of my two-year graduate (teacher prep) program, I felt prepared and confident to start teaching. My first job was in a fourth-grade classroom. However, it didn't take me very long to realize that a handful of students could not read the district-provided curriculum, and I had absolutely no tools to help them. So that's when I realized that I needed some help so I could teach those children how to read quickly. Three years into my teaching career, I was asked to teach first grade, and that is where I really learned about the importance of Structured Literacy and teaching reading explicitly and systematically using a scope and sequence.
THE Journal: For all the K–12 administrators and teachers who have never taught first, second or third grades, who probably have never formally taught literacy before, can you break down some of these terms that you're using — the popular literacy buzzwords post-pandemic?
LAW: You bet. So one of the buzzwords or phrases right now is 'Science of Reading.' The Science of Reading refers to a body of research that encompasses years of scientific knowledge, research by experts in different disciplines such as education, special education, literacy, psychology, and neurology. The Science of Reading, if you will, is kind of like the roots of a tree. So this is where we come to understand the cognitive processes that are essential for reading. It is where most reading difficulties can be prevented using that knowledge base from the Science of Reading.
And then if you think about the tree trunk, that would be Structured Literacy, which is where we're talking about an explicit systematic, sequential, path to teaching students how to read. It has a scope and sequence teachers are following, and as each child becomes proficient in a skill, we can then move on and layer on top of that. So Structured Literacy is really giving us a path to laying those foundations for reading: the phonological awareness, phonics, the fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
THE Journal: So, going back to your teacher prep education, what do you wish had been different about what you were taught as a future teacher?
LAW: Looking back, it was clear that I was not prepared to help students learn to read, especially those who struggled. So I think teacher prep programs could improve and better equip educators for their future students who are struggling with reading. Teachers inherently want to help their students find success; that's why we go into the profession, we want to make an impact on children and want our students to leave each year equipped with what they need for the following year.
Teacher prep programs are preparing hundreds of teachers annually to educate and impact the next generation, where they will really impact a lot of lives. Our society largely believes that teachers know how to teach reading, that they come out of their teacher prep program knowing how to teach reading. But that's not the case. I certainly was not prepared. It's really not the teachers' fault; we should all be taking a look at the teacher prep programs and how we are trained as teachers.
THE Journal: So how do we help those teachers in the field already? And how do we make sure that all teachers are prepared to teach literacy?
LAW: Thanks to the Science of Reading and my training and work with IMSE as a coach, I now know that neuroscientists have studied the brain for over five decades, and how the brain is wired when it comes to learning how to read — or more accurately, that the brain is not hardwired for reading. The written language is a human invention. This research has shown us that reading must be explicitly taught. And with that not happening uniformly and effectively across the nation, you can see the inequities that are resulting.
THE Journal: Yes, especially since the pandemic; we've all seen it in report after report. Do you think that's why more people are talking about literacy now? And why more people are talking about how to teach literacy — i.e., the Science of Reading versus Balanced Literacy or other methods?
LAW: I do. I think that's kind of a silver lining of the pandemic: As we look at reports on how our kids are doing and what they need, the evidence is clearer than ever. Also, during the pandemic, families had front-row access to what was going on in the classroom, and they could see whether their child was able to keep up or not.
THE Journal: What are some of the key elements of literacy teaching that you wish you would have learned sooner?
LAW: I wish that I would have been taught about the human brain as it relates to learning to read, and that if we explicitly teach children how to read, we're making those connections in the brain. I wish I'd learned that dyslexia impacts one in five students, which means that each year, four to five students in my classroom will have dyslexia. It would have been helpful to know this and to have an inkling of the tools available to support not only the students, but also their families.
THE Journal: What are some of the foundational literacy lessons or areas that you had to learn "on the fly" as the teacher while you were simultaneously teaching the students?
LAW: When I moved from teaching fourth grade to first grade, I didn't know all of the sounds that correspond with letters. That's something that I had to learn. I hadn't been taught the importance of phonological awareness, which is the ability to hear the sounds in words and manipulate the sounds and words — that's foundational for our students. Without that foundation, it's hard to teach phonics, and then build up to teaching fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
I wish I would have learned the intricacies of the five essential reading components established by the National Reading Panel in 2000; those were never discussed in my teacher prep program. It would have helped me help my students, had I been taught how these components work together to create that ultimate goal of comprehension. Without this foundational knowledge, it's like telling the teachers that they need to get 30 students from point A to point B, but not providing a map or any additional information. After much anguish and no training, a lot of teachers just give up.
THE Journal: Do you think that every teacher, no matter what grade or subject they're teaching, should understand these five essentials of teaching literacy?
LAW: I do. A high school social studies teacher needs to have this knowledge because they are going to have students who struggle with some of these foundational literacy components in their classroom. If they understand these basics of teaching literacy, then the teacher is able to intervene — or at least guide the student to gain this information. The bottom line is that all teachers need to know how the brain learns to read.
THE Journal: For the teachers currently practicing who don't know how to teach reading or help the struggling readers in their classroom, can you suggest some easily accessible professional learning resources on this subject?
LAW: This is kind of what I went through — searching for resources as I was teaching and running into problems I didn't know how to solve. During my career as a teacher, I first learned about dyslexia. Dr. Sally Shaywitz's book Overcoming Dyslexia gives a lot of background knowledge on brain research and the foundational skills that students need in order to read. I also got involved with my local Decoding Dyslexia group, so I could learn more about advocacy.
This ultimately led me to the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, IMSE, which is where I gained the training that I needed, not only for the foundation of my knowledge, but to be able to then implement it into my classroom. I took my training through them, and then I took a practicum through them. Okay, get certified. And that's what I'm working for now.
THE Journal: So how can advancement in education technology help students better learn how to read and help teachers step in when they see there's a problem — or help them identify the problem?
LAW: The goal of learning to read is to be able to comprehend the written language. So while students are learning to read, they also need access to texts that may be above their skill level. The advancements in the quality of text-to-speech technology has really allowed struggling readers to access texts that they may not otherwise be able to digest. This kind of levels the playing field and provides support to increase that comprehension.
One of my favorite websites is called ReadWorks; it provides support to build fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension by using high-interest articles. ReadWorks gives teachers the ability to differentiate articles by students' reading ability, and it offers an audio narrative feature to make grade-level content available for struggling readers.
Now, in the same sense, students who struggle with reading may also struggle with writing. They might have amazing ideas in their brain, but getting them down onto paper can be exceedingly hard. So the advancements in speech-to-text have also leveled the playing field for those students somewhat. And then tools like Grammarly and Read&Write can help students feel more confident and successful when they're writing.
Another valuable piece of technology is audiobooks and apps like Learning Ally. It's invaluable to parents and teachers for students with specific learning disabilities or even visual impairments. Learning Ally provides audiobooks for students for entertainment as well as classroom textbooks.
THE Journal: At what point did you decide to dedicate your career to helping teachers provide literacy support to their students?
LAW: Between 2015 and 2017, the Oregon state Senate passed a bill that required at least one teacher from each school building to receive training on dyslexia. And this was kind of the turning point when I became a literacy advocate for all children. After that training, I had the knowledge that I wished every teacher would receive in their teacher prep program. I left that training wondering why I hadn't learned this eight years ago in my program. The training from IMSE showed me that this type of instruction is good for all readers, no matter what level, regardless of whether they have dyslexia.
THE Journal: What are the biggest benefits for an educator attending IMSE training, and why should school administrators consider sponsoring this type of professional learning for their teachers?
LAW: Teachers walk out of their IMSE training saying, 'Why didn't they teach this to me in my teacher prep program?' Teachers leave this training with foundational knowledge that they need to understand how the brain learns to read. They are going to walk away with prepared assessments and materials to implement with their students on day one. It's important for teachers to know that they are not alone in this journey to find the proper reading instruction. A lot of us didn't come out of our prep programs knowing how to teach literacy. And the fact that they're on this journey is amazing. There are lots of us out there ready to support and willing to help.
Learn more and connect with Kathleen Law via her Instagram (@EducatorKathleen) or her website, EducatorKathleen.com.