When elementary teachers return to school this fall, they will undoubtedly be tackling one of the hottest topics in education: the science of reading. But getting science right requires more than workshops and new programs. Curriculum and instruction should be critically evaluated based on research on how children learn to read and how best to teach.
The term “Science of Reading” is not new (“The Science of Reading: A Handbook” was first published in 2005), but through popular journalism, such as Emily Hanford’s reporting in American Public Media, incorporated into discourse. And the inevitable term marketing by publishers. Many educators have used social media and workshops to learn about the science of reading to meet the needs of their students. Elementary school students have made less progress in reading over the past three grades due to Covid-related disruptions that have particularly impacted racially and socioeconomically marginalized groups.
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Indeed, scientific research on reading has a lot to say about effective practices in teaching children to read at all stages of development. However, a teacher is unlikely to find her one curriculum or set of materials that meets the needs of all her students. As educators face the decision of which to use, it becomes more important than ever to assess whether new products are backed by research.
As a reading researcher, one of the resources I often recommend to teachers across the country is What Works Clearinghouse, a digital library run by the US Department of Education’s Institute for Educational Sciences.
What Works Clearinghouse regularly publishes practice guides that provide research-based recommendations for teachers. One guide includes best practices for teaching basic skills such as phonemic recognition (the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of words), phonics, fluency, and vocabulary. A separate guide provides recommendations for teaching the ability to extract and compose meaning from text. This is the ultimate goal of reading and should be part of any science-based instruction in reading.
Another tool I recommend is What Works Clearinghouse’s rubrics for assessing K-5 reading/language materials. Before introducing new curricula and materials that claim to be based on the science of reading, educators trying to get the science right this year will need additional tests to assess whether what is being sold is sound. Better take action.
John Z. Strong is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education.