The Science of Reading Instruction
When children don’t learn to read by age 8, they’re more likely to fall behind academically, drop out of school, and live in poverty according to this recent article from APM reports. Although many factors can contribute to lower reading skills, the article states that one of the biggest problems comes from a lack of understanding about the science behind learning to read. But understanding the science behind reading instruction can lead to better, more effective programs for children.
Many people assume that learning to read is a natural process, like learning to talk. According to the article, when young children are surrounded by spoken words, they naturally learn how to repeat sounds and develop the ability to communicate. Because written language is relatively new in human history, reading is a learned skill that requires rewiring how our brains recognize objects. Learning to read, according to research from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is a learned process, meaning children require direct instruction to acquire the skill. The first step in the process is learning to connect sounds to letters, a component of reading which is known as phonics.
Looking Beyond Phonics
While the systematic, structured approach to phonics instruction is the evidence-based approach, the article states that many educators utilize a different technique. “Whole language” is a pedagogical approach based on the idea that children construct knowledge and meaning from experience, so if they are immersed in a print-rich environment, they will naturally learn how to read without any direct instruction on the connections between letters and sounds. The APM article also states that whole language became increasingly popular in the United States over the last several decades, and by the 1990s, many schools and teacher preparation programs didn’t even bother to teach phonics as part of reading instruction. In 2000, a panel convened by Congress released a report that summarized research on literacy education. The panel determined that structured phonics lessons helped kids become better readers and that the whole language approach was not supported by evidence.
While scientific research reinforces the value of phonics instruction, many states are finding it difficult to get teachers to use a phonics-based curriculum instead of a whole language approach. According to the article, a big part of the problem is that teacher preparation programs often spend little or no time on phonics-based instruction training. In 2016, the National Council on Teacher Quality, a D.C.-based think tank, analyzed syllabi from teacher preparation programs across the country and found that only 39 percent were teaching components of effective literacy instruction based on scientific research. Instead, many programs were exposing new teachers to many different approaches and encouraging them to select the one that worked best with their personal teaching style.
Some school systems, like the one in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania mentioned in the article, have seen significant improvements in reading proficiency after implementing a scientifically-supported, phonics-based approach, and other districts and states are attempting to change minds about how literacy is taught. The Bethlehem school system uses a curriculum that mixes teacher-directed, whole-class phonics lessons with other activities in small groups that help address the needs of children in stages of the learning process. The new system was incredibly successful, and within three years, the district improved reading from benchmark scores of 47 percent to an extraordinary 84 percent of students scoring at or above the composite benchmark score. By applying science, research, and the needs of individual students, overall results improved dramatically.
Universal Design for Learning to Help All Children Read
USAID Follows the Evidence-Based Approach
As part of its on-going work in the early grade reading space, USAID has advocated for a systematic, structured approach to phonics instruction in all the different contexts in which it works. In many places, the whole language approach is still advocated for, or there is no precedent for teaching specific letter-sound relationships. Much of the focus of USAID's reading work has been on including phonics instruction in the curriculum, training teachers on the instructional approach, and helping assess students' acquisition of this skill.
By starting with comprehensive teacher preparation programs and grounding training in scientific research, reading proficiency can improve for all students.