It’s Time to Again Make the “Science of Reading” a Federal Priority

What is the future of the federal investment in reading instruction?

Patrick Riccards
Mar 4 · 6 min read
Credit: Getting Smart

As states and educators increasingly call for an embrace (or is it re-embrace?) of the “science of reading” in classrooms across the nation, we need to ask an important question. What is the future of the federal investment in reading instruction?

It’s been a decade and a half since we killed off Reading First, the scientifically based reading instruction program that served as a cornerstone of No Child Left Behind. After billions of dollars spent, a significant number of research studies demonstrating its effectiveness at the state level, and even a US Department of Education study highlighting that the program has worked, Reading First was put out to pasture, giving whole language advocates a brief victory in the 12-round heavyweight fight on how best to teach young children to read.

To this day, critics of scientifically based reading instruction believe the science of reading is all about phonics. It is a drill-and-kill bill designed to prop up programs like Direct Instruction or Open Court or Success For All, teaching reading in an automaton sort of way. We forget that the science of reading — and the instruction to come from it — was supposed to focus on five key, research-based principles. It was all about phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, with each component building on the one that came before it.

Reading First was hardly the federal government's first foray into literacy. The federal government has been investing in reading instruction for decades. RF was simply the latest major iteration of the effort (and probably the most significant, historically). It wasn’t a phonics bill, it was a scientifically based reading research bill. That’s why we saw the “scientifically based” terminology in the NCLB legislation more than 100 times. Its writers recognized that we have spent billions of dollars in this country trying to get our youngest learners reading.

Despite all of the money and the best of intentions, despite the 21 years that have passed since the National Reading Panel determined what the research says about effective literacy instruction, only 34 percent of fourth-graders are able to read at or above a proficient level. As the pendulum swings back and forth from science to balanced literacy and back, we still yearn for a day when all kids can read and when we have abandoned the notion that our classrooms are laboratories to test out the latest and greatest silver bullets. We still seek a new era where all classrooms — regardless of income or zip codes or demographics — are centers of excellence where we apply instruction and teacher preparation that is proven most effective in getting kids to read.

Enough time has now passed from the era of George W. Bush’s Reading First agenda for the Biden-Harris administration to refocus its US Department of Education on literacy instruction. Doing all we can to get all fourth graders reading at grade level is an education issue. It’s an equity issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a justice issue. And it is just the right thing to do.

So what does it look like?

First, it needs to place a stronger emphasis on both vocabulary and reading comprehension, two key components of SBRR. For well more than two decades now, we have heard about the vocabulary gaps between high-income and low-income students. Low-income students often enter school having heard thousands of fewer words than their counterparts. One can’t be truly proficient in reading if you don’t know the words. So yes, vocabulary must be a key component.

As should comprehension. All of the work at the beginning of the learning process — that focuses on phonics, phonemic awareness, and fluency — is meaningless if a student ultimately doesn’t understand what she is reading. We use the fourth-grade measure because that is when students need to start using their reading skills to learn other subjects, like science and social studies. At the end of the day, comprehension is king. Without it, all of the previous work was for naught.

Third (on this list, not in terms of importance), we have the teacher component. We cannot expect our kids to learn to read if we are not properly preparing and supporting our teachers to lead the instruction. It is incredibly challenging work to teach a child to read. It’s not just a matter of finding the right button to push or assigning the right app or worksheet. Teachers need to understand the five core building blocks of reading instruction. They need to be able to identify where a student’s roadblock may be, using whatever is necessary to increase the application of that principle. They need to stick to the science but do so in an engaging way with literature and composition that is both relevant and interesting to a student. They need to become reading wizards, doing the impossible with about two-thirds of our students who are currently struggling — engaging, educating, and inspiring. They need to do it all.

So obviously, we need to invest more heavily in both the pre-service and in-service teacher preparation and support for reading instruction. And this isn’t just for English-language arts teachers, this is for all. Every educator has a vested interest in a child reading at grade level. Every teacher pays the price if the child is not. It is only natural, then, after more so many dollars have been spent over the years to get the science of reading materials in the classroom, that we focus on equipping teachers with the skills and knowledge to maximize the learning tools they currently have.

The final piece to this equation is recognizing that reading instruction is not simply a K-4 game. Those struggling fourth graders still struggle in eighth grade, and still struggle more in 12th grade (should they make it). They then continue to struggle with literacy as adults.

This means that our reading efforts can’t be limited to the elementary grades. We need to focus on middle and high school reading instruction as well, particularly for our most struggling readers. We need to take what we know works with younger students, mix in the limited research about middle and secondary school reading, and build an instructional program and the teacher supports that work with these students.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that there is a correlation between drop-out rates and literacy levels. Nor does it take a brain surgeon to know that the root of our persistent achievement gap is our reading proficiency gap.

We need to make sure we are investing in all five of the core components of the science of reading, particularly vocabulary and comprehension. We need to invest in our teachers, ensuring they have the data, knowledge, and skills to be effective literacy instructors to all students, regardless of age or current reading level. And we need to hold our K-12 schools accountable for reading proficiency.

Literacy is not mastered in the fourth grade. Those who are proficient at that stage still have a lot of work to do. Those who do need extra work, extra attention, and extra intervention. The science of reading has a lifetime of application. It has been proven effective. And we have waited far, far too long to make it a priority. The science of reading needs to be our new national literacy plan.

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