Ep. 20: Translating Reading Practices, Transforming Education Policies with Emily Solari, PhD
Emily Solari is the coordinator and professor in the Reading Education program in the Department of Curriculum Instruction and Special Education. Dr. Solari’s scholarship has focused on the prevalence, predictors, and underlying mechanisms that drive reading development with the ultimate goal of developing and testing the efficacy of targeted interventions to prevent and ameliorate reading difficulties. Her work has included intervention development and trials with students who have early profiles of reading difficulties, individuals diagnosed with autism, and English language learners. Her work has been particularly focused on translating the science of reading by engaging with practitioners and policy makers to leverage scientific evidence to improve practice in school settings.
Learn more about Emily Solari, PhD, by reading her bio and selected research at: https://education.virginia.edu/emily-solari
Danielle Scorrano: Welcome to READ, the Research Education ADvocacy podcast. In this series, prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators will share their work insights and expertise about current research and best practices in education and child development. READ is produced by the Winward Institute. I'm Danielle Scorrano, the Research and Development Director of The WI and your host of the READ Podcast.
I am beyond eager to introduce my guest for this episode, Dr. Emily Solari. I have been following Dr. Solari's work for quite some time now. Not only is she an expert in the field, but she actually has this unique unmatched ability to share research and information with a wide variety of audiences. When her June 20, 20 op-ed in The 74 million came out last year. it truly piqued my interest because it gave me these key insights on how we reach the public about reading education in this country. As you listen to this episode, you're going to find out what I already know, and that is that Dr. Solari is a disruptor and a pioneering woman and leader in academia.
Before I introduce Dr. Solari, I have an exciting announcement. She will be leading a panel discussion with The Windward Institute, titled “Research Roundtable: Advancing Translational Science in the Classroom.” Okay. Folks, mark your calendars for this free webinar on May 26 at 6:00 PM. Featuring Dr. Solari and a few other special guests and experts in the field.
Now, before we get to the conversation, I want to give you a bit of background about Dr. Emily Solari. Dr. Solari is the coordinator and professor of the reading education program in the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Special Education at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on the prevalence, predictors, and underlying factors that drive reading development with the goal to test the efficacy of interventions to mitigate reading difficulties.
She focuses on students with reading difficulties and autism, as well as English Language Learners. Dr. Solari is the PI for a number of research grants and studies with the Institute of Education Sciences, which she'll talk more about in the episode. She has also conducted research based on funding at the state and federal levels.
Dr. Solari and I had an invigorating discussion about her passion and investment in the science of reading and incorporating evidence-based reading practices to support all learners. As the Editor-in-Chief of the Reading League Journal, as well as the Associate Editor for the Journal of Learning Disabilities and Remedial and Special Education, Dr. Solari leads the way to translating research findings to multiple audiences. She regularly pens articles like The 74 million article that I talked about earlier in my introduction that reaches researchers, policy makers, practitioners, and she has a special way of resonating with the public on a number of platforms.
At the end of our discussion, you'll hear more about Dr. Solari's leadership and POWER (Providing Opportunities for Women in Education Research), as well as her thoughts on how we change reading education in this country. All right, here you go. Readers, buckle up and get inspired with me as we learned from Dr. Emily Solari.
DS: Good morning, Dr. Solari, how are you?
Emily Solari: Hi, thanks so much for having me.
DS: Welcome to the READ Podcast. Now this is an interview that I have looked forward to for months. I mean when I first started learning about your work, in addition to you answering these big questions and research, I found that you've had such a unique skill in communicating to a multitude of audiences about literacy and translating research to practice. And in our meeting yesterday. Here’s a little side note to our READ listeners. I'll probably say it a few times, but we did have an opportunity to meet for the first time yesterday. And I learned that you're a disruptor. So I'm excited to talk to you. One of the things when I was preparing for this interview was to really dive into a big question and it's a mouthful. It’s something that a lot of people have been grappling with. But the theme I want to focus on for this episode is how do we change reading achievement in this country? So you ready for that?
ES: Sure. Yeah, it is a big question.
DS: It is. I know. Wow. Can we start by having you tell us a little bit about your background?
ES: Sure. So currently I'm at University of Virginia and I'm a professor in reading education and I also direct and coordinate our reading education program. And so what that means is that I direct our academic programs around reading in teacher education, for our reading specialist degree, and our PhD program.
And then on top of that, I have a whole part of my life as a research professor. So I do a lot of research in authentic classroom settings. I'm working with teachers and administrators on implementing evidence-based practices with teachers and in real schools. And so that's sort of where my passion is, is how do we take what we know about evidence-based practice and the science of reading and how do we translate that into school classrooms so that kids have access to that content.
DS: I like how you said doing research in authentic settings, and I know translational science is one that you have been the forefront of talking about.
I do want to ask about that. In addition to thinking about reading achievement, we are sitting here just a year after the pandemic began, and hopefully things are transitioning back to a new normal. How have you been over the past year during the pandemic professionally, personally and in your research?
ES: Sure. So maybe I'll start personally. I mean, I think I'm pretty loud about the fact that I have three small children at home and we are a family that has two working parents and this was really brutal. It was an awakening of how crazy this can be. We're lucky though, both of us are able to work mainly from home. My husband does do some travel, but he's mainly from home, but bringing three kids home- my kids were home for a full year doing virtual school. They came home in March of 2020 and did not go back to school until March of 2021. That was really interesting. Also, the realities of what was happening with my kids around literacy. I saw it in my house. I used to be someone who stays pretty, I try to stay out of what's happening in my kids' school because I understand that that could be a bit awkward for teachers. I usually try and say out, but when it's right in your home, it's a whole different thing because you're seeing it.
I think it's interesting from a parent's lens. Like we've now, for better or for worse, we sort of been invited into the classroom in a way that we never have before. And sort of seeing what's happening is interesting and also informative for me, you know, professionally. I have an entire research lab who I have been trying to, we've been trying really hard to keep moving forward. And I think importantly, you know, I've talked about this publicly. I sit in a very privileged position. I want to acknowledge that, I don't have to go up for tenure. I don't have to go for promotions or for in the whole academic faculty situation.
But I support many scholars that do so I have postdocs in my lab. I have graduate students in my lab. We have many undergrads that we work with us in our research. And my focus has really been on how do we support those folks to continue to do the work that they need to do in order to get positions?
As we move down the road, that's been a major concern for a disruption in our research and what that means, both for the kids that we serve and for the academics that I'm trying to support.
DS: Hm. That's a lot of challenges to navigate. I want to circle back to your family and your kids. I believe you said one of your children is in first grade. That's right?
DS: Can you now tell our audience the story of what you did on your back patio, or it was a front patio at the beginning of COVID?
ES: It was both, depending on the day. When COVID happened, I think it was a shock for everybody. I don't think we realized how long many children were going to be out of school. And so from March to June, our family was very much in a survival mode, mainly because in my particular context, there wasn't very much instruction at all for my kids from March until June. And then we sort of started back up in August or September with actual virtual school. I decided that there's one thing I know about and that's reading instruction and that's one thing I could give. So what I did was I brought the kindergarten to about I guess I had a second grader kids over to my front and back porch and we did explicit reading instruction. I was, you know, I'm concerned about the access to services or access to evidence-based instruction is a problem, but also just access to enough time to do really explicit reading instruction that we know is so important in the early grade kids. Almost every single kid has lost access to that time.
And so for how much time they had before, the time has been reduced, so we did explicit instruction. I will say, I've told lots of people that it brought me a little bit of joy in the middle of the pandemic, because a lot of my job is really is truly far away from the actual teaching of reading at this point. Tt sure is fun to sit down with kids and do evidence-based practice and see that, Hey, you can teach kids how to read. It's fun to do that again.
DS: Where you just the favorite neighbor? Did people sending you…
ES: Wine. I got some from the families.
DS: It’s funny that you say that. I was talking to, around this time last year, Dr.
Margie Gillis. And she said the same thing. She said, I have a first grade granddaughter who wasn't learning through reading instruction. It was one of the greatest joys to sit here and teach her to read too. So I'm really happy that you were able to take your skills as well.
ES: Right. I will say it was a bit selfish because I try to do it with just my first grader and he wasn't happy. He doesn't want mom to teach him how to read. So I was like, well, then let's get all the neighbor kids over here, and this will be a fun activity that we all do together.
DS: I love that. Now did that experience inspire you to write the article on the 74 million? Or was this something that you were talking about? For our listeners, I'll provide some context if they haven't read it yet, but I'm curious to know about it that.
ES: So actually, I will confess that that entire op ed was drafted before the pandemic hit because I had been thinking about this idea that there is no silver bullet here. And I think this is a really important thing to talk about because often I will get asked and I know many of my colleagues who are in my position get asked, well, what is the one thing we need to work on? Or is it just that every one needs funds? Does teacher prep need to change. Or that in-service professional needs to change. And the reality is that not one of those things alone is not going to change reading in this country, or to improve reading outcomes for all kids in this country.
I had drafted the majority of that article before, and then the pandemic hit. I think I drafted it and I sent it out in February of 2020, and then the pandemic hit. I was thinking about this is something that we need to hold on and then I added a bit to the beginning to sort of contextualize it in the pandemic. But those ideas were really stuff I was talking about before the pandemic hit. They're still very relevant during, and after the pandemic, and even more important and relevant after the pandemic.
DS: Again, one of the strengths that I immediately took notice to and truly admire is your unique ability to tell a story and connect it to the research. And when you did write that article, it was on the 74 million website in June, 2020. I'll have it shared on our website. I think it was an article that spoke to me on so many levels about the ways that the system of education should be addressing literacy in the United States, and we're simply just not. And I remember when the National Assessment of Educational Progress was released last year, pre pandemic, it was again that this reminder of the stagnant and dismal reality of reading achievement in the United States. In the article, you refer to the NAEP scores, “a single test score does not fully reflect the complex system in which individual children are served and therefore should not be the only metric we use to determine reading success or failure. This was a critical conversation before COVID-19, but as even more urgent one now.” And then you later wrote, “Our nation has been forced to see the great inequities and educational access and opportunity. I want to unpack this article. You said there's not a single bullet and you did call for this widespread sweeping change across the system of education to push these multiple levers simultaneously.
So, what are these multiple levers? Can you break these down and why is it so important that they are pushed simultaneous?
ES: Right. So I think there's a lot of movement in reading right now. And I want to recognize that. And there's a lot of different groups of people, you know, who are rightfully concerned about reading. This includes parent groups. It includes policymakers. It includes academics like myself, teachers, administrators. And the reality is that sort of moving one of those groups, our policy change. If we just do one of them, it’s not going to change me. And we've seen this conversation sort of come and go over the years. It’s often referred to as the Reading Wars. But I think that calling it the Reading Wars actually oversimplifies the issues because the Reading Wars really refers to sort of a quote unquote battle between whole language and phonics based instruction.
While that's a really important element here, we do need teachers to get professional development on how to craft lessons to teach kids to crack the code. They have to be able to teach as well as do all these other things. But just doing that is not going to change reading, so we have to think about how we're also training our pre-service teachers.
We have to think about the policies that are in place for teachers, things that I don't think, you know, it's really difficult to write all your ideas in an op-ed, but things that I don't think I got very much into was how are we evaluating teachers? I mean, if you look across state systems and districts just systems, and I'm not a huge proponent of teachers being overly assessed or evaluated. But the systems that we're using are not really aligned with the evidence-based reading instruction. So it's like all of these things sort of have to come into place and change at the same time and unify around really one common goal.
The goal is that we want all kids to learn how to read and all kids deserve access to appropriate instruction.
DS: Hmm. That's interesting. When you talk about state level policy, I know that there are a lot of states that are investing in universal screening. I’m reminded we had Dr. Hugh Catts as the 2021 Schwartz lecture in April. It's funny, I'm saying this because you and I are recording it before Dr. Catts is actually going to present, but when everyone hears this episode, it will be after. When I recorded the podcast with him in February, he spoke a lot about having universal screening and adoptions of curriculum and assessments. So can you speak a little bit more to that type of policy that should be in place as well?
ES: Yeah. I mean, most states, a lot of states, are looking at universal screening as you know. The state that I currently live in Virginia has certainly come in the last few years, and I think this is a really important conversation. And then the other thing that has come down more recently perhaps is what are the types of curriculum that should be implemented in schools? How do we make sure that's one of the key levers really is to ensure that kids have access to adequate instruction, right? What are the materials that teachers have in their hands to do this? We can't just expect teachers to know how to do this, especially if they've gone through teacher prep programs that haven't adequately prepared them. And so having materials is really important. I think one thing that perhaps doesn't get discussed a whole lot, or maybe it does, I talk about it is that, you know, universal speeding is super important, right? And it has a potential to flag kids that are at risk for reading difficulties. And that's really important. Of course, there is no perfect screening systems. We're not always going to get it right. And because of that, what's really, really important is that our core reading instruction, or the instruction that every kindergarten, first and second grade kid gets in their general education setting is based is, is evidence-based practice.
And this is important also because if you really think about the nature of screening, you know, often what screened as almost every time what's being done, is it gives you a cut score. And that's pretty arbitrary, like where kids are at risk and where they're not at risk. And it's not that instructional routines or practices change for the kids who are at risk. They probably, they need more dosage. They need more intense instruction, but we're not fundamentally changing instruction for those kids. And so if we can see it as a universal, I know Hugh talks about this a lot, a prevention model. So how do we provide adequate instruction to every single child that comes through the door based in evidence? And then yes, even when you're doing that, there will be some kids who need more dosage, and those kids get supplemental instruction.
DS: Hmm. Now in thinking about curriculum screening, teacher training, professional development, teacher evaluation. Is there an area that you think is the most difficult to change? And I mean, is this something where we have to build from the ground up or are you more optimistic on how we can change our current system?
ES: So I think my answer to that depends on the day of the week and the current people that I'm talking to, the people that I've had talked to you that day. I mean, I will say historically that academia is a really hard place to make change. There’s a lot of very deep rooted, philosophical differences in schools, in colleges of education, around how to teach reading, how to teach early literacy, what that looks like and resistance to change. I think we need to recognize that it's not that you don't ever see change and also change isn't always positive. It’s funny. We always think change is a positive change, but it could be negative too. So moving the needle on evidence-based practice is a hard thing to do in schools of colleges of education. And also if you think about the nature of teacher preparation, you know, many programs, it depends on the state are, one to two year programs. I'm always thinking about how much we can actually teach about reading and what we can absolutely provide the foundational knowledge. We can absolutely teach teachers how to teach reading and what they need to be looking for with kids who are struggling to learn how to read.
We often talk to our teachers, you need to be a detective. When the kid is struggling to read, there are many reasons why that may be happening, and we have to figure it out. They need to know the instructional routines that are appropriate and what good core tier one instruction looks like. I'm talking about gen ed teachers right now. But the problem is that even if you do that, and then they go into a school where the curriculum is not aligned with evidence-based practice.
Teachers are going to, and nobody can blame us and blame them for this. And nobody should, um, they're going to be implementing the curriculum that they have in their hands. Um, and so even if they're well-prepared, but the school that they go into is not a match for that. That's not a good outcome for kids either.
So it's too late. The teacher prep programs have to be aligned with what's happening in the school system. Yeah. And I, and I have a lot of discussions with different districts around, you know, adoption of curricula and professional development models. And I think that there's a little bit of misunderstanding around, you know, just adopting a new curriculum is not also not going to change practice.
Right. We need to be truly, teachers are professionals and, you know, building knowledge around why they're implementing certain practices is really important as well.
DS: Hmm. So as we think about the past year, schools were trying to survive and provide the best education they could in a very unprecedented time. As we do return, hopefully to this new normal after the pandemic, what becomes the most pressing? Before I return to that question, I was in a webinar a few months ago at Johns Hopkins where I do my doctorate program and David Steiner was on the call and he said something to the effect of, this pandemic has really shown the fractures in our system. And for those schools and districts that had those structures in place, they are going to be far better served once the pandemic is over. So what do you find is the most pressing as we do start to get back to this new normal and kids are all hopefully getting back to school at a more consistent pace?
ES: Yeah, I think that's a really big question. I mean, specific to reading there is there are some data to suggest that, especially in the early grades, there are more kids who are screening as at risk. This appears to be differentially impacting black students and Hispanic students. I mean, the data is so sort of new, but it tends to trend that way. I've been talking a bit recently about how we need to have an educational recovery plan around reading specifically. Groups of children have been historically marginalized in the system and they're currently marginalized in the system and we need to be able to think really strategically about how we're going to implement evidence-based reading instruction at the correct dosage for kids who may need that extra support. I know that there's resistance to call it learning loss. And I'm okay with that. I mean, I think words are important, but the reality is, reading is foundational for many different subjects in school, and we need to be able to get into schools and accurately and reliably screen kids and provide the correct dosage and intensity for the kids who really need extra support.
Hmm. Yeah. I'm just thinking about all this funding that's going to education with the family act. And when we're recording this in April, I mean, a lot could happen in the next month before this episode is released. It’s just interesting to see there is so much funding, but what is it being allocated to? Is it being allocated to the time and dosage and the right practices truly for what kids need?
ES: Right. I think that that's the fear, right? A lot of money is a good thing, but it's not a good thing if it's not going to the right stuff. So we wouldn't want to lose this opportunity. I think we have a real opportunity to do this, but the fear is that we've seen this before, where there's a lot of money funneled to division districts for different things, but you know, the implementation is not exactly what you would want. And I guess this is not a blame game on the districts or divisions or administrators, it's just, they would benefit from having some guidance around what’s the biggest bang for your buck? Where are the places you should be concentrating those effort? I think this would be useful for many administrators.
DS: So you talk a lot about evidence-based practices. When you refer to evidence-based practice, is that synonymous with the science of reading?
ES: Hmm. That's a hard question.
DS: I just thought of it too.
ES: Yeah. I mean, so I think that there's been a little bit of misconception about what the science of reading is. And so I think talking about that is important. The science of reading is really, you know, there's a lot of evidence about how kids learn how read, what's happening in their brains when they're learning how to read and why some kids struggle. There's, there's a lot of evidence on that. There's a lot less evidence, but there's some, on the science of teaching reading. And so how do we, and that's really where my research is situated, is that translational piece of how we take what we know about how the brain develops or what's happening in the brain when kids learn how to read and how do we translate that into practices that are both efficient and effective. And I talked a lot about efficiency and effective because we want this to be efficient for teachers and also effective and feasible. The translation process may really difficult because it has to be feasible for teachers to implement.
There's a lot of converging evidence about how to teach young children how to read words. And I want to separate that from reading comprehension because those are two different large constructs. We know that explicit and systematic phonics instruction that's cumulative helps to teach kids how to read words.
We want to be doing things like alphabet knowledge when they're young and phonemic awareness and mapping sounds to their letter form. All of those things that we know are evidence-based instruction that should be happening in every single classroom across the country. But also we know that developing oral language and academic language, and the language side of the coin is also really, really important.
I think there's some struggles here with what we call these things now. Some folks are calling it structured literacy, some evidence-based practice, some science of reading. I moved a bit away from calling it structured literacy because I really want to be able to collaborate with folks in sometimes that can trigger different thoughts about reading instruction that I'm not very interested in. You go into divisions or districts and I want to collaborate with people, and I think we did have to be careful about how we use these terms, but yeah, I don't know if I answered your question. I think there's a science of reading and evidence-based practice are not exactly the same thing. We do know that a lot of the evidence-based practices are aligned with the science of reading. They are aligned with how the brain is functioning when kids are learning how to read.
DS: Yeah. That answers my question. I appreciate it. In your explanation has spawned new questions for me. Of course, this is why I love talking to you. When you talk about language, I know you just talked about being mindful of using structured literacy. I do know in terms of language, especially with the science of reading, you are the Editor-in-Chief of the Reading League journal. I know you've also joined a coalition of experts to provide information about how we operationalize and clarify the science of reading. What was the rationale? I guess you've already talked about this, but if you want to talk a little bit more about the rationale and creating this coalition and why it's so important to clarify what the science of reading is, especially given all of these misconceptions that exist.
ES: I don't want to take credit for creating the coalition. I was certainly happy to be on it and I can tell you my rationale for participating. You know, I think with some of this confusion around the science of reading, for me, it's really, really important as an academic to be able to communicate to the field, what we do know, and perhaps more importantly, what we don't know. I think it's really, really important that we do not want to be saying that we know this, this, this, this, and these things works, when actually, we don't quite know. We can say if there's empirical evidence supporting what we can talk about, the data trends a certain way, or there are particular studies that have shown that this works. But translating what we know and don't know is really important to me.
And then also clarifying this difference between the science of reading annd then how we're teaching reading. I've been in several meetings over the past year where somebody says, “I just want to do science of reading instruction.” And I sort of take a deep breath. And I said, well, let's talk about that because that's not a thing really and let’s disentangle it out a little bit. I think communicating that to the field is really important.
DS: Hm. I appreciate you saying that. And especially as the science of reading and practices reach classrooms, What would you say to a classroom teacher, let's say that is coming out of a teacher preparation program, how would you differentiate those terms to make sure that they're extremely aware and have the knowledge based skills in order to know the science of reading and then implement instruction?
ES: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that could be an hour long podcast.
DS: I know. Um,
ES: I think that there are… we need to build teacher knowledge around the science of reading. I mean, every, every teacher should be coming out of a teacher prep program with that knowledge, and many are not. And so when I say like, they should come out with the knowledge of science and reading, they should know what's happening in the brain when kids are learning how to read because there are clear ways that we can align our instruction to that. Right. If I were talking to a teacher who was a first year teacher, I would want them to build knowledge around the science of reading. And then the harder step is okay, so I have this knowledge now, what the heck do I do in my classroom tomorrow?
And you know, that is a hard thing to answer if they don't have the supplies and the resources and the curriculum in their hands to implement evidence-based practice. But there's a lot of different places that you can go to get some of this stuff. And there's, you know, really good examples and activities and lesson plans that folks can go on the internet. I think one of the interesting things about the pandemic is that I think there are more resources now out there than ever before. And many of them are really good resources. And so I would say you don't need to reinvent the wheel around this. You also don't want to go to Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest. There are reputable resources out there where you can go and that have very explicit lesson plans and instructional protocols to follow, to implement evidence based practice in the early reading. And I will say that that's a big ask of teachers because it's a lot to ask them to go outside of what they have in front of them in their classroom to teach reading.
DS: I feel like I've been flooded with a lot of resources, too, especially when you start to look for them. All of a sudden they start to come and I know Florida Center for Reading Research, the Haskins Global Literacy Hub. Do you know of any other resources that on the top of your mind that teachers could possibly go to first?
ES: Yeah, I think FCRR is a good first stop. I think Amplify has put some stuff out there. There are a few other state departments actually that, I mean, I can get those too, if you want to link them. There are a few state departments that had put out really good instructional protocols around the early foundational reading skills that teachers can use. Oh, the other place that I always send people to is the Meadows Center at UT Austin led by Sharon Vaughn. They have amazing resources all publicly available for free.
DS: That's great. We'll definitely link those resources that you provide. Now, when you talked earlier in the podcast, you talked about conducting authentic research. One of the things that I find fascinating about you is that you're so out front and ensuring that you're conducting empirical research through randomized control trials. You also consider yourself an interventionist. Do you consider your position to be unique? And tell me a little bit more about your experience working with teachers in research.
ES: That's interesting. No one's ever asked if I think my position is unique, probably not. I think that there are many people doing this work doing good work. Around the student randomized controlled trials in schools with teachers, my work started, I don't know how familiar with the IES funding structure, but the interventions that I've tested out in schools with teachers implementing the interventions and the instructional protocols, they were developed through IES funds through what used to be called development grants. And one of the requirements of those grants was that you were working with teachers to develop the instructional protocols and intervention.
And I think this is really important because I could make the most beautiful glassy like amazing intervention and I hand it to a teacher and he, or she is like, . this doesn't work for me. I can't, it's not feasible. I can't implement it. And so, I really value the relationships with people who are still working in the classroom who see kids every single day and understand the realities of collaborating with them on how you develop interventions and instructional protocols that are effective, but also efficient and feasible. I mean, I think some of this is hard to do the randomized control trial. Is a hard thing to do in a school setting because we like to talk about how there's just so much noise, right? This is not a lab setting. It’s not perfect. There's so much going on in schools and you know, many things beyond just reading- there are administrative changes. There are teacher changes. There are kids who are absent. I mean, there's all the noise, right. But it's also really fun because you can see if the stuff is working under these sometimes chaotic conditions. It's not a perfect science.
DS: I like how you put it that way, having this more natural setting. I mean, at The Windward School, we conducted an in-school neuroscience and we still are conducting an in-school neuroscience with Dr. Nicole Landi out of Haskins. I do feel that when you do, I do empathize with what you were saying. What have you learned from working with classroom teachers? I know you said it's important to have interventions and instructional models that are efficient, effective, and feasible, and I know you've done a lot of work with interventions. I think one study I read was in first grade classrooms in California and Texas. I believe these were general gen ed teachers in that study. What did you learn in particular from working with these classroom teachers about how they can provide high quality instruction to reach all students?
ES: Yeah, so we had developed the intervention, which was actually a supplemental instruction as I had mentioned as a development grant for IES. Typically, what you would do at that point, once it's developed and you run a small pilot study and see if it has promise, or it seems to be working, then we went for a larger randomized controlled trial where we were working in a hundred different classrooms with teachers in Texas and California. We really put this model to the test because there aren't many randomized controlled trials where the general education teacher is also the interventionist because that's not ideal conditions, but it's sort of reality sometimes. Not all schools have the resources to have a reading specialist come in or somebody else who does supplemental reading instruction for the most at risk class kids in a class.
So what we did was we screened kids in the class and the bottom 25% of kids were our target kids. We provided professional development to teachers about how you do supplemental smaller instruction within the context of your own classroom for your most at risk kids, so you are the interventionists for these kids.
That was really challenging on many levels because we were developing teacher knowledge around evidence-based practice and science of reading. We were asking them to fundamentally change the way which they were teaching reading, and to really make sure that they were concentrating on the specific needs of the kids who are most at risk in their classroom. It was an interesting process. We were there for the entire year. And I would say that that entire year in itself is a privilege because they're getting professional development at the beginning of the year, and then they get booster sessions across the year and then they also have a coach. So there's somebody coming in, who's sort of helping them process through different parts of the curriculum, the supplemental materials, and it's a complex process. When you do these sort of pre-post interviews with the teachers, they really do acknowledge that they learned a lot and it does change the way in which they approach reading. And it's really because they're seeing that the kids are responding. The kids who perhaps for the past 10 years of their reading of their teaching career weren't responding to whatever they were implementing are now responding, so it motivates them to stick with it and learn more, which I find fascinating. I didn't see this before we start this project, but really that whole year as a professional development window, and I often wonder, and of course don't have the money to go back and test this, but are the kids in that teacher's classroom the next year actually better off because the kids that were in that first grade class all year that we were doing the study, that teacher is still developing knowledge? To develop knowledge and implement it all at the same time, I would love to go and follow up on cohorts that come after that year to see what has happened in those classrooms.
DS: I mean, if I could think of any researcher that could draw up the research dream team and the funding, it'd be you. So you're manifesting first on the READ Podcast!
ES: I mean, I'd love to see that as well. Right. Because it is interesting, what happens when you leave? And I have a lot of contact actually with these teachers who often will email me and say, “Oh, I lost this one piece. Can you send it to me?” And of course, I do have the PDF or whatever. We leave them with all the materials and they it's theirs to continue using. I do know that many of them continue to use them after the fact.
DS: That's great to know. I think what, as you're speaking, this actual topic really resonates with me. In my dissertation at Johns Hopkins, I’m focusing on coaching models as a way for professional development for reading teachers. What I hear from you is the fact that this is a year-long sustained professional development with you said coaching, and other integrated forms of professional development that are providing the knowledge, the skills and tapping into the teacher agency. And, you know, truthfully at the core of it is this relationship with you all that is helping to push these teachers forward. So I now I'm like, okay, where's that research study? Where's that longitudinal study happening where you're following these cohorts of teachers.
ES: Right? I mean, yeah. And of course we always want to fund more things. And I would say for me as a researcher, when I finish a project, I always have more questions left in our new questions and anything I've answered.
DS: Oh, I love that you’re a lifelong learner and show this curiosity. As you’re talking, we haven't spoken about it, but we alluded to translational science and you wrote a paper in 2020 with honestly the dream team of scientists on translational science. What is this purpose for the push of translational science?
And can you break it down for our listeners? Why it could be so effective in school settings and for research settings as well?
ES: So I think importantly, reading is really broad and complex. We've talked about that a bit and this spectrum sort of the continuum of reading research is also brought a complex.
You have a whole group of folks who are doing basic science research, right? This may be some FMRI stuff or neuroscience of stuff that I don't do. I don't do that research, but that research certainly informs my research, which it has an impact in classroom settings. We think of this as sort of a continuum from basic science to implementation in schools. What that means, especially specifically for reading is that there's not one scientist who actually has the ability to do it all alone. And we shouldn't think that we do. So we were really talking about this, and the idea is like a team translational science model. We need to come together in teams to answer difficult questions around reading and what we know and what we don't know and how that eventually gets translated into practice. And I actually think, and I know we didn't go too deep into this in the paper, but I think there's actually two places where translation has to happen.
Translation has to happen between basic scientists and applied researchers like me then between applied researchers and what's happening in classrooms, right. There should be folks informing that entire process that have knowledge across that continuum and spectrum.
DS: So in terms of basic scientists, applied scientists and an educator, who are those key people that you would see on a team, if you were implementing translation science?
ES: We actually do outline that in the paper a little bit. The different types of people that you would need for a successful translational team, and if it's useful for your audience, we could post a picture of that. But they're different people from people who are content expertise, we have methodological expertise. We have folks who know how schools work. I mean, often I think where stuff gets lost in translation or we sort of mess up in our translation is that we have people who knew a lot about the science of reading and how the brain works, but not so much about how schools work. Schools are very complex and it is not a good approach for an academic to come into a school and say, well, I think this is what you need to do or this is what you're going to have to do. That is not a collaborative approach, and it also doesn't recognize the expertise of the people in that building. I think we have to be really cognizant of that and we need to be working with school administrators as in teachers, as our peers, because they are right.
So talking through that, I mean, and these could be difficult conversations and that's okay, but really thinking about how we can do that in a way that has the most impact for teachers and students is important.
DS: I appreciate you speaking to that. And to me it seems like a model that is collaborative, like you said, is really addressing those hard questions and hopefully- not hopefully- but seems to be something that is moving the needle forward to address the current reading crisis in the United States.
So we have 10 minutes and In our conversation yesterday, I asked you about P.O.W.E.R. and we had talked yesterday, and I said, you know, if we don't have enough time because we have so much to talk about, that's okay, we can follow up. But I have you for another 10 minutes, And I am so curious to know more about P.O.W.E.R. For our listeners, when I started READ, I wanted to talk to experts that truthfully I could learn from, and I knew the audience can learn from. But selfishly, I'm like, you know, I have a curiosity about something that this researcher is working on, or this leader is working on, I need to ask them about it. So for me, I am a woman who is really invested in promoting women across different industries and empowering women. I'm in fact wearing a t-shirt that has some of my favorite women leaders on it. Dr. Solari, I want to know more about P.O.W.E.R., which is Providing Opportunities for Women in Education Research. So why start an organization like this? What was the goal and what were the main priorities that you had in starting this organization?
ES: Yeah. So we often get, I often get asked this, I'm happy to talk about it because people will say, well, there are just so many women in education. Why do you need this organization? And that is a true statement. There are absolutely a lot of women in education, but what I would say the mere presence of women does not mean that we aren't experiencing things that other industries or other areas that are similar things to what those women are experiencing, especially in academia.
If you really look at the numbers, it's nearly 65 or 70% of PhDs in education are women. Women are getting those degrees, but if you look at leadership roles and you look, it's 17% of the leadership roles, and that's sort of a broad category of Deans, Associate Deans, and then also, much fewer, about 30% of full professors are saying that in education that women. I needed to go back and look at the numbers I looked back at them in 2016, but there is a leaky pipeline. If we're talking about sort of this pipeline, how we're losing women over the years. And that's true for almost every single area in academia, but I think there is some misunderstanding that you know, in these fields that are heavily populated by women that maybe it's not happening in this much, but the reality is that it is happening.
I got together with some women, some who I knew very well, who I did not know very well, and we just sort of started having these conversations around how can we set up an organization or some sort of support system for more junior women, as they're sort of coming up through academia to support them in that process and advocate and connect them with each other. We are really thinking about mentorship and making sure that these women felt a bit more supported than when we were coming up through the process.
DS: I really love that. And I know for you speaking at the beginning of the podcast, as a leader, as leading a lab at University of Virginia, you spoke a little bit about how your concern is to ensure that your students, your postdocs, everyone in your lab are provided with the opportunities. Has this group become much more important during COVID? Times have become more uncertain. Have priorities shifted during COVID for women in research, particularly in your lab and in the women that you work with through P.O.W.E.R?
ES: Yeah. I mean, I think that the national trend and international trends around women in academia are pretty clear that women have- there is a much bigger burden on women right now, that women are for lack of a better term falling behind on publications and grant submissions. The concern is that that compounds over time and what that in over years, especially with a woman who just came into our tenure track position. Over years as that person trying to get toward tenure, their scholarly productivity may not look as good because they are burdened with childcare and other things in ways that men are not.
When I think there's a really clear data to show that, so it’s important to make sure that we're supporting women. Also, what are the expectations of university? That's the other thing, sort of the systems level stuff. And that's very complex. Over the next few years, as women sort of move up through these positions, what does that look like?
DS: I think is a really important conversation to have. I had to ask the question. I know this is one that I want to continue talking to you about, and hopefully we can get you on a webinar with The Windward Institute to really dive into this more. But I appreciate you talking about this. And I think even with the pandemic across industries, this is something that we all need to grapple with and address at the systems level and beyond.
I appreciate you talking more about P.O.W.E.R. I want to return to the theme of our episode and the theme was how do we change reading achievement in the United States? I want to hear a little bit more about your reflections and your calls for the future. What are your calls for research, education, and advocacy to shape a better future for our children particularly?
ES: So I think that the go-to answer for me on that is that we really need to be paying attention to what works for whom and under what conditions. And this is really important for the translational piece of this. One thing is that we do know quite a bit about how to teach kids how to read words. We just, we do. And so that information should be translated into the hands of teachers now, and all kids have access to that. We know less about how we should be trying to teach reading comprehension, right. And there's a debate in the field right now about this and those that these are their empirical questions about approaches to reading comprehension development that remain unknown. And so I really urge the field to push forward with what we know, but also, you know, the science isn't settled. Science develops over time and it evolves, and we want converging evidence on these big, broad topics that we need to be pushing more into the comprehension space. We need to be pushing more into making sure we're supporting our learners who don't speak English as a first language. So what does that mean for them in terms of teaching reading comprehension. And I think we just need to be careful0 I might be more conservative and some of my colleagues in this, but we need to be careful that we are communicating to audiences, the truth of what we know and don't know because we are doing a disservice to the field if we're not doing that. We really need to make sure that we are communicating in a way that makes sense for teachers to make sense for practitioners, but also clear about where we are with the research.
DS: I appreciate your leadership and the fact that you're just on the forefront of this communication. You said that after you complete a research study, you have many more questions. We just spent an hour together and I have 20 more questions for you, but for interest of time for you and myself and our listeners, we'll stop here. But I will ask you one question. My last question is, would you be willing to come back for another episode to dive deeper into some of these topics?
ES: Absolutely. I can talk about this for hours. We can definitely bore the listeners. That's so funny.
DS: Well, thank you so much, Dr. Solari, and I'm look forward to learning more from you and for our Windward Institute participants and READ listeners, I'm so happy that we've now started to develop this relationship and look forward to learning more from Dr. Solari. So thank you again, Dr. Solari.
ES: Thanks for having me.
DS: Oh my goodness. What an episode? I cannot be more inspired. Thank you to Dr. Emily Solari for offering your expertise and thoughts on READ and an exclusive reminder for our listeners. I encourage you to learn more from Dr. Solari and her colleagues on the upcoming free webinar panel, hosted by the Windward Institute to learn more about translational science in action.
We will tackle questions about reading and education, the science of reading, the expansion of research and our responsibility as a global education community to ensure that all learners around the world, access reading education they fundamentally deserve.
To learn more about READ and upcoming episodes, Visit reapodcast.org. If you also like what you hear, connect with us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, or subscribe and leave a comment on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you have ideas or questions about speakers or future episodes, I encourage you to connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, READers!
The guest for this episode, Emily Solari, PhD, is a leader in academia and reading research as well as a true disruptor. We tackle the big question that is saturating current public and education discourse: How do we change reading achievement in this country? Dr. Solari offers her expertise on applying evidence-based instruction across school settings and addresses why our education system needs to enact simultaneous change in all policy areas to advance literacy outcomes for all students. She operationalizes key terms such as the Science of Reading (SoR), evidence-based instruction, and intervention. Citing her research and experience in school settings, she emphasizes the importance of making research and curriculum efficient, feasible, and effective for teachers and discusses the benefits of translational science. At the end of the conversation, Dr. Solari and Danielle talk more about advocating for the advancement of women in science. This conversation speaks to Dr. Solari’s impact and her continued call to action to implement change across the system of education.
Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.”
1. Solving the Nation’s Reading CrisisDr. Solari discusses her calls to enact change in reading policy and education across the nation, previously outlined in her June 2020 article, “Solari: To Stem the Nation’s Reading Crisis, Made Worse by COVID-19, Teachers, Districts & States Must Push Multiple Levers.”
"The goal is that we want all kids to learn how to read and all kids deserve access to appropriate instruction."
To enact change, Dr. Solari calls to simultaneously “push multiple levers” in:
- Teacher preparation
- In-service professional development
- State-level adoptions of curriculum, assessments, and screening
- Teacher evaluation
"The teacher prep programs have to be aligned with what's happening in the school system. I have a lot of discussions with different districts around the adoption of curricula and professional development models. I think that there's a little bit of misunderstanding… Just adopting a new curriculum is not also going to [automatically] change practice."
As we continue to navigate education in a post-pandemic world, the implementation of universal screening and evidence-based reading instruction should be a pressing priority, especially for students from marginalized communities and for the most vulnerable populations.
"The reality is, reading is foundational for many different subjects in school, and we need to be able to get into schools and accurately and reliably screen kids and provide the correct dosage and intensity for the kids who really need extra support."
2. The Importance of Language, Terminology, and the Science of Reading (SoR)
The language we use to clarify and operationalize research and education terms hold important implications for their application in school settings.
"The Science of Reading and evidence-based practice are not exactly the same thing. We do know that a lot of the evidence-based practices are aligned with the Science of Reading."
3. Translating Research to Practice
We need to ensure teachers are knowledgeable in the Science of Reading and armed with resources and curriculum to implement evidence-based instruction based on how children learn to read and why certain children may struggle.
Three hallmarks of translating from research into practices for teachers include:
"Evidence-based instruction… should be happening in every single classroom across the country."
To better understand the bidirectional relationship between research and educational settings, translational science offers a framework through the collaboration between basic scientists, applied researchers, educational leaders, and teachers.
"We think of [translation science] as a team model and a continuum from basic science to implementation in schools… Often where [it] gets lost in translation… is that we have people who know a lot about the science of reading and how the brain works, but not so much about how schools work."
Read Dr. Solari’s June 2020 article in The 74 Million, “Solari: To Stem the Nation’s Reading Crisis, Made Worse by COVID-19, Teachers, Districts & States Must Push Multiple Levers.”
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About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests.