Building a Structure for Literacy Part I: Pairing a Solid Core Reading Program with Reliable Screening Measures

Building a Structure for Literacy Part I: Pairing a Solid Core Reading Program with Reliable Screening Measures
Stephanie Huie

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This well-known quote, often misattributed to Albert Einstein, may have found its way to coffee mugs and inspirational posters, but its message hasn’t landed for many educators’ approaches to reading instruction in the United States. The battle between proponents of Whole Language instruction—rebranded as Balanced Literacy—and adherents to the Science of Reading continues to rage on, while reading outcomes for our nation’s students remain stagnant. According to the 2019 NAEP Report Card, 65% of fourth-grade students are reading below proficient for their grade level, and that number climbs to 82% for students of color and 88% for students with learning disabilities. With such dismal results, it’s clear that our current standard of reading education is failing our children. Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies have shown that systematic, explicit, phonics-based reading instruction leads to better outcomes. In fact, "It's so accepted in the scientific world that if you just write another paper about these fundamental facts and submit it to a journal they won't accept it because it's considered settled science” (Moats, 2018). Why does the debate continue? I would argue that, partly, it’s a marketing problem.  

Linking reading difficulties automatically to dyslexia or another language-based learning disability has the unfortunate effect of attributing a large-scale problem to a much smaller percentage of the population. This leads to difficulties achieving buy-in for institutional change from administrators and teachers, because they mistakenly believe that the problem impacts only 10% of their students. It is true that students with dyslexia aren’t receiving the instruction they need, and they are the students most at risk if we maintain the status quo. However, we also know, based on the findings of the NAEP, that the vast majority of students aren’t at a proficient reading level, and they too are at risk. The problem is much bigger than undiagnosed and unremediated dyslexia. Fortunately, solving the larger reading issue will have some positive impact on all students and provide some clarity about who our dyslexic students are.  

Solving the larger reading issue will have some positive impact on all students and provide some clarity about who our dyslexic students are. 

Aligned with the vast body of science related to how students learn to read, Windward’s intervention program shows that explicit phonics instruction in the early grades consistently yields stronger literacy outcomes. And although Windward’s academic program also provides the robust, intensive instruction its students require to remediate their language-based learning disabilities, its foundation—an early focus on phonics, or “deciphering the code”—is the cornerstone that can support all developing readers. In this series of three articles, I’ll explore how establishing a clear framework for skills screening, core reading instruction, intervention, and dyslexia screening, all supported by robust professional development, benefits all children. Part One will address pairing a solid core reading program with timely and reliable screening measures. 

What Constitutes a Good Core Reading Program? 

First, it may be useful to examine what Windward believes does not constitute a solid core reading program. Advocates of the Balanced Literacy approach to reading instruction assert that reading comes naturally, as a product of repeated exposure to high-interest quality literature. In this model, phonics is taught sporadically, and a stronger focus is made on graphemes (letter representations) and developing prosody and fluency. Methods such as three cueing, or deriving meaning from context and visual imagery, syntax, and letters or parts of words, are employed as “tools” intended for beginning readers to “expand their understanding of text and comprehension of concepts” (Hoffman et al., 2000). Tellingly, this is also the main strategy that struggling readers utilize. One classroom example included the word horse appearing in a text with an accompanying image of the animal. If the student misread the word as house, it would be noted as incorrect. However, misidentifying the word horse as pony while using this cueing method, drawing context clues from the image provided, was accepted as correct, as the teacher rationalized that horse and pony mean the same thing (Hanford, 2021). The emphasis, Balanced Literacy adopters would argue, should be on comprehension of the story as a whole rather than on decoding and accuracy.  
 
Reading scientists have consistently viewed this approach as highly problematic for a number of reasons, the most alarming being the number of students experiencing reading difficulties who utilize picture cues as a substitute for decoding; this cueing strategy focuses on background knowledge and guessing, which conceals skills deficits for too long, resulting in interventions, if any, only when these students have already fallen far behind their peers. In all fairness, there has been a move away from this approach in recent years, including literacy expert Lucy Calkins notably walking back her previous endorsement of cueing and acknowledging its issues (Hanford, 2020).  

The fact is, it has long been clear that reading does not come naturally to most children. “The statistically average child, normally endowed and normally taught, learns to read only with considerable difficulty. He does not learn to read naturally” (Gough, 1980). The best tool we can offer students is an explicit understanding of the codes behind deciphering text, “[by guiding] students through systematic mastery of the smallest units of sounds (phonemes) and [building] upon that knowledge by introducing new, more complex material (morphemes and lexemes) in a structured and cumulative way” (Hamman, 2018). 

What Questions Can Educators Ask While Evaluating a Core Reading Program? 

When assessing a core reading program, educators may begin by asking, “What are the key indicators that a program is evidence based and linked to consistent reading acquisition across the board?” As they delve into more granular aspects of what constitutes a solid core reading program, additional questions may include: 
  1. Does the program not only align with the Five Components (National Reading Panel, 2000) of evidence-based reading instruction (phonics, phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) but also address each element through a carefully implemented scope and sequence? When the National Reading Panel elucidated their findings outlining these five components after an extensive, three-year study more than 20 years ago, it sparked a frenzy of activity by educational publishers, many of whom were eager to capitalize on the opportunity to rebrand their materials as scientifically based. The result was that a number of programs maintained a Whole Language focus but sprinkled in a dash of phonics instruction and a pinch of phonological awareness activities. When assessing a reading program, “instruction of all five components should always be present, [but] teaching and assessment should primarily focus on the foundational components—phonological awareness, phonics and decoding—in the earlier years before moving the focus to comprehension, fluency and vocabulary. Proficiency in the primary components establishes a necessary foundation for building skills in the latter three” (Lexplore, 2020). 
  2. Is the program explicit in its instruction? Rather than making assumptions about what students implicitly understand, a solid core reading program employs direct instruction of the skills being taught. Skills are first modeled for students, then approached through guided practice, and finally tackled through independent practice. Multiple opportunities are provided to practice the target skill, combined with constant feedback and reinforcement, until mastery is achieved. 

  3. Is the program systematic in its instruction? An evidence-based core reading program frames its curriculum carefully and sequentially, with lessons progressing from simple to complex. Skills are broken into component parts, and, as they are mastered, explored in context through meaningful text that is decodable for students. Fundamentals for more complex skills, such as recognizing prefixes and suffixes, are taught before students encounter these words in text. 

  4. Is the program multisensory? Decades of research have shown that instruction blending visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile elements maximizes the development of neural connections that relate to memory and learning of written language (Birsh, 2006; Cox, 1992; McIntyre & Pickering, 2001). In practice, a multisensory lesson leverages all three elements in its delivery: At Windward, that may include a teacher showing students a visual representation of a target letter, having students vocalize the letter, then vocalizing a key word using the letter, and finally stating the letter sound while tracing the letter in the air.  

  5. Is the program diagnostic? Diagnostic teaching meets each student where they are and targets instruction accordingly. This involves continuous assessment, both formal and informal, to determine skills deficits to target for additional practice. (See my previous article, Through the Looking Glass: Using Data to Inform Instruction from The Beacon Fall 2021, for more in-depth coverage of the role of assessments in a structured literacy classroom.) Once students have mastered a skill to automaticity, they free their cognitive bandwidth for comprehension, fluency, and deeper understanding. 

How Do We Leverage Screening Measures to Inform Instruction?  

Framing the notion of screening solely as a means to identify students with dyslexia has had the effect of minimizing a much larger issue, compartmentalizing the alarming statistics around reading acquisition as an issue for the few and not the many. As we know based on the Nation’s Report Card, two-thirds of fourth-grade students are not proficient in reading, and that percentage has remained steady since they began reporting in the 1990s. When the vast majority of students are at risk for reading failure, screening becomes an imperative. 
  
In the simplest terms, “screening measures are designed to quickly differentiate students into one of two groups: 1) those who require intervention and 2) those who do not” (IDA, 2019). This is often the point of derailment for many educators’ valuation of screening. Intervention with a capital I speaks of additional classroom hours, additional expenditures, additional support staff, and the additional complications of processing and implementing legally binding agreements such as an IEP. There is a real fear among many educators of pulling that intervention trigger. They simply don’t have the resources to follow through, not when the majority of their students would qualify as needing intervention. But what if we were to reframe the idea of intervention as an inherent piece of a solid core reading program? Assume all children will encounter challenges in their learning, and have the structures in place to address these knowledge gaps as they occur. Universal screening then becomes a valuable tool to continuously obtain snapshots of students’ progress, illuminating areas that need attention. 

Universal screening then becomes a valuable tool to continuously obtain snapshots of students’ progress, illuminating areas that need attention. 

“Universal screening tools have the following characteristics: 

  • Quick and targeted assessments of discrete skills that indicate whether students are making adequate progress in reading achievement 

  • Alternate equivalent forms so they can be administered three to four times a year 

  • Standardized directions for administration and scoring 

  • Have established reliability and validity standards” (IDA, 2019) 

As noted above, screening measures should be designed to be quick and easy to do, reliable, and repeatable. I would posit that the primary objective of universal screenings is not to identify students with dyslexia; rather, it is to identify students not hitting specific benchmarks in reading and where their individual skills deficits lie. In an effective reading program framework, the data collected directly informs instruction in real time, determining both instructional groupings and skills to target for improvement.  

When insights gleaned from this data are layered onto a solid, evidence-based core reading program, there is a dramatic gain in student achievement across the board. (See Dr. Russell’s article, “Speaking Truth to Power,” in this issue for results when the state of Mississippi adopted a Structured Literacy reading program grounded in the Science of Reading.) “Investigations of Structured Literacy go back decades and offer evidence that class-wide implementation of the approach can produce results comparable to costly one-on-one interventions for all students, including those with reading disabilities” (Center & Freeman, 1996). Within this framework, instead of most children not hitting benchmarks, the majority of students progress on grade level, and the 10% of students with language-based learning disabilities are easier to identify early. The science shows that early identification has transformative effects on student achievement as well as on social and emotional growth. Conversely, when a student falls through the cracks, failing to be identified as needing support, their skills deficits can take years to remediate. The disastrous ramifications on this student’s well-being and sense of self cannot be overstated.   

At Windward, when we talk about shifting the tide, we mean that it’s time to elevate the discussion around the literacy crisis in the United States. This is not a micro-level problem; it is a macro-level problem. It’s long past time to acknowledge the insanity of maintaining the current status quo of reading instruction. Rather than perpetuate it, we have the opportunity to serve our nation’s students in the way that they deserve.  


For Further Reading: 

Birsh, J. R. (Ed.). (2005 ). Multisensory teaching of basic language skills. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.  
Hanford, Emily. (2018, September 10). Hard Words: Why Aren’t Our Kids Being Taught To Read? APM Reports. Retrieved from https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read 

Lorimor-Easley, N & Reed, D. (2019, April 9). An Explanation of Structured Literacy, and a Comparison to Blended Literacy. Iowa Reading Research Center. Retrieved from https://iowareadingresearch.org/blog/structured-and-balanced-literacy 

Rosenberg, D, Pankowski, A, & Wilson, B. (2021, May 11). Universal Screening: K-2 Reading. International Dyslexia Association. Retrieved from https://dyslexiaida.org/universal-screening-k-2-reading/