Disrupting the Educational Status Quo: Advocating for Scientifically Based Reading Instruction

Disrupting the Educational Status Quo: Advocating for Scientifically Based Reading Instruction
John J. Russell, EdD

Countless studies confirm the critical need to fill the gap that exists between the instructional programs that students currently receive in public and private schools and the research-based program they need to be successful. What Windward students tell us confirms this. 

The Windward School is an independent school for students with language-based learning disabilities located in New York. Windward students regularly share their thoughts about their experiences at the schools that they attended prior to coming to Windward. The following are typical: 

“At my former school, if I didn’t answer a question correctly, the other students would laugh at me, and I would feel very stupid and embarrassed. Being different felt awful.” 

“Imagine going to school every day and praying that you won’t be called on to read. Imagine knowing that you try your best in school every day but still have report cards that say you are failing, not trying, and need to start making an effort in school.” 

No 12-year-old child should ever have these horrible memories of school. The widespread use of ineffective instructional strategies to teach reading motivated The Windward Institute to make disrupting the educational status quo its mission. 

The Reading Wars: Scientifically Based vs Balanced Literacy Reading Instruction                     
Scientifically Based Reading Instruction 

In the most basic terms, scientifically based means there is reliable evidence that a program or practice works (Smith, 2003; Keskin & Yilmaz, 2020).  In 1967, Jeanna Chall published Learning to Read: The Great Debate which was the result of extensive research that she did as part of a Carnegie Corporation study. Chall found that many years of investigations of beginning readers clearly supported direct instruction of decoding and that knowledge of letters and sounds was a critical factor in reading achievement. Since then, many others have confirmed the components of scientifically based reading instruction that are most effective. Decades of educational research studies and cognitive science research (Chall,1967; National Reading Panel, 2000; Dehaene, 2010; Seidenberg, 2017; Castles, Rastles & Nation, 2018; Wolf, 2018; Shaywitz & Shaywitz, 2020) have conclusively proven that: 

  • Skilled readers rely more heavily on decoding skills (knowledge of letter-sound correspondences) than context clues when learning new words. 
  • The alphabetic principle must be explicitly taught, not simply “discovered” as prescribed by Whole Language devotees. 
Whole Language Reading Instruction 

In the simplest terms, “Whole Language” is a philosophy of teaching reading based on the mistaken belief that learning to read, like learning to speak, comes naturally to children. It is a method of teaching children to read by recognizing words as whole pieces of language, deemphasizing, or in some cases virtually eliminating, the teaching of the skills that children need to decode words. In general, followers of the Whole Language philosophy believe that language should not be broken down into letters and combinations of letters and “decoded.” 

The publication of Ken Goodman’s Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game (1967) and Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read (1971) were seminal in moving Whole Language philosophy from academic circles into classrooms. More recently, a host of others have joined this band: Marie Clay (Reading Recovery), Lucy Calkin (The Units of Study Teaching Reading), Gay Su Pinnel & Irene Fountas (Leveled Literacy Intervention).  

Balanced Literacy Reading Instruction 

In response to the avalanche of research repudiating Whole Language and supporting scientifically based reading instruction, Whole Language morphed into Balanced Literacy, and some Balanced Literacy reading programs hijacked the term “scientifically based” when in fact they are not based on scientific research (Chall, 2000; Moats, 2007). 

“The term "whole language" is not commonly used today, but programs based on its premises remain popular. These approaches may pay lip service to reading science, but they fail to incorporate the content and instructional methods proven to work best with students learning to read. Some districts openly shun research-based practices, while others fail to provide clear, consistent leadership for principals and teachers, who are left to reinvent reading instruction, school by school” (Chester Finn, 2007).  

This is still true today (Fisher, Frey & Lapp, 2021). The consequences of this reading war have led to decades of an educational status quo that has been catastrophically detrimental for students across the country.  

Strategies for Disrupting the Status Quo 
Since 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card, has assessed student performance in reading. Year after year, the NAEP has documented the poor performance of American students. Consistent with past years, the most recent assessment (2019) reported that 65% of fourth graders and 66% of eighth graders were reading below the proficient level of achievement in reading.
Over the time span since the NAEP was first introduced, an overwhelming number of research studies (Rayner, Foorman, Perfetti, Pesetsky & Seidenberg, 2000; Moats, 2000; National Reading Panel, 2000; Moats, 2007; Foorman et al., 2016; Goswami and Bryant, 2016; Gough, Ehri, Treiman, 2017; Petscher et al., 2020) have clearly and unequivocally identified scientifically based instructional practices as the most effective method for teaching reading. Despite this evidence and the dismal performance of students on the NAEP reading assessment, the use of research-based practices in classrooms is still a work in progress (Chester Finn, 2007; Fisher, Frey & Lapp, 2021). 

What can be done to bring scientifically based reading instruction into more classrooms across the United States? While this brief paper cannot address this in full measure, the following strategies can be used to disrupt the status quo. 

  1. Clarify Terminology 

The term “scientifically based” needs to be clearly defined, and its use by publishers closely scrutinized. According to provisions contained in the No Child Left Behind legislation (2002), “To say that an instructional program or practice is grounded in scientifically-based research means there is reliable evidence that the program or practice works” (Smith, 2003). Shanahan (2020), while supporting the use of well-established evidence to make instructional decisions, warns against overgeneralizing findings from basic research that have not been supported by instructional experiments.   

Hence, many teachers believe that scientific evidence is not the only source of knowledge of effective reading instruction, nor is it, in their opinion, necessarily better than knowledge gained through personal experience (Education Week, 2019). Educators need to be informed about the hierarchy of the quality of evidence obtained by different research methodologies: randomized controlled trials; quasi-experimental, including pre- and post-data; correlational studies with statistical controls; correlational studies without statistical controls; and case studies. While all these research methodologies can produce “reliable evidence,” the quality of the evidence decreases in descending order for each of the other research methodologies listed. 

  1. Establish the Components of Scientifically Based Reading Programs 
The National Reading Panel (2000) reviewed the findings of many research studies to determine whether there was sufficient scientific evidence to determine the components of effective reading instruction. The panel concluded that, to be effective, reading programs need to address phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, reading comprehension, and vocabulary. "Scientifically based" reading programs fully incorporate these five components (Moats, 2007). Balanced Literacy programs may contain some of these elements, but do not fully incorporate them, and frequently deviate from evidence-based ones in the instructional practices used to deliver them. Further, the use of structured, sequential, systematic, explicit instruction to teach these components is critical in learning to read (Dehaene et al., 2010; Birsh et al., 2018; Petscher et al., 2020).  

“To be effective, reading programs need to address phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, reading comprehension, and vocabulary.” 

  1. Improve Teacher Preparation 
In order to teach reading effectively, teachers must be knowledgeable of oral and written language concepts as well as the most effective research-based instructional practices (Budin, Mather, & Cheesman, 2010; Seidenberg, 2020). Unfortunately, undergraduate and graduate education programs are not providing teachers with this knowledge. Writing in the Journal of Learning Disabilities (2009), Louisa Moats cites research by Walsh, Glaser, & Dunne-Wilcox (2006) that states, “courses provided in teacher licensing programs are often insufficient in content and design to enable the students to learn the subject matter and apply it to the teaching of reading.”  
An earlier study (Moats & Lyon, 1996) also demonstrated that teachers have “insufficiently developed concepts about language and pervasive conceptual weaknesses in the very skills that are needed for direct, systematic, language-focused reading instruction, such as the abilities to count phonemes and to identify phonic relationships.” Moats and Lyon’s findings have been confirmed by Cheesman et al. (2009) who found that only 18% of first-year teachers could distinguish between phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. More recently, these findings were confirmed by the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) annual review (2021) of teacher preparation programs. 

NCTQ found that teacher prep programs nationwide are most likely to omit phonemic awareness, the first and most challenging instructional skill teachers need to teach before children can learn to read. Only 51% of teacher preparation programs provide instruction in this skill in which children must accurately identify the speech sounds in words. The review also discovered that too few teacher preparation programs, only 53%, spend enough time teaching about the importance of reading fluency. 

  1. Strengthen Professional Development 
There remains a significant disconnect between the preparation teachers need in order to be successful and the preparation they actually receive in their pre-service and graduate education courses (Solari et al., 2020). Teacher preparation programs simply do not sufficiently prepare new teachers for the classroom, and state licensing examinations are not rigorous enough to protect students from teachers who are ill-equipped to teach reading (NCTQ, 2021). In public and independent schools across the nation, there has been a very slow but increasing awareness of the inadequacy of teacher preparation programs.  
At Windward, we have long recognized the deficits that smart, conscientious teachers bring with them simply because they did not receive proper training at their colleges and universities to effectively teach reading and writing. Recognizing that all of its teachers would benefit from a comprehensive research-based professional development program, The Windward Institute (WI) is dedicated to providing the type of training that enables professionals to acquire the expertise needed to teach children of all abilities in both mainstream and remedial classrooms. It offers professional development based on the most current, scientifically validated research in reading and writing instruction as well as child development, learning theory, and pedagogy. WI courses, workshops and lectures translate this research into practical classroom applications. 
  1. Strengthen Licensing Requirements 
Only 20 states require a test that fully measures candidates’ knowledge of the science of reading, and only 11 states require such a test of their special education teachers, even though difficulty reading is the primary reason students are assigned to special education (NCTQ, 2021). All elementary teacher candidates in New York must pass the New York State Teacher Certification Examination (NYSTCE) Multi-Subject: Teachers of Childhood (Grade 1-Grade 6) test, as a condition of initial certification. This test includes a separately scored English language arts/literacy section. However, this subtest does not address the science of reading and therefore does not amount to a standalone reading test. 
Concluding Thoughts 
This short paper does not do justice to the scope and severity of the problem. Not being able to read proficiently can have a devastating impact on an individual’s life. Entire futures, including job and financial security, confidence, and a sense of accomplishment, rest on the ability to read and write. Despite the sincere efforts of dedicated educators in classrooms throughout the tri-state area and beyond, untold numbers of children struggle to master these most basic skills that are the foundations for future academic achievement. The status quo must be disrupted. 

“Entire futures, including job and financial security, confidence, and a sense of accomplishment, rest on the ability to read and write.”