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
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.
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.
Establish the Components of Scientifically Based Reading Programs
“To be effective, reading programs need to address phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, reading comprehension, and vocabulary.”
Improve Teacher Preparation
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.
Strengthen Professional Development
Strengthen Licensing Requirements
“Entire futures, including job and financial security, confidence, and a sense of accomplishment, rest on the ability to read and write.”