Follow the Data to Ensure All Children Can Read
Jamie Williamson, Head of The Windward School

It has been 20 years since the findings of the best ways to teach children to read were released by the National Reading Panel. Commissioned by Congress to evaluate the most current science of reading evidence and to help define the future of effective reading instruction, the NRP consisted of a 14-member panel with varied backgrounds within the field of education, such as administrators, reading teachers, and leading reading research scientists. Over three years, they conducted a comprehensive analysis of the body of literature in reading research and, throughout the process, considered more than 100,000 research articles on how children learn to read from well-respected, peer-reviewed journals. The panel discovered that despite a long and arduous historical debate about the best approach for teaching reading, the foundation of effective reading instruction had five critical components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension (National Reading Panel, 2000). This report’s recommendations, culled from massive amounts of data, prioritized evidence-based approaches to reading instruction. The insights revealed in this report intended to end the proverbial reading wars (the whole language versus phonics debate), or so we thought.   

Unfortunately, rather than put an end to the debate, many reading program authors and publishers simply hustled to rebrand and repackage, while simultaneously working to criticize and discredit the science. The concept of a "balanced literacy" approach emerged, which focused on a whole language model sprinkled with a little dash of phonics, and educators returned to business as usual.  

A Concerning Lack of Reading Improvement Over 20 Years 

The broadscale response by publishers to the panel’s findings begs the question, if we have truly "balanced" the literacy needs of our students, then certainly more kids are reading proficiently than ever before, right? Again, sadly, the data tells a different story. For the last 40 years, we have been tracking reading and math performance in this country. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the nation's report card, and the current data is nothing short of shocking. The most recent report, released at the end of 2019, shows that only 35% of fourth graders and 34% of eighth graders are at or above proficient in reading­—a decline from the 2017 report. If you dig a little deeper into the data, you will find that the most at-risk readers, or readers who scored in the bottom 10th percentile, have not significantly improved at all since 1992. (NAEP, 2019) 


Most at-risk readers, or readers who scored in the bottom 10th percentile, have not improved at all since 1992. 

Advocates for the balanced literacy approach have been selling programs across the country, and school districts and teachers have been led to believe that these programs are actually research—or evidence-based. There is a major difference between including a few components to an instructional program as indicated by research—for example, adding a few phonics lessons—and implementing a comprehensive scientifically research-based program that is delivered in an explicit and systematic way. I can’t imagine another scenario where this lack of progress would be tolerated or defended. Yet, here we are, still in the same relative position, 20 years after the National Reading Panel’s report conclusively determined that reading programs should provide “explicit instruction in phonemic awareness” and “systematic phonics instruction” (National Reading Panel, 2000).  

At Windward, we succeed because we follow where the data leads: we know what needs to be done, we implement it, and we have a proven track record of teaching students that other schools fail. In fact, the methods used to teach students with language-based learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, “are not new or controversial. Research suggests that if all children were taught to read using approaches that work for students with dyslexia, reading achievement would improve overall” (Hanford, 2017). 

At Windward, we succeed because we follow where the data leads: we know what needs to be done, we implement it, and we have a proven track record of teaching students that other schools fail. 

How We Can Begin to Move the Reading Needle Forward 

When I am problem solving, I often ask a question that I would use when I was working directly with students as a school psychologist. The question, designed to help creatively devise solutions to problems, came out of a Solution Focused Therapy model. Known as the Miracle Question, it was created in 1988 by Steve de Shazer as a thought experiment to shift one’s perspective: “If you woke up tomorrow and this thing that we are working on was miraculously fixed/solved/better/improved, how would you know? What would be different?” (de Shazar and Dolan, 2007). When I think about these questions in the context of literacy, my answer is clear. If I woke up tomorrow and this thing that I have committed my career to was suddenly solved, I would know because all students would be able to read and write. Period. But when looking at the consistent trends in reading instruction, I have to ask, is that what we all really want? The NAEP data, which has been stagnant for the last 28 years, would seem to suggest that we are more concerned with protecting the status quo than in giving kids what they need in the classroom.   

Follow Effective Research-Based Methodologies 

So, what is impeding us from making progress teaching all children to read? While this is a wildly complex question to answer, I have a few straightforward thoughts for moving forward. First and foremost, we should stop using core programs that are not backed by scientific research as well as systematic and explicit in their instructional approach. The NRP did not recommend one single program. Instead, the NRP chose to focus on the core components that should be well represented in a reading program, and that instruction in that program should focus on direct and explicit skill instruction. According to the NRP, there is a plethora of data to show that we know what to do, and we know how to do it.   

Revamp Teacher Training at the University Level 

Secondly, university training programs should begin teaching pre-service teachers how to effectively teach reading with instructional strategies based in science, not opinion. Thousands of teacher prep programs exist today in the US, but there is very little oversight for curriculum. Faculty members at each institution decide what is taught, and there is no single body acting as the authority to determine benchmarks for teacher training. The result is an ever-widening pool of new teachers without a standard toolkit for effectively teaching reading, who are then forced to learn on the fly. Teachers graduate from these programs with the credentials for teaching reading but without the skillsets to effectively remediate students’ reading issues before they become major problems. This circumstance is massively unfair for the teachers who dedicate so much of themselves to their students without knowing that they’ve been betrayed by their own training.  And this circumstance is tragic for the students, as proven by decades of appalling reading scores as well as their social, economic, and political implications. 

Enact Continuous Evidence-Based Professional Development for Teachers 

Further to this point, school districts should routinely implement comprehensive professional development programs focused on these areas to bridge the skill gap in the field today. This would keep teachers current on the science that continues to evolve thanks to brilliant researchers and advances in technology. Andrea Rowson was one of those teachers underserved by her training. She was taught nothing about phonics during her university studies in the 1980s, but she now trains teachers how to teach reading. “Teachers need to know the reading research,” says Rowson, “because when they don’t, kids suffer, and so do teachers” (APM, 2017). After a group of 19 parents filed a complaint with the state of Ohio, specifying the district’s lack of action in remediating students’ reading deficits, the district completely overhauled its approach to reading instruction, and Rowson is one of the experts who is training (and retraining) those Ohio teachers. Instead of continuing to use programs tailored to the whole language, or balanced literacy, approach, the district transitioned to research-based, multisensory, explicit, systematic reading instruction.   

Schools should also develop rigorous coaching and mentoring programs to support teachers as they develop these instructional skills, which would not only provide the much-needed support that teachers are asking for but also help create a cohesive program across each school and ensure the integrity of the program. Windward has been deeply committed to this process and the results have been transformational for students. 

Screen Every Child for Dyslexia Early  

Lastly, schools should recognize that the pathway to academic success within their programs begins with foundational academic skills and a focus on early intervention. Neuroscience clearly shows that good intervention can actually change students’ brains—the earlier, the better (Krafnick et al., 2011). Regardless of whether the state a school resides in has adopted laws around universal screening, schools should be screening every child in kindergarten through sixth grade to identify students at risk for developing reading issues and to monitor the progress of all students. Rowson’s district in Ohio, for example, now routinely screens all students for dyslexia in kindergarten. They also employ Orton-Gillingham tutors to target those students who need early interventions. As student data evolves based on regular assessments of progress, it is also important for schools to use a system of flexible groupings, which allows schools to be responsive to student needs in “real time.”  

We Know What to Do and How to Do It 

If we want to move the needle on reading in this country, it is going to require a massive coordinated effort, with a focus on the acceptance of the scientific evidence, and strong leadership at the district and university level, working in tandem with state and local governments. All these efforts must be undertaken with a view toward what is truly important, a continued push to serve our students. We know what to do and how to do it. It is just a matter of implementing it on a larger scale. During a key scene in “All the President’s Men,” Woodward tells his informant, “All we have are pieces. We can’t figure out what the puzzle is supposed to look like.” The informant famously responded, “Follow the money.” How do we solve the reading puzzle for American students? In this case, the answer is clear: Follow the data.