Reading education in this country has long been a hot topic of public and educational discourse, and it has recently intensified as the pandemic has impacted this nation’s children in far-reaching ways. For those who are deeply invested in ensuring all children have access to high-quality literacy instruction, the field of reading education often seems to be playing out in a competitive “arena.” Arenas have historically served as premier stages for heroic competitions, where passionate, gritty teams seek to win in their sport. In my imagined arena of reading education, I envision hardworking, diligent teams of researchers, educators, and advocates working together to win their own championship trophy: a world where every child has the opportunity to become a proficient reader, a fundamental skill toward actualizing one’s academic and personal success.
Unlike sports settings, however, the arena of reading education should be inherently different, because teams in reading are operating for the same collective goal: better literacy outcomes. And yet, even with so much at stake, it can feel like this arena is far too vast, loud, competitive, and overpopulated with shouting spectators on all sides, where it seems nearly impossible to sustain real change in the way reading is taught. For example, the deafening sounds of the “reading wars” and other ideological conflicts that emanate from crowds create persistent confusion for teachers. In another section of seats, the voices and gavels of state governments impede progress in policy, making law inconsistent and therefore inequitable for countless children across the nation. The infrastructural barriers to implementation, gaps in teacher preparation, and inconsistent professional development systems fill the seats and aisles at the center of the field.
While this depiction of reading conflict may seem disheartening, valiant efforts across time have already led to victories toward the ultimate goal in reading education. Broad and deep bodies of research have existed for decades, which have informed the understanding of the reading brain and evidence-based methods to effectively teach children. At the same time, teams of researchers, educators, advocates, and policy leaders are already in the arena enacting change for children. Winning in reading education means collectively recognizing the efforts already made and looking ahead toward fostering further collaboration to reach more children through a more equitable, scalable, and sustainable lens.
Winning in reading education means collectively recognizing the efforts already made and looking ahead toward fostering further collaboration to reach more children through a more equitable, scalable, and sustainable lens.
The Role of Science in the Arena
The field of education has given rise to dynamic and complex issues, as well as racial, socioeconomic, and geographic disparities across history, society, and politics that deserve a thorough examination and enactment of comprehensive solutions. It remains vitally important to understand and address these inequities across the systems of science and education. In addressing the research-to-practice gap specifically, translational science offers a lens toward more collaborative implementation of science in school settings. Petscher and colleagues (2020), differentiate between two facets of translational science, with a key area focused on “research aimed at enhancing the adoption of best practices in the community.” Implementation science has similarly advanced school-based research to understand the mechanisms and conditions that either promote or inhibit research-based practices in contexts. While there are certainly advantages to all scientific disciplines—from basic to applied sciences—these areas of research offer new frontiers to how scientists and educators demonstrate their respective expertise and learn from each other in order to deliver outcomes that are feasible for stakeholders in schools.
At the same time, the application of the Science of Reading (SoR) in schools often is not just about the science. Rather, it encompasses leveraging the structures, resources, and knowledge of organizational change to empower diverse stakeholders to apply SoR in actionable and sustainable ways. In her 2021 article, “Delivering on the Promise of the Science of Reading for All Children,” Nicole Patton Terry, PhD, encourages educators to act as “active critical consumers of the science as they engage in this space. Interrogate it, ask hard questions of it, demand to know more about it, persist to understand it better, and try it and evaluate its utility in your spaces.” She offers an expansive analysis of applying the research on reading into practice by pointing out the multitude of stakeholders who are involved in ensuring the science reaches children, explaining:
Use our field’s incredible interdisciplinary discoveries about reading, writing, language, and literacy to inform the decisions you make about how you teach your students, engage their families, participate in their communities, support your leaders, and promote policies.
Certainly, leaders hold enormous power and responsibility to ensure evidence in reading reaches every facet of not only classrooms but also the communities in which these organizations exist. It requires foundational steps and tools to guide progress in reading education.
Certainly, leaders hold enormous power and responsibility to ensure evidence in reading reaches every facet of not only classrooms but also the communities in which these organizations exist.
The Role of Educational Leaders in the Arena
Navigating the arena of reading education toward actualizing our collective goal is possible. Just as translational and implementation researchers have outlined frameworks for action, educators can take definitive steps toward change.
Step 1: Examining the Players, Current Strategy, and Resources
The primary step toward progress requires critical analysis of our own contexts, systems, and processes. “That is the way we have always done things” is perhaps one of the most damaging statements in any school or organization and can inhibit further progress. First, gather as much data as possible to understand the current climate of the school and current stakeholder perceptions of reading education, organizational structures, and resources. Data should address questions like:
What are our organization’s current views about reading instruction and how reading skills develop in children?
What does our school leadership and faculty know about disabilities and disorders that involve reading and language difficulties like dyslexia?
What curriculum are we using for early reading instruction, and does it align with the Science of Reading and evidence-based practices? What supports are in place for children who struggle?
How does professional learning support curriculum implementation?
Action Step: Data collection could involve taking an inventory amongst leadership, faculty, and other actors within the school building, and should include gathering information about existing belief systems toward reading and specifically how these beliefs relate to children who struggle to read. For example, leaders can conduct needs assessments of the culture, processes, and resources that involve the implementation of reading curriculum as well as a more general analysis of the school’s approach to student learning.
For other leaders in education who have already begun this journey, examining players and strategy may also involve researching other educational groups or researchers already leading change. Progress in this work has expanded across the latter half of the past century. For decades, various groups of researchers, organizations and institutions, and schools have pioneered the work to advancing the Science of Reading in practice (John J. Russell, EdD highlights The Windward Institute and Haskins Global Literacy Global Literacy Hub’s pioneering work to dismantle the “big disconnect” between research and practice in the article, "The Windward Institute: An Exemplar of Translational Science."). The Science of Reading involves decades of well-documented evidence across multiple disciplines, including reading, cognitive science, neuroscience and educational neuroscience, and psychology.
While the resources exist, it is important to think about how they can be effectively translated. One way to advance the Science of Reading in practice is to create collaborative teams of leaders that act as facilitators between research and practice. These teams could include reading specialists, speech language pathologists, building administrators, and faculty leaders with a unified vision to advance the accessibility of the Science of Reading and supporting evidence in practice. They would be responsible for gathering and analyzing data, feasibility and accessibility of program implementation, and distributing resources.
Action Step: Establish a team of leaders in the school/organization to facilitate research into practice, particularly in discerning the context factors that would enable or inhibit the implementation of evidence-based practice in all classrooms.
Step 2: Developing a Cohesive Strategy
Armed with consistent systems of data collection, analysis, and expertise, the next step is to develop a cohesive strategy. The arena of reading education is filled with sections of barriers and challenges that create a lot of noise. Effective strategy guides the contextual factors that continue to sustain the application of the Science of Reading and supporting evidence-based practices. Terry (2021) posits that it is “difficult for the Science of Reading to thrive in an environment which learning does not thrive.” Strategy should guide coherence between leadership, professional learning, and student learning, and should align through each lens:
How does the research guide our instruction and teacher learning? Research should be carefully examined to ensure that sufficient evidence exists to support instruction or an intervention. Some considerations include understanding the research methods that were used in studies (i.e., randomized control trials are considered the gold standard), the conditions and populations in which research was conducted, and a consideration of the “unintended consequences” of outcomes (Bamberger et al., 2016).
To ensure that the the Science of Reading serves all populations, it needs to be driven through a lens of equity. Terry (2021) explains that educators must not just believe but insist that all children can learn to read and that systemic factors inhibit them from achieving their full potential. These factors can include deficits around evidence-based instruction and supports as well as understanding of students’ learning needs, difficulties, and population. On a recent episode of the READ Podcast, Dr. Terry (2021) explained that equity also involves increasing stakeholder voices through sharing experiences and data, understanding cultural implications that may exist as a result of systemic disparities, and facilitating greater input within decision-making processes and collaborative partnerships to support all student populations.
Investments in instruction, core curriculums, and teacher learning should align with methods rooted in evidence. Early core reading programs should align with the fundamentals of explicit, structured, sequential literacy. Core reading programs that do not align with sound-symbol mapping of words would not be considered effective word-level reading programs. Evidence shows that methods of structured literacy are essential for 40-50% of students, and 10-15% of students (i.e., students with dyslexia) need structured literacy with additional time, repetition, and support (Young, 2017). Leaders should invest in training teachers in core language instruction in addition to their implementation of necessary curriculum and pedagogical methods being used in classrooms (Read more about the importance of language instruction in “Language: The Vehicle That Drives the Curriculum” by Lydia Soifer, PhD.).
Action Step: A cohesive strategy should be driven through a lens of equity and evidence-based practice, and it involves strategic investments that effectively and feasibly serve the community.
Step 3: Balancing Steadfast Commitment with Flexibility and Humility
We have learned that, in any aspect of life, change takes time. In education, action requires steadfast commitment from leaders and cultures. It also requires the ability to recognize when something is not working or where/ how we can best serve our teachers and children.
Ultimately, the arena of reading education can feel far more complex, crowded, and noisy than even some of the most competitive sports stadiums across the country. But engaging in this space is always worth it—the status quo of reading education is avoidable, knowledge is available, collaboration is possible, and progress is attainable.
Action Step: Learn more.
For Further Learning:
In addition to these highlighted resources, you may find an extensive list at thewindwardschool.org/the-windward-institute/the-beacon for further learning about translational and implementation sciences as well as information about adoption and change of evidence-based practice for educational leaders.
Emily J. Solari et al.
Journal for Reading Research
Nicole Patton Terry, Yaacov Petscher, Nadine Gaab, Sara Hart
Reading League Journal
Nicole Patton Terry
The Reading Teacher
READ Podcast episodes
Learn more about the reading brain and the Science of Reading:
Learn more about strategic change and investments in SoR across a district of schools:
Learn more about integrating equity and partnerships:
Learn more about Implementation Science:
Episode 42. Implementation Science with Tiffany Hogan and Rouzana Komesidou, accessed at seehearspeakpodcast.com
Learn more about translational science in reading:
Emily J. Solari, PhD, “Translational Science in Reading: Where Have We Been and Where Are We Going?," 2022 Robert J. Schwartz Memorial Lecture
Haskins Global Literacy Hub
Florida Center for Reading Research
Center for Dyslexia at Middle Tennessee State University