Hannah Hughes is playing a game with a group of second graders at Johnson Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee, who are still working on their reading skills. Hughes shows the group the word “bright,” but then takes a card and covers up the letter “b.”
“What does the word say now?” she asks. “Right!” Students shout. For students still sounding out words letter by letter, learning this skill, called chunking, helps kids practice combining letters and sounds together to make reading words more efficient.
Hughes, a first-year teacher, said she learned how to teach this important decoding skill to help struggling readers in her pre-service training. In her undergraduate studies at Eastern Tennessee State University, early elementary reading courses focused on science-based reading methods like chunking. And a new report suggests that her students’ future reading success might rely, in part, to that training.
According to the “Teacher Prep Review: Program Performance in Early Reading Instruction,” released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), teacher preparation programs are catching up to the scientific evidence on how the brain learns to read. The teacher preparation research group reports that in 2019, more than half of teacher training programs now teach the “Science of Reading,” compared to 35% just a few years ago, in 2013.
In order to earn an “A” grade from NCTQ, programs had to show that they thoroughly and explicitly covered what’s commonly called the “five pillars” of learning to read—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Textbooks had to be aligned with the science of reading; discussion and lecture had to include “explicit and repeated” instruction in the five components. And teachers needed to be able to display their mastery of the concepts, not just through assignments and tests, but also through practice teaching them in classrooms.
NCTQ considered fifteen programs as exceptional, ones that ranged from Arkansas Tech University, the University of Florida, to two programs in Utah and Mississippi, respectively. They found that undergraduate university education programs were more likely to offer scientific-based courses, with 57% earning an “A” or “B” rating. Graduate programs lagged behind with 33% earning a top mark.
While NCTQ is encouraged by the uptick in evidence-backed reading programs, president Kate Walsh said she hopes that news of the report puts pressure on even more to join them.
“Getting programs to the halfway mark means that half of all programs aren’t doing this,” she said. “We hope that by the next time we release new findings, we will make much more significant progress.”
How the brain learns to read
The report outlines the importance of providing teachers who teach reading with the understanding of how the brain learns to read. Learning to read is a function of spoken language, in which the brain connects the speech sounds of spoken language to the visual written “code” of letters and words. When a child learns to read, according to cognitive scientist Stanislas Dehaene, author of Reading and the Brain, the brain essentially creates an “interface between your vision system in your brain and your spoken language system.”
Creating this “interface” involves making the connections between the speech sounds (that she already knows from spoken language) and the sounds that letters and letter combinations make. Though some children make those connections without much help, most kids need explicit instruction in phonics to learn the relationship between spoken language sounds and written letters and words.
But for decades, most classrooms haven’t focused on phonemic awareness (the ability to hear, recognize and apply the individual units of sound in speech) and phonics (connecting sounds to letters) as the first crucial step in learning to read. Instead, teachers were teaching reading based on philosophies they learned in their training programs, most commonly called “whole language” and “balanced literacy.”
And it turns out most teachers are teaching reading this way. Of the 674 K-2 and special education elementary teachers surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center, 72 percent said their schools use balanced literacy. While phonics is a part of balanced literacy programs, the report found that balanced literacy “has been criticized for paying insufficient attention to explicit, systematic instruction” of phonics.
These philosophies, unsupported by scientific evidence on how the brain learns to read, emphasized that kids didn’t really need much phonics if they had plenty of good books to read. They argued that there are several strategies that kids can rely on if they come to a word they don’t know–like looking at the pictures or re-reading the sentence and guess what word made sense. If children had lots of exposure to printed words, they asserted, the rest would take care of itself.
But for many children those methods don’t work, because the brain needs explicit instruction to learn the sound/letter connections to read words correctly. National reading scores reflect this disconnect. The most recent national reading scores from 2019 show that overall reading proficiency dropped, and essentially two-thirds of American kids cannot read at a proficient level.
“Surrounding kids with good books is a great idea,” reports journalist Emily Hanford in her documentary “Hard Words,” “but it’s not the same as teaching children to read.”
Training teachers before they head into classrooms
Though how the brain learns to read has been well-established in the scientific community for years and is backed by thousands of studies, many teacher preparation programs don’t include the mountain of research on reading instruction in their programs. Sometimes they have actively resisted it.
But recent attention from frustrated parent groups and the media has put the spotlight on asking why so many young American readers struggle, and has put pressure on teacher prep programs to re-evaluate how they prepare teachers heading into classrooms.
Both NCTQ and universities recognize the role that teacher training plays in ensuring teachers are equipped with knowledge of the science.
Eastern Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tennessee, where Hughes graduated in 2019, earned NCTQ’s highest grade—an A+. But that’s due to completely revamping their reading courses in 2015. Karen Keith, who became the elementary education department’s chair that same year, said she and her team quickly realized that their reading courses needed a reboot.
They replaced existing courses they felt weren’t serving students with evidence-based reading courses. For example, Keith said a course that taught undergrads how to write about general issues in education was replaced with a “foundations of literacy” course. The foundations course provided students with a deep dive into the brain science and the five pillars of reading. Then they created a second course that built on the foundations course, on how to use assessment data and differentiated instruction to target students who were struggling.
Teachers-in-training then have a chance to practice what they’ve learned at the on-campus lab school, as well as out in the field through student teaching. Hughes was placed in a fourth grade class for her student teaching, helping struggling readers. “We can learn definitions all day, but putting it into practice is the hard part,” Hughes said. “There are so many needs, which is challenging. But then it’s so rewarding when students are using the strategies you’ve taught them.”
Education school leaders recognize how aligning teacher practice with methods backed by scientific research might start to crack the fortress of American illiteracy that many view as a crisis.
“It’s a very clear cycle,” said Merideth Van Namen, the Chair of Teacher Education, Leadership, and Research at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, which also earned an A+ rating in the NCTQ report. “If we are better preparing teacher candidates when they enter the field, it’s assumed that then they would better prepare those students to be fluent readers.”
Could teacher training change how many American kids are able to read well?
For many years, Mississippi ranked at the bottom of national rankings for state education, but the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores showed that Mississippi was the only state to make big reading gains.
Some have speculated that Mississippi’s big gains in reading are connected to a reboot of their teacher training programs. The NCTQ report rewards two Mississippi schools, Delta State University and the University of Mississippi, with an “A+” rating, and two more get an “A.”
Van Namen said the university has had a long legacy of teaching the science of reading, even when it wasn’t popular to do so. But they recently strengthened the program that was already working, and have helped lead a statewide effort to get every Mississippi teacher trained.
“For the past several years, Mississippi institutions have collaborated through many efforts to enhance teacher preparation in the area of early literacy,” as well, Van Namen said. “No one is working in isolation, and that’s a likely factor [for the statewide gains]. We are all going in the same direction.”
While NCTQ’s rising numbers show promise, some teacher educators are skeptical about measuring something as broad and unruly as how teacher training translates into student achievement.
Researchers have been trying to untie that knot for years, said Nathan Stevenson, assistant professor of special education at Kent State University. Though research points to which instructional practices and strategies raise achievement, there are still many questions on how to scale them effectively.
“So then when you step back another level and say, how are we going to rank institutions that are producing these teachers that are trying to affect change for students?” Stevenson said, “You add a layer of complexity. We already didn’t have a clean way to investigate these problems, not to mention doing it on a national scale. It’s hard to capture what’s really going on.”
Teachers themselves seem to recognize that, even with good training, reaching individual students who struggle to read isn’t easy. Hannah Hughes feels confident in her understanding of reading, but her students come to school with their own challenges. She has noticed, she said, that her struggling readers often don’t read outside of school or are dealing with issues related to poverty—something over which she has little control.
Yet Hughes’s training provided her with enough background knowledge to address some of those reading challenges, and she said her students have seen growth so far this year. Some of her “bubble kids”—students reading well who still need help with specific deficits— started the year at 40 words per minute and are now reading about 70 words per minute.
Karen Keith feels hopeful that the work that the university has put into giving teachers science-backed reading instruction methods will transform students’ lives.
“I convey this to faculty all the time,” Keith said. “What you are doing is changing the lives of the people of this region and beyond.”