At the Ferguson Institute, a gathering of top school leaders from across the country last October in Chicago, I was privileged to host a conversation among four leading practitioners with decades of reading research and implementation expertise credited to them. It was comforting to hear how resonant and affirming their perspectives are around what we must do—this time—to get reading instruction right in our schools.
You have been doing phenomenal work on the front lines, but big systemic changes must serve the new era. I’ve collected the following quotes from four experts, followed by my suggestions on what that might look like in practice as a way to increase your impact and allow you the pleasure of success with your students.
“In order for our students to get it right, and this movement to get it right, the leaders have to get it right first.”
—Dr. Kiana Pendleton
The flurry of widespread, mandated teacher training has come and gone, fueled by a genuine and shared sense of urgency from educators, legislators, and families. The recent energy around the Science of Reading in the popular press has finally brought this issue to the forefront, turning up the volume and thrusting it into the center of pop culture—with investigative journalists, filmmakers, and our most pedigreed academics all giving ink and airtime to “the movement.” Now, even laypeople understand that there’s scientific evidence on how to teach children to read, making it non-negotiable in daily practice as we teach every child to read once and for all.
“There is no virtue in showing fidelity to a flawed program . . . show fidelity to the research.”
—Dr. Ray Reutzel
Our last mucky trek into “basic skills” was Reading First, originally an accountability model that morphed into an instructional paradigm. Its tragic flaw—the heaviness, the undoability of “sanctioned” comprehensive core reading programs at the time (many still masquerading as options today)—led to its epic failure at the implementation phase, leaving little to show for the enormous effort and expense. Let that cautionary tale temper any overreliance on the vetting organizations who bless today’s available offerings.
Right now, discerning leaders and educators like you committed to the Science of Reading will be wise to focus sharply on the science of instruction as you chart your course with curriculum. A well-versed group of reading experts at the school level should look closely before investing in any set of material for both high quality and manageability and ask these critical questions:
- Is there evidence of the latest science in the daily instructional design?
- How current are the citations in the research base?
- Does the clarity of delivery greatly raise the potential for all teachers to “enact” the latest findings on what works at all in the interdependent phases of skills acquisition?
- Are the pacing and content replicable for a real human in the time block allotted in your setting?
“We know more about what goes on in a child’s brain when they’re learning to read than we ever have. How can I provide instruction in multiple tiers throughout reading instruction, and not after, to guarantee equity?”
Getting it right this time also means taking a “yes, and” approach to the text we make available to students. Years ago, Dr. Jeanne R. Paratore, professor emerita at Boston University, asserted her proven multi-text model: different text types for different tasks—decoding, guiding comprehension with “just-right” texts, and the resolute access to grade-level text for all. When we only provide a steady diet of lesser-than text, we close a portion of our students out of the language, vocabulary, syntax, and knowledge they need and deserve. As Greenberg suggests above, let us adopt a “lanes over levels” approach to access, where we apply what a student “can do” as a lane in, or a scaffold, to grade-level and stretch text.
“The Science of Reading and science of instruction is not just opinion. It is evidence based and continues to evolve.”
—Dr. Anita Archer
The science never stands still, and neither should we. Consider, for example, the research on connected phonation that emerged in 2020. The more we learn and remain open to progress and being curious about practices, the closer we get to steering away from the fray of discord that held us back to the wide-open world of success and impact. It is our time; it is our generation of leaders steeped in science and technology that is closing in on the long-sought dream of a full, literate life for all.