Applying the Science of Reading

There is a national crisis. Several may come to mind as you read that statement, but I’m referring to the national reading crisis. Those of you familiar with my work and this blog know I talk frequently about dyslexia, but this blog isn’t about the difficulties dyslexics face in learning to read. It’s about the fact that teachers still aren’t being taught the most effective methods to teach reading, and this lack of efficacy in our educational system is impacting people in all walks of life, not just those with language-based learning challenges. Reading failure is invasive and cumulative:

  • 66% of all students fail to reach grade-level reading skills by 4th grade, and most never catch up
  • By the 9th grade, most of that 66% are reading at the third-grade level and have a third-grade vocabulary to match
  • All students benefit from explicit, multisensory reading instruction, and 46% of students can’t learn to read without it
  • 32 million Americans are illiterate
  • 14% of the population can’t read well enough to fill out an employment application

We are already one-fifth of the way into the twenty-first century, so why is so little changing in the way teachers are educated? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but the most direct answer appears to be that the educational system is slow to acknowledge and embrace the science of teaching reading. This science that has been around for decades is nearly as invisible as a cloaked Romulan Warbird.

This invisibility isn’t an accident or caused by a lack of accessibility, rather, in point of fact, it is largely by choice. In his seminal book, Leaving Johnny Behind, educator and former principal Anthony Pedriana shares his experience in searching for evidence-based reading instruction methods and his uphill battle to implement them. Spoiler Alert: Implementation didn’t go well—it met with substantive resistance of every imaginable sort.

Pedriana asks the questions, “Why is it that many educators simply won’t use research evidence to guide their practices?” To put a finer point on it, “If research is so critical to continually improving practice in other fields relevant to the health and welfare of children, then why do those on the front lines of education, such as teachers and administrators, frequently view research in education as trivial or irrelevant?” Most educators, for example, have heard that phonemic awareness (learning the different sounds letters can make) is essential to a child’s reading efficacy, yet the dissemination and implementation of these crucial findings rarely happens.

In my research on the reading/literacy crisis, I appreciated Pedriana’s sensibilities about the effect of the philosophy of postmodernism. Postmodernism declares that truth is relative, in the eye of the beholder, not absolute, and that cause-and-effect principles do not exist. Therefore, scientific methods that seek to identify cause-and-effect patterns are not useful to postmodern decision making and practice in the field of education. Indeed, education embraces a decidedly anti-scientific spirit that nullifies the perceived value of research. The result? Instead of applying the sound learning principles that lay the foundation to help every child become a reader, the educational system largely employs a “wait-to-fail” approach. And by the time that failure occurs, tremendous academic and emotional damage has been done to the student. A child’s inability to derive meaning from print sets him or her up for a lifelong string of frustrations, failure, and a poor self-concept.

But, you may ask, what about the billions of tax dollars being spent annually to offer continuing education to the nation’s teachers? Boon Philanthropy, which helps fund evidence-based, explicit, multisensory training for teachers observes that the 18 billion dollars spent in 2018 were largely spent on ineffective programs. Of the more than twelve hundred on-the-job professional development programs offered, only nine were found to be effective. Nine out of twelve hundred! If only nine of every twelve hundred meals you ate contained any nourishment, you would starve to death in very short order. And that’s exactly what’s happening to students: they are starving for genuine nourishment when it comes to the most effective ways to learn to read.

I saw the truth of this statistic in real time recently. I was doing a presentation on dyslexia and the science of reading for a group of professionals in another region that had a higher-than-average number of trained reading/dyslexia specialists. I was anticipating an energetic, lively interchange after my address, which did take place, but the dialog was a bit different than I expected. Without exception, every one of these caring, passionate, experienced educators shared that they had never heard about the scientific findings I discussed. All were trained/certified in various modalities and had spent countless hours in continuing education (often at their own expense) to bring their best talents to the educational table, but none had been trained in the science-based, evidence-based systems I was discussing. While I enjoyed the experience (as I always do), and I met some delightful people, it was a reminder of how far we all have to go to begin to turn the tide on the reading crisis.

Where do we go from here? As concerned parents, grandparents, and educators, let’s get curious about what the life’s work of the best brain scientists tells us about how kids actually learn to read best—through explicit, multisensory reading instruction. I have a number of accessible resources for you. You can’t ask for what your child needs if you don’t know what is available and what works. Whether your child has dyslexia or not, the information included describes the methods that work best for all children. And as always, do your best to spend time regularly reading together with your child. Doing so teaches them how print works, (right to left, top to bottom), encourages phonemic awareness, and helps them develop a love of good books and stories to help them persevere as readers. All the best in your journey of discovery!

To learn more about how every student best learns to read, I recommend Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist Faith Borkowsky

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the new CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators.

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