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Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science Essay

Preface Executive Summary Preventing Reading Failure: A Top Priority for Education Where We Are: Taking Stock of Teacher Preparation in Reading The Difficulty of Teaching Reading Has Been Underestimated / 11 Why Have Teachers Been Left Unprepared? / 11 The Knowledge Base for Teaching Reading Is Hidden, Extensive, and Complex / 11 Meaningful Professional Standards Are Absent / 12 Good Information Is Hard To Get / 14 Classroom Instructional Programs Are Uninformative / 14 Can We Do Better?

/14 Toward a Curriculum for Teacher Preparation and Inservice Professional Development Knowledge of the Psychology of Reading and Reading Development / 16 Basic Facts About Reading / 16 The Characteristics of Poor and Novice Readers / 18 How Reading and Spelling Develop / 18 Language: The Foundation for Reading Instruction / 20 Practical Skills of Instruction in a Comprehensive Reading Program / 21 Opportunities for Supervised Experience / 21 Use of Validated Instructional Practices / 21 Assessment of Classroom Reading and Writing Skills / 24 Where We Need To Go:

Changing Teacher Preparation and Professional Development in Reading In Sum End Notes References Appendix A—Knowledge and Skills for Teaching Reading: A Core Curriculum for Teacher Candidates 5 7 9 11 16 25 28 29 30 33 TEACHING READING IS ROCKET SCIENCE / 3 Teaching reading is a job for an expert. Preface R eading is the fundamental skill upon which all formal education depends. Research now shows that a child who doesn’t learn the reading basics early is unlikely to learn them at all. Any child who doesn’t learn to read early and well will not easily master other skills and knowledge, and is unlikely to ever flourish in school or in life.

Low reading achievement, more than any other factor, is the root cause of chronically low-performing schools, which harm students and contribute to the loss of public confidence in our school system. When many children don’t learn to read, the public schools cannot and will not be regarded as successful—and efforts to dismantle them will proceed. Thanks to new scientific research—plus a long-awaited scientific and political consensus around this research—the knowledge exists to teach all but a handful of severely disabled children to read well.

This report discusses the current state of teacher preparation in reading in relation to that research. It reviews and describes the knowledge base and essential skills that teacher candidates and practicing teachers must master if they are to be successful in teaching all children to read well. Finally, the report makes recommendations for improving the system of teacher education and professional development. In medicine, if research found new ways to save lives, health care professionals would adopt these methods as quickly as possible, and would change practices, procedures, and systems.

Educational research has found new ways to save young minds by helping them to become proficient readers; it is up to us to promote these new methods throughout the education system. Young lives depend on it. And so does the survival of public education. The urgent task before us is for university faculty and the teaching community to work together to develop programs that can help assure that all teachers of reading have access to this knowledge. TEACHING READING IS ROCKET SCIENCE / 5

To understand printed language well enough to teach it explicitly requires disciplined study of its systems and forms, both spoken and written. Executive Summary T he most fundamental responsibility of schools is teaching students to read. Indeed, the future success of all students hinges upon their ability to become proficient readers. Recent scientific studies have allowed us to understand more than ever before how literacy develops, why some children have difficulty, and what constitutes best instructional practice.

Scientists now estimate that fully 95 percent of all children can be taught to read. Yet, in spite of all our knowledge, statistics reveal an alarming prevalence of struggling and poor readers that is not limited to any one segment of society: s About 20 percent of elementary students nationwide have significant problems learning to read. At least 20 percent of elementary students do not read fluently enough to enjoy or engage in independent reading. The rate of reading failure for AfricanAmerican, Hispanic, limited-English speakers and poor children ranges from 60 percent to 70 percent.

One-third of poor readers nationwide are from college-educated families. Twenty-five percent of adults in this country lack the basic literacy skills required in a typical job. s s ameliorated by literacy instruction that includes a range of research-based components and practices. But, as the statistics testify, this type of instruction clearly has not made its way into every classroom. Indeed, a chasm exists between classroom instructional practices and the research knowledge-base on literacy development.

Part of the responsibility for this divide lies with teacher preparation programs, many of which, for a variety of reasons, have failed to adequately prepare their teacher candidates to teach reading. Fortunately, this situation is being corrected, thanks in large part to recent basic research on reading that has allowed the community of reading scientists and educators to agree on what needs to be done. This new information about language, reading, and writing is just beginning to shape teacher preparation and instructional programs.

This knowledge must also form the basis of high-quality professional development for practicing teachers. s s What Does the Research Say About Effective Reading Instruction? Well-designed, controlled comparisons of instructional approaches have consistently supported these components and practices in reading instruction: s Research indicates that, although some children will learn to read in spite of incidental teaching, others never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic, efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach.

And, while many students from high-risk environments come to school less prepared for literacy than their more advantaged peers, their risk of reading difficulties could still be prevented and Direct teaching of decoding, comprehension, and literature appreciation; Phoneme awareness instruction; Systematic and explicit instruction in the code system of written English;

Daily exposure to a variety of texts, as well as incentives for children to read s s s TEACHING READING IS ROCKET SCIENCE / 7 independently and with others; s Vocabulary instruction that includes a variety of complementary methods designed to explore the relationships among words and the relationships among word structure, origin, and meaning; Comprehension strategies that include prediction of outcomes, summarizing, clarification, questioning, and visualization; and Frequent writing of prose to enable a deeper understanding of what is read.

Changing Teacher Preparation and Professional Development in Reading If higher standards and substantive courses of preparation are adopted now, the two million new teachers projected over the next decade may be equipped to minimize reading failure in all but a small percentage of students. To achieve that goal, a range of initiatives needs to be considered: s s s s Research should guide the profession. Core requirements and standards for new teachers should be established.

Teacher education programs should be aligned with standards for students and licensing requirements for teachers. Professional development institutes should be created for professors of education and master teachers. Developers of textbooks and instructional materials should be encouraged to improve their products. High-quality professional development must be available for teachers. An investment in teaching should be made to attract and retain high-caliber teacher candidates.

Toward a Curriculum for Teacher Preparation and Inservice Professional Development Because classroom instruction, more than any other factor, is crucial in preventing reading problems, it is a primary focus for effecting change. A comprehensive redesign of teacher preparation in reading instruction, founded on a core curriculum that defines the knowledge and skills necessary for effective practice, is vital to improved classroom instruction. Such a research-based core curriculum would provide much more extensive, demanding, and content-driven training to inform classroom practice.

Specifically, a core curriculum for teacher preparation must include components for: s s s s s s Understanding reading psychology and development; Understanding the structure of the English language; Applying best practices in all aspects of reading instruction; and Using validated, reliable, efficient assessments to inform classroom teaching. s s s This core curriculum can also serve as the basis for inservice professional development for the vast number of current teachers who have not been exposed to the research-based knowledge.

The fact that teachers need better training to carry out deliberate instruction in reading, spelling, and writing should prompt action rather than criticism. It should highlight the existing gap between what teachers need and what they have been given. It should underscore the obligation of teacher preparation programs to provide candidates with a rigorous, research-based curriculum and opportunities to practice a range of predefined skills and knowledge, as well as the need for licensing authorities to assess that knowledge.

The knowledge and skills inherent in effective reading programs must be part of every teacher’s reading instruction repertoire. Good, research-based teacher preparation programs, coupled with high-quality professional development for classroom teachers, can assure that this is so. 8 / AFT TEACHERS Preventing Reading Failure: A Top Priority for Education I n today’s literate world, academic success, secure employment, and personal autonomy depend on reading and writing proficiency. All children who are capable of reading must be taught how to read; such is the fundamental responsibility of schooling.

Although educators have long understood the importance of literacy, a series of recent studies goes a long way in elucidating the chain of cause and effect that supports the development of literacy. Convergent findings of high-quality research have clarified how children learn to read and what must be done to ensure that they do. Beyond doubt, reading early links one benefit to another. Enjoyment of reading, exposure to the language in books, and attainment of knowledge about the world all accrue in greater measure to those who have learned how to read before the end of first grade.

Difficulty with the first steps of reading, in contrast, eventually undermines vocabulary growth, knowledge of the world, mastery of language, and skill in writing. Once behind in reading, few children catch up unless they receive intensive, individual, and expert instruction, a scarce (and expensive) commodity in most schools. 1 Far too many children have trouble reading and writing. About 20 percent of elementary students nationwide have significant problems learning to read; at least another 20 percent do not read fluently enough to enjoy or engage in independent reading.

Thus it should not be surprising that, according to the United States Office of Technology, 25 percent of the adult population lacks the basic literacy skills required in a typical job. 2 Among those who do not make it in life—school dropouts, incarcerated individuals, unemployed and underemployed adults—are high percentages of people who cannot read. 3 Such realities have prompted the National Institutes of Health to regard reading development and reading difficulty as a major public health concern.

For poor, minority children who attend low-performing urban schools, the incidence of reading failure is astronomical and completely unacceptable. AfricanAmerican, Hispanic, limited-English speaking students, and those from impoverished homes fall behind and stay behind in far greater proportion than their white, middle-class counterparts. The rate of reading failure in these groups is 60 percent to 70 percent according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 4 This figure alone explains much about the poor academic achievement of minority students and why they are under-represented in professions that depend on higher education.

Environment, however, does not explain all. Many children from more advantaged, literacy-rich environments have trouble learning to read, and many children from high-risk environments do indeed learn to read. 5 California recently initiated a series of laws to reform reading education after 49 percent of students of college-educated parents scored “below basic” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. One-third of poor readers nationwide are from college-educated families who presumably encourage literacy in the home. The tragedy here is that most reading failure is unnecessary.

We now know that classroom teaching itself, when it includes a range of research-based components and practices, can prevent and ameliorate reading difficulty. Although home factors do influence how well and how soon stu- TEACHING READING IS ROCKET SCIENCE / 9 Learning to read is not natural or easy for most children. Reading is an acquired skill. dents read, informed classroom instruction that targets specific language and reading skills beginning in kindergarten enhances success for all but a few students with moderate or severe learning disabilities.

Scientists now estimate that 95 percent of all children can be taught to read at a level constrained only by their reasoning and listening comprehension abilities. 6 It is clear that students in high-risk populations need not fail at the rate they do. 7 When placed into schools with effective principals and well-prepared and wellsupported teachers, African-American, Hispanic, or students who are economically disadvantaged can learn to read as well as their more advantaged peers.

8 Further, students who lack the prerequisite awareness of sounds, symbols, and word meanings can overcome their initial disadvantage if teachers incorporate critical skills into lessons directly, systematically, and actively. 9 Thus, while parents, tutors, and the community can contribute to reading success, classroom instruction must be viewed as the critical factor in preventing reading problems and must be the primary focus for change. Ensuring effective classroom instructional practice is well within the purview of educational policymakers.

10 / AFT TEACHERS Where We Are: Taking Stock of Teacher Preparation in Reading The Difficulty of Teaching Reading Has Been Underestimated Teaching reading is a job for an expert. Contrary to the popular theory that learning to read is natural and easy, learning to read is a complex linguistic achievement. For many children, it requires effort and incremental skill development. Moreover, teaching reading requires considerable knowledge and skill, acquired over several years through focused study and supervised practice.

Consider what the classroom demands of the teacher. Children’s interest in reading must be stimulated through regular exposure to interesting books and through discussions in which students respond to many kinds of texts. For best results, the teacher must instruct most students directly, systematically, and explicitly to decipher words in print, all the while keeping in mind the ultimate purpose of reading, which is to learn, enjoy, and understand. To accommodate children’s variability, the teacher must assess children and tailor lessons to individuals.

She must interpret errors, give corrective feedback, select examples to illustrate concepts, explain new ideas in several ways, and connect linguistic symbols with “real” reading and writing. No one can develop such expertise by taking one or two college courses, or attending a few one-shot inservice workshops. Although reading is the cornerstone of academic success, a single course in reading methods is often all that is offered most prospective teachers. Even if well taught, a single course is only the beginning.

Without deeper knowledge, the specific techniques of lesson delivery cannot be acquired, let alone knowledge of language, reading psychology, children’s literature, or the management of a reading program based on assessment. The demands of competent reading instruction, and the training experiences necessary to learn it, have been seriously underestimated by universities and by those who have approved licensing programs. The consequences for teachers and students alike have been disastrous.

Why Have Teachers Been Left Unprepared? Why are the stringent demands of teaching reading and writing unrecognized in the design of preparation programs? In reading, at least, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge may play as big a role as institutional politics and budgetary constraints. What drives the mind of the reader is neither self-evident nor easy to grasp, and, consequently, many years of scientific inquiry have been necessary to expose the mechanisms of reading acquisition.

Only recently has basic research allowed the community of reading scientists and educators to agree on what needs to be done. This new information about language, reading, and writing is just beginning to shape teacher preparation and instructional programs. This knowledge must also form the basis of inservice professional development for practicing teachers.

The Knowledge Base for Teaching Reading Is Hidden, Extensive, and Complex Reading education is a field more vulnerable than many to faddish practices that TEACHING READING IS ROCKET SCIENCE / 11 later prove to be untenable. Such is the risk whenever a human trait that becomes the subject of education is poorly understood.

To appreciate why reading is one of psychology’s more mysterious phenomena, we must consider the nature of the linguistic communication that reading requires. Skilled reading happens too fast and is too automatic to detect its underlying processes through simple introspection. We read, but we cannot watch how our minds make sense out of print. The linkage of sounds and symbols occurs rapidly and unconsciously.

The linguistic units that compose words, the single speech sounds (phonemes), syllables, and meaningful parts (morphemes), are automatically matched with writing symbols so that attention is available for comprehension. 10 Because our attention is on meaning, we are not aware of the code translation process by which meaning is conveyed. Until we are faced with a class of children who are learning how to read symbols that represent speech sounds and word parts, we may never have analyzed language at the level required for explaining and teaching it.

Similarly, we may not know how a paragraph is organized or how a story is put together until we teach writing to students who do not know how to organize their thoughts. Thus, to understand printed language well enough to teach it explicitly requires disciplined study of its systems and forms, both spoken and written. When adults are evaluated on knowledge of language, even those who are educated exhibit rudimentary or cursory familiarity with concepts about our writing system that are insufficient for teaching children.

Surveys measuring experienced teachers’ ability to identify speech sounds, spelling patterns, and word structures reveal confusions that are typical of most adults. 11 For example, the concept that a letter combination can represent one unique speech sound (ch, wh, sh, th, ng)—is unclear to a surprising number of elementary teachers. Many identify these units by rote but are unable to differentiate conceptually between these spelling units (digraphs) and two letters that stand for two distinct sounds (consonant blends

such as cl, st, pr) or silent letter spellings that retain the sound of one consonant (kn-, wr-, -mb). Few adults can explain common spelling patterns that correspond to pronunciation and word meaning, such as why we double the consonant letters in words like misspell, dinner, and accommodate. A deeper, explicit level of knowledge may not be necessary to read the words, but it is necessary to explain pronunciation and spelling, where the words came from, and how spelling is related to meaning.

12 Some children learn language concepts and their application very easily in spite of incidental teaching, but others never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic, efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach. Children of average ability might learn enough about reading to get by, but may not develop the appreciation for language structure that supports learning words from context, organization of the mental dictionary, comparing words, or precise use of language.

13 Yet teachers are seldom asked to study the language they teach or how its form carries its message. In addition, teachers are not born knowing the relationships among the basic skills of reading and reading comprehension. They may see that children read poorly in the middle and upper grades, but may not understand that proficiency in basic reading skill must be taught before students will progress. Without instruction and practice, teachers are unlikely to develop the questioning techniques and discussion strategies that promote thoughtful reading by groups of children. 14 Meaningful Professional Standards Are Absent

Other complex and demanding professions insist on much more stringent training and preparation than that required of teachers. Pilots, engineers, optometrists, and art therapists, for example, must learn concepts, facts, and skills to a prescribed level, must conduct their practice under supervision, and must pass rigorous entry 12 / AFT TEACHERS examinations that are standardized across the profession. Continuing education to stay abreast of proven best practices is mandated. The public interest is protected by professional governing boards that monitor the knowledge base and oversee the competence of these licensed professionals.

We, the consumers of these professional services, should be able to trust that any person holding a license has demonstrated competence and is accountable to his or her professional board of governance. No such rules or standards assure that teachers who instruct children in reading have mastered the relevant knowledge base and acquired the necessary skills. Even within large universities that prepare hundreds of teachers every year, there may be no curricular specifications or standards. What a teacher candidate learns depends on the professor he or she selects.

What the professor teaches is determined solely by what the professor may know or believe. Courses in reading, which are typically limited to three credit TEACHING READING IS ROCKET SCIENCE / 13 hours, are often taught by adjunct faculty who are accountable to no one. 15 Thus, preparation for teaching reading often is more grounded in ideology than evidence. 16 While the academic freedom that professors often invoke has a place in teacher education, its claim is not as absolute as it may be in the humanities.

17 Professional preparation programs have a responsibility to teach a defined body of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are based on the best research in the field. This is no less important in reading18 than it is in medicine or the law. Good Information Is Hard To Get Few of today’s popular textbooks for teacher preparation in reading contain information about the known relationships between linguistic awareness, word recognition ability, and reading comprehension. Few discuss in any useful detail how the English writing system represents speech.

Basic concepts such as the differences between speech sounds and spellings, the fact that every syllable in English is organized around a vowel sound, and the existence of meaningful units (morphemes) in the Latin layer of English (about 60 percent of running text) are rarely explained. Few texts contain accurate information about the role of phonology in reading development, and few explain with depth, accuracy, or clarity why many children have trouble learning to read or what to do about it. Teachers are often given inaccurate and misleading information based on unsupported ideas.

For example, in the recent past, one of the most common misconceptions has been that knowledge of the phonic system can be finessed with awareness of sentence structure and meaning. 19 Textbooks for teachers must attain a much higher standard of accuracy, currency, depth, clarity, and relevance if teachers are to be wellprepared to teach reading. 20 learn about spoken and written language concepts and to generate strategies for teaching students to read. Major classroom textbooks in language arts omit systematic teaching about speech sounds, the spelling system, or how to read words by sounding them out.

21 The most popular programs being used today are appropriately strong on literature, illustrations, cross-disciplinary thematic units, and motivational strategies for children, but very weak or simply wrong when it comes to the structure of English and how children actually learn to read the words on the page. 22 A recent review of major classroom reading programs shows that they continue to lack the content necessary to teach basic reading systematically and explicitly. 23 Can We Do Better?

Comprehensive redesign of teacher preparation and inservice professional development is possible, but it must begin with a definition of the knowledge and skills necessary for effective practice and demonstration of how these are best learned.

Fortunately, leaders in the field— including the National Research Council panel on the Prevention of Reading Difficulties in Young Children and the member organizations of the Learning First Alliance—have reached consensus regarding the agenda for change. 24 They agree that new teachers require much more extensive, demanding, and contentdriven training if discoveries from the reading sciences are to inform classroom practice.

Specifically, teachers must understand the basic psychological processes in reading, how children develop reading skill, how good readers differ from poor readers, how the English language is structured in spoken and written form, and the validated principles of effective reading instruction. The ability to design and deliver lessons to academically diverse learners, to select validated instructional methods and materials, and use assessments to tailor instruction are all central to effective teaching.

Classroom Instructional Programs Are Uninformative Inadequately prepared novice teachers often find themselves dependent on the information given in teachers’ manuals to 14 / AFT TEACHERS Only recently has basic research allowed the community of reading scientists and educators to agree on what needs to be done. Toward a Curriculum for Teacher Preparation and Inservice Professional Development core curriculum for teacher preparation and inservice professional development can be divided roughly into the following four areas: s A.

Understanding knowledge of reading psychology and development; Understanding knowledge of language structure which is the content of instruction; Applying best practices in all aspects of reading instruction; and Using validated, reliable, efficient assessments to inform classroom teaching. s s s This core will, of course, be supplemented and honed in time, but its goal is to bring continuity, consistency, and comprehensiveness to preservice teacher education and to focus the content of continuing education and graduate programs.

(For specific details on the curriculum content in these four areas see Appendix A. ) Knowledge of the Psychology of Reading and Reading Development Basic Facts About Reading If the findings of research psychologists, educators, and linguists were better known, the risk of unfounded and even harmful teaching practices would be reduced.

Learning to read is not natural or easy for most children. Reading is an acquired skill, unlike spoken language, which is learned with almost any kind of contextual exposure. If learning to read were as natural as acquiring spoken lan-guage, many more societies would have written languages; human beings would have invented writing systems many thousands of years before we did; and everyone would learn reading as easily as ducks learn to swim.

The prolonged, gradual, and predictable progression of skill in print translation attests to the difference between processing spoken and written language. Although surrounding children with books will enhance reading development, a “literature-rich environment” is not sufficient for learning to read. Neither will exposure to print ordinarily be sufficient for learning to spell, unless organized practice is provided.

Thus, teachers must be reflective and knowledgeable about the content they are teaching, that is, the symbol system itself and its relationship to meaning. Research has shown that good readers do not skim and sample the text when they scan a line in a book. 25 They process the letters of each word in detail, although they do so very rapidly and unconsciously. Those who comprehend well accomplish letter-wise text scanning with relative ease and fluency. When word identification is fast and accurate, a reader has ample mental energy to think over the meaning of the text.

Knowledge of sound-symbol mapping is crucial in developing word recognition: the ability to sound out and recognize words accounts for about 80 percent of the variance in first-grade reading comprehension and continues to be a major (albeit diminishing) factor in text comprehension as students progress through the grades. 26 The ability to sound out words is, in fact, a major underpinning that allows rapid recognition of words “by sight. ” 16 / AFT TEACHERS Language knowledge and language proficiency differentiate good and poor readers.

Before children can easily sound out or decode words, they must have at least an implicit awareness of the speech sounds that are represented by symbolic units (letters and their combinations). Children who learn to read well are sensitive to linguistic structure; recognize redundant patterns; and connect letter patterns with sounds, syllables, and meaningful word parts quickly, accurately, and unconsciously. 27 Effective teaching of reading entails these concepts, presented in an order in which children can learn them. The Characteristics of Poor and Novice Readers.

Experts agree that reading and writing call primarily on deep linguistic processing, not on more peripheral auditory or visual perceptual skills. Language knowledge and language proficiency differentiate good and poor readers. As they begin to learn, poor readers are not less intelligent or less motivated; they are, however, less skilled with language, especially at the level of elemental linguistic units smaller than whole words. For this reason, they benefit from instruction that develops awareness of sounds, syllables, meaningful word parts, relationships among word meanings, and the structures of written text.

The language skills that most reliably distinguish good and poor readers are specific to the phonological or speechsound processing system. Those skills include awareness of linguistic units that lie within a word (consonants, vowels, syllables, grammatical endings, meaningful parts, and the spelling units that represent them) and fluency in recognition and recall of letters and spelling patterns that make up words. Thus, skilled reading presents a paradox: Those who can most easily make sense of text are also those who can most easily read nonsense.

For example, children who comprehend well when they read also do better at tasks such as reading words taken out of context, sounding out novel words, and spelling nonsense words. 28 Intelligence and verbal reasoning ability do not predict reading success in the beginning stages as well as these specific linguistic skills. Although the purpose of reading is to comprehend text, teachers should also appreciate the relationships among reading components in order to teach all components well—in connection to one another and with the emphasis needed at each stage of development.


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