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Another Voice: Teachers need to fully understand the science of reading

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As elementary teachers return to school this fall, they will undoubtedly contend with one of education’s hottest topics: the “science of reading.” But getting the science right will require more than a workshop or a new program. It will take critical evaluation of curriculum and instruction informed by research on how children learn to read and how best to teach them.

While the term “science of reading” is not new (“The Science of Reading: A Handbook” was first published in 2005), it has made its way into the discourse through popular journalism, such as Emily Hanford’s reporting in American Public Media, and the inevitable marketing of the term by publishers. Many educators have turned to social media and workshops to learn about the science of reading in efforts to meet the needs of their students. Elementary students have made less progress in reading over the past three school years due to Covid-related interruptions that have especially impacted racially and socioeconomically minoritized groups.

It is true that scientific research on reading has much to say about effective practices for teaching children how to read at all stages of development. However, teachers are unlikely to find one curriculum or set of instructional materials that will meet all students’ needs. As educators are faced with making decisions about which to use, it will be more important than ever to evaluate whether the new products are supported by research.

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As a reading researcher, one of the resources I often recommend to teachers across the country is the What Works Clearinghouse, a digital library operated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences.

The What Works Clearinghouse regularly publishes practice guides that provide research-based recommendations for teachers. One guide includes best practices for teaching foundational skills, including phonemic awareness (the ability to identify and manipulate speech sounds in words), phonics, fluency and vocabulary. Another guide provides recommendations for teaching the ability to extract and construct meaning from text, which is the ultimate goal of reading and must be part of any instruction based on the science of reading.

Another tool I recommend is the rubric for evaluating reading/language arts instructional materials for K-5, from What Works Clearinghouse. Before implementing a new curriculum or materials that claim to be based on the science of reading, educators looking to get the science right this year will be better off if they take the extra step to evaluate whether what they are being sold is sound.

John Z. Strong is assistant professor of literacy education in the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo.

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