Educators zero in on reading and literacy practices

Educators, administrators and policymakers gathered at the Statehouse Thursday for a conversation about one of the most complex issues facing public schools — why students aren’t learning to read.

With test scores dipping and stagnating across the country, concerns about student reading levels have escalated over the past decade, especially considering COVID-19 learning loss, and increased awareness about reading challenges like dyslexia.

So as education leaders began to reexamine the way schools teach reading, some landed on “the science of reading,” a body of research that digs into the way kids learn to read, and what literacy models are and aren’t getting students where they need to be.

Thursday’s forum was broadcast by Idaho Public Television. A link will be available at a later date.

That research was the focal point of Thursday’s forum, sponsored by education services nonprofit Bluum. Journalist Emily Hanford, who has spent years digging into the reading problem, spoke at the event.

A dive into how students learn to read

Hanford’s award-winning investigative podcast, Sold a Story, upended long-held beliefs.

Teachers across America have been, and still are, teaching reading based on expired research, Hanford says. And it creates a literacy gap that disproportionately harms students of color and low-income students.

Kids in elementary classrooms across the country learn “cueing,” a strategy that directs them to skip words that they don’t know when reading, and use pictures, sentence context and individual letters to try to figure out its meaning.

But students need a combination of decoding and word recognition, as well as phonics and language comprehension, in order to understand what they read. But cueing skips the process that allows a young reader to commit a word to memory — instead of sounding out words, students learn that reading is about looking at photos or contextual information outside of a word itself.

“That is not the way skilled readers read,” Hanford said. “That’s the way struggling readers read. Struggling readers use cues.”

And ultimately, that long-held practice leaves behind those struggling readers, and doesn’t give teachers the tools to help them catch up — widening an already prevalent literacy gap.

Throughout her time investigating reading, Hanford spoke with parents of struggling students. They expressed their frustrations with reading education openly, and ultimately took actions either inside or outside their district to come up with options — meaning the wealthy families ended up with solutions (like diagnostic testing, tutoring, private schooling, etc.) that lower-income families couldn’t access.

The reading problem is complex, said Hanford. Even educating every teacher in the country about the science of reading and encouraging them to implement science-based practices in the classroom wouldn’t solve it. From school funding to teacher pay to curriculum selection to state policy to teacher preparation programs, a medley of things factor into teaching kids to read.

“We don’t have a system that is making this easy on anyone,” Hanford said.

Following Hanford’s discussion, the crowd heard from two Idaho charter school leaders who have begun to implement new reading curricula and practices in their schools — the results are palpable, they said.

State superintendent Debbie Critchfield closed out the meeting, sharing her own passion for the science of reading, which formed one of the main tenets of her 2022 campaign.

Within the past few years, Idaho passed legislation regarding reading practices and dyslexia training in schools to help fill the literacy gap. Education takes up over 50% of the state budget, and reading is a top priority for Gov. Brad Little.

Critchfield said she’s excited about what the future of reading education in Idaho holds.

“There’s a momentum in our state to make significant progress,” she said. “That is very exciting to me.”

Bluum and Idaho EdNews are both funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber

Sadie Dittenber, a former reporter with Ed News that focused on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley.

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