Learning to Read: Why (Some) Schools Still Get It So Wrong

An interview with Professor Emily Solari

In The Family Firm, I write about how kids learn to read, and when the book came out, that section was excerpted in Lit Hub. In response, I got a lovely note from Emily Solari, an education professor at the University of Virginia, basically telling me very nicely that (at a minimum) there was more to be said on the topic. I was thrilled when she agreed to do an e-interview with me. Without further ado: check it out below. This is a long read, but I think anyone interested in reading, kids and reading, and reading policy will want to digest it in full. 

Emily Oster: Hi Emily! Thanks for e-chatting with me. I’m delighted to get to do it. I wanted to start by asking you to give an overview. Can you tell people who you are and what you do, and also a bit about why we’re having this conversation? You reached out to me in response to some writing in The Family Firm about reading and had a particular reaction/criticism/thought. I’d love for you to share your perspective on that.

Emily Solari: I am a professor of education at the University of Virginia. My work concentrates on translating scientific findings to classroom practice. Specifically, I focus on reading development — how reading develops, why some kids find learning to read difficult, and how we can provide evidence-based reading instruction in classroom settings. In your book, you highlight the decades-old debate related to how reading is taught in the nation’s schools. But just like most things in education, there is a complex history, as schools are complex systems.

How children learn how to read is, arguably, the most researched aspect of human learning. Decades of research from multiple disciplines has shown us the importance of early reading instruction concentrating on foundational reading skills — such as phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, and phonics. In your book, you discuss the evidence base and state that “in the end, phonics has returned, and this is most certainly what your child’s school will use.” However, a recent survey suggests that about 75% of teachers use curricula that teach early reading using a cueing approach, not explicitly and using systematic instruction in phonics or early reading foundational skills. Given the state of reading instruction in the country, I think it’s important that we are communicating with parents about the reality of the instruction their children may receive.

Emily Oster: There is a general depressing-ness to the idea that we’ve been researching this for decades, probably know something about it, and nevertheless are not engaged in best practices. And obviously, even for me, there is some confusion on the question of how much schools and teachers are really doing phonics. So: Can you give us an overview of what you mean by “cueing” and how it’s different from truly foundational phonics?

Emily Solari: Yes, there is for sure depressing-ness that we have invested a lot of money in researching reading development and that we do know something about it, and how it can most effectively be taught to kids in schools. The question “what is cueing” is a good one, and one that I get a lot. I do think it’s important to say how it is different from explicit and systematic phonics instruction — this allows parents to understand what they should be looking for in high-quality early reading instruction.

Cueing or prompting, also known as three-cueing or MSV (meaning, syntax, and visual) is related to how children are being taught to decode words. In cueing, children are directed toward using context clues and visual cues to read words. The way this plays out in classroom settings is through a series of instructional routines or prompts that students are taught with the intent to help them read words. These prompts are often promoted as decoding (word reading) strategies — or strategies that students should implement when they are learning to read and encounter words that they can’t read. Unfortunately, prompting or cueing does not teach decoding (word reading). Instead it teaches children to use a variety of strategies that allow them to do anything but read or decode the unknown word.

For example, if a child is reading a simple text and encounters the word jump — and they are stuck on this word — a curriculum using a cueing approach may have the teacher prompt them to figure out the word by looking at a picture, or ask them to think about what word would make sense in that space, or, one of my “favorites,” children are prompted to guess the word and see if it works. When we use prompts or cueing, we are encouraging kids to look around at the picture, at the context, at other parts of the page — and away from the word they are trying to read. Kids aren’t really reading if they are not looking at the word. Further, this gets more complicated as text becomes more complex. For example, we need to consider: What happens to the child who uses pictures as a prompt to read words when they arrive at a book that does not have a picture or the word that they are trying to figure out is not pictured? There is a good example of a parent testing this with a young reader in this video.

Alternatively, an explicit and systematic approach teaches students letter-sound correspondences, so that when children encounter new and unknown words, they can use their knowledge of letter sounds and spelling patterns to successfully sound out words. Specifically, when a child encounters an unknown word, such as jump, they would be asked to use their knowledge of each letter and its corresponding sound to figure the word out. Importantly, in a systematic and explicit approach, students’ knowledge of letter sounds and their orthographic representations (letters) is developed over time through a clear scope and sequence. This allows them to use this knowledge to successfully sound out words when they encounter them. Children need to be explicitly taught how to read words, and this does not happen by teaching them to guess words in text!

Importantly, learning to read is not the same as language development. Humans are not born with the ability to read words — it must be taught — and research has shown that when it is taught in an explicit and systematic manner, more than 90% of kids can be taught to read successfully. In the reading world, we often call these early literacy skills foundational reading skills — that is, the skills that are necessary for children to learn how to decode (read) words. These skills include phonological and phonemic awareness, alphabet knowledge, and phonics (letter-sound correspondence). 

Emily Oster: To play devil’s advocate here and push back: I have heard people argue that explicit phonics is boring, and that doing things like cueing or focusing on “balanced literacy” makes reading more fun for kids. This has the flavor of the argument that was made when it was argued that we should move away from phonics altogether. Thoughts on that? 

Emily Solari: I am really glad you asked this question. It is a common argument against the use of phonics and other early foundational reading skills in classrooms — that this type of instruction is boring for our youngest learners or that it can suck the joy out of reading. I get asked this question a lot.

First, and most importantly, advocates for evidence-based early foundational skills  instruction are not suggesting that the entirety of early literacy instruction should be phonics. That is, there is no recommendation that the English language arts block (the time that elementary classrooms dedicate to teaching reading and literacy — usually between 60 and 120 minutes per day) should be only phonics. This suggestion would be silly and would not provide all the early literacy instruction necessary to develop fluent readers who can comprehend what they read.

One of the most prominent and extensively researched frameworks for understanding reading development is the Simple View of Reading, which highlights the importance of both decoding (word reading) development and linguistic awareness, or oral language development. As such, teachers working with our youngest readers should include explicit and systematic instruction in alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, and phonics in order to effectively and efficiently teach students to decode words. At the same time, teachers need to engage in activities that promote students’ linguistic comprehension via instruction focusing on building vocabulary and background knowledge. We do this through engagement in high-quality read-alouds and vocabulary and oral language instruction across all content areas.

Second, the teaching of foundational skills, such as alphabet knowledge, phonemic awareness, and phonics, can and should be fun — and can be done efficiently during the English language arts block, so that it is not taking up the whole time. Phonics instruction has been given a bad rap by many, but the effective teaching of early foundational skills unlocks the code of reading for kids and allows kids to read words, and therefore comprehend what they read. Playing with sounds and words can be fun and game-like — and should be appropriately paced so that kids are being challenged but also able to practice enough that they are reaching mastery.

There is really no greater gift that a teacher can teach a child than how to accurately and fluently read words so that they can engage authentically with text — and young children need to be explicitly taught how to read. The reality is that we have decades of data showing how instruction should occur in classrooms. What most people don’t understand or do not want to understand is that the teaching of reading in ways that do not align with the scientific evidence base is ingrained in many of the teaching materials and curricula that teachers have at their fingertips. Further, when teachers are getting their teaching credentials, they are often not prepared to teach reading in an evidence-based way. I say this to remind folks that there should not be blame placed on teachers. Teachers are just one actor in a broad and complex educational system. Many teachers who I have worked with are surprised and shocked when they do learn about how they should be teaching early reading — aligned with the evidence base — when they think back to their own training.

One common rebuttal to the implementation of explicit and systematic early phonics instruction is that it does not foster a joy for reading. I would like to flip this and ask people to consider: It’s very hard to develop joy for reading if you can’t read. A child who is not taught how to read is a child who is more likely to become disengaged in school; they become frustrated and this impacts all academic content areas. 

Emily Oster: I will ask the obvious follow-up, which is why we aren’t teaching this well. If we know what to do — and if, as is my very strong assumption, we are all aligned on the idea that kids should be taught to read — why haven’t curricula or teacher training programs caught up? Are there places where they have? States or other entities that are doing this better?

Emily Solari: Yes, we are very much aligned that kids should be taught to read, and I would take that further — that kids deserve the best possible early reading instruction. To understand why we aren’t providing our youngest learners with the best possible instruction, there are a few important things to remember. First and foremost, if we want to improve reading achievement for all kids, we have to push on multiple levers simultaneously. There are many layers between basic science findings and teacher implementation that must be traversed.

There are some who will argue that this science is not settled — and this is true to some extent. The “science” on any human phenomenon or behavior is rarely completely settled. Behavioral science is constantly evolving, which makes it challenging to not only translate evidence-based findings into practice but also to convince the consumers of this knowledge (teachers and administrators) that we, as researchers, can be confident in our findings while simultaneously innovating and testing the effectiveness of new solutions. This is an ongoing challenge for all different types of educational research and remains an issue in the reading world. But we just know a lot about reading — and we understand the basic science of how children learn to read and why some have difficulty learning to read and write. The challenge has been the translation of this basic science into adequate instruction for our youngest learners.

Maybe it is useful to take the path of a potential teacher to better understand this complex system. We can start with teacher training. In 2019, an EdWeek survey found that 65% of college professors teach cueing to teachers they are training. Think about this — the very institutions that claim to be leading research institutions are not preparing teachers to teach reading based in science. Translational difficulties are apparent in institutions of higher education with a lack of communication and collaboration between the basic science disciplines that inform literacy development and colleges and schools of education. As such, there is a failure to apply the most current research knowledge to the training of our teachers because of deep-rooted philosophical differences in the best approach to teaching early literacy.

Next, a new teacher arrives at school to teach their first year. What do they have at their fingertips? It’s highly likely that they are provided with a curriculum that implements cueing strategies as the method to teach decoding/early reading, instead of evidence-based practices. The same 2019 EdWeek survey found that 75% of districts have purchased and implemented curricula in K-2 that employ cueing strategies. So, there is a failure to provide teachers with the necessary materials. A teacher is left to teach first what they have been trained to do and, second, with the materials their school has provided them.

As this teacher progresses through their career, they will likely continue to receive professional development that reinforces these ill-conceived (and not empirically supported) instructional routines for early reading instruction. There is evidence to suggest that teachers do not have awareness of evidence-based early reading instruction — and this is not a surprise given their lack of training and access to adequate teaching materials. Notice that none of this is the fault of the teacher, and they should not be blamed for this situation. In the complex educational system, teachers are rarely the ones making policy and curriculum decisions. 

But your question was why. Why are we in this situation? It’s pervasive and ingrained, and many of our educational leaders — those who are in the position to make decisions (e.g., related to state-level policies, curriculum adoption, teacher training) — do not have adequate background knowledge in early reading development. These education leaders are trained in the same institutions that are training teachers. Many do not have a focus on evidence-based early reading instruction. Changing how we teach early reading in schools requires school-level and district-level leadership that is on board with changing practices and is knowledgeable about the current evidence base.

There are some places that can serve as good examples of districts that have fundamentally changed the way teacher training and early reading classroom instruction are occurring. One that comes to mind is a total literacy overhaul that has taken place in Bethlehem, Pa. In Bethlehem, in order to change practice to align early literacy instruction to the science, teachers received extensive professional development (over multiple years), and the school district implemented a scientifically aligned early reading curriculum and provided support for teachers and other school practitioners to teach scientifically based reading research. At the state level, Mississippi and Colorado have recently made significant moves at the policy and teaching training levels to improve practice.

Emily Oster: The two other pieces that overlay a lot of this for me are inequality and COVID (and the overlap between them). There is inequality in reading skills across socioeconomic groups; I am not sure how much of that reflects differences in the skill with which reading is taught. And COVID has diminished overall reading learning over the past year, and certainly done so in a more extreme way for students of color and students who live in poverty. I don’t really have a question here, although I do wonder if you could comment on what you see in these areas.

Emily Solari: Yes, this has, of course, been a great concern since schools started closing and moving to online/virtual instruction. For those of us in education and early literacy development, who are aware of the number of hours it takes to teach children how to read and recognize that virtual instruction does not provide adequate time or space to accomplish this, we have been very concerned.

National and local studies have shown that learning progress did slow during the pandemic. When comparing the 2020-21 school year to the academic years before the onset of the pandemic, at the end of the 2020-21 school year there were lower levels of reading achievement. The data that has been trickling out has been pretty clear that the pandemic has differentially impacted children from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, those who are English learners, children of color, and those with disabilities, in a negative way. What we mean by this is when you compare data from pre-pandemic to last spring and this fall, while we see learning differences with all groups of children, the pre-pandemic and current reading achievement scores are worse for these subgroups of kids as compared to white children who do not come from low-SES backgrounds. In a lot of ways, the pandemic has put a spotlight on deep-seated and historical inequities in our education system.

I guess one thought on this is how we respond as an educational community and in the broader community context — as we can’t assume that this will go away. The good news is that we do have a solid evidence base to inform how we can respond to reading difficulties. This will likely require professional development of teachers and access to evidence-based assessments and instructional tools. The key will be making sure that kids have access to this instruction at the right intensity, and instruction that targets their specific reading difficulties.

The bottom line is that multiple longitudinal studies have shown that when students do not learn to read proficiently, they are at increased risk for lifelong adverse consequences, including school dropout, incarceration, unemployment, and mental health challenges. The data also show us that students who do not learn to read adequately during their first three years of schooling typically have persistent reading difficulties. 

Ensuring that every child is a successful reader, who is skilled in reading words and comprehending text, requires children who have difficulties learning how to read to learn at an accelerated rate. School personnel, and in particular classroom teachers, special education teachers, and reading specialists, must be equipped with knowledge of how to implement evidence-based reading instruction and have access to the tools (assessments and curricula) necessary to successfully teach students how to read.

Emily Oster: Thank you. This has all been so helpful for me, and I think it will be for many parents. A last question along those lines: As a parent, what is the lesson for me here, in terms of what I should do? Are there certain questions I should be asking at my kids’ school? Or ways to help if I think they are struggling to learn?

Emily Solari: I think as parents, it is important to ask your schools some key questions about the reading instruction your kids are receiving. The first question I would ask is: What is their overall approach to reading instruction? Unfortunately, the term “balanced literacy” has taken on a new meaning and is sometimes used to describe an instructional approach that is heavily based in a whole-word approach and lacks sufficient instruction that is explicit and systematic. I say this is unfortunate because who doesn’t love the term “balanced”? We all like that term — and unless you know better, it is easy to interpret this as “Oh, they are balancing instructional time between explicit and systematic phonics instruction to make sure kids can crack the code (read words) and high-quality oral language development.” But often this is not the case. So if you get this response, ask more questions. Ask specifically: What is your approach to teaching word reading and spelling?

Another way to probe for information is to ask a school how they are screening kids for early reading risk, and how they are monitoring or measuring their progress. As a parent, I would want my school to follow an evidence-based approach to screening, so it would be important that they are collecting data that we know is predictive of later reading. These assessments should be short and efficient. You would want your child to be tested on skills such as alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, single-word reading, and connected text reading in the early grades. 

Another good question would be: How are you using screening data to inform instructional practice? We want teachers to use data to help them decide where to move with instruction. When the right data are collected, it can be a powerful tool to inform practice in the classroom.

If you think your child is struggling to learn how to read, better understanding their literacy environment and the instruction they are receiving in their classroom is a really important first step. I would also say that parents should feel comfortable advocating for both evidence-based assessment and instruction for their children. There are some publicly available resources for parents around this type of advocacy and better understanding reading difficulties.

An important final point is this: I have never met an educator who does not want to get early literacy and reading right — all teachers and administrators want to be employing practices that are efficient and effective to develop lifelong literacy. Educators are in their jobs because they are dedicated to serving students and their families. They want to be equipped with both the knowledge and materials that are necessary to teach all students how to read. Our teachers must be supported in their implementation of evidence-based practices — through their training, professional development, and the tools and curricula they are provided to teach reading. By investing in the development of teachers, we are investing in the literacy of children, and this is a worthy investment.

Did You Miss It?