January 19, 2015
Dear Presidents of Universities and Colleges,
You have a tough job with difficult and diverse responsibilities. Indeed the world is a better place because of the work and research happening on your campuses.
However, you might be shocked to know that there is a lot of harm that comes from your campuses as well. Are you aware that in this country more than thirty percent of fourth grade students do not read at a basic reading level? They cannot efficiently identify the printed word. Did you know that 65% of fourth graders and 64% of eighth graders are still performing below proficient levels on reading comprehension on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2013)? Additionally, 32% and 22% of fourth and eighth grade students, respectively, perform below an even basic level of reading comprehension (Institute of Education Sciences (IES), 2013). Only a small percentage of these students suffers from dyslexia, a neurological condition that makes learning to read, spell, and produce written language extremely difficult. The vast majority of students who struggle to read are instructional casualties. They haven’t been properly taught to read.
If we peel back the skin of the reading onion, we can understand why. For fifty plus years the education profession has been embroiled in a fundamental debate regarding the teaching of reading. We call this debate the “Reading Wars.” It pitted the teaching of reading using whole language versus the teaching of reading through systematic and explicit phonics instruction, which decades of reading research supports (e.g., Adams, 1990; Berninger & Amtmann, 2003; Liberman, 1973; Moats, 2006; National Reading Panel, 2006). Unfortunately, current research shows both preservice and inservice teachers are inadequately trained in basic literacy instruction (e.g., Binks-Cantrell, Washburn, Joshi, & Hougen, 2012; Bos, Mather, Dickson, Podhajski, & Chard, 2001; Joshi, et al., 2009; Moats, 1994). It is alarming that teachers report their licensing programs do not provide sufficient coursework in the structure of the English language to the degree necessary to inform their instructional practices (Moats, 2009). It’s important to note that advocates against scientifically-based reading instruction largely come from universities and colleges. When questioned about their approach, which is in direct opposition to the science of reading, they cite their personal research which often includes teacher surveys and other forms of soft investigation. With that said, there are some very good researchers—many, but not all, coming from your institutions. People like Dr. Maryanne Wolf (Tufts University), Dr. Joe Torgesen (retired, Florida State University), Dr. Jack Fletcher (University of Houston), Dr. Barbara Foorman (Florida State University), Dr. Sally Shaywitz (Yale University), Dr. Frank Vellutino (SUNY at Albany), Dr. Marilyn Adams (trained at Harvard University), Dr. Louisa Moats (trained at Harvard University), Dr. Linnea Ehri (City University of New York), and Dr. Marcia Henry (retired, San Jose State University) .
In 1997 congress created a commission, the National Reading Panel, to look at the scientific research with respect to the teaching of reading and how students learn to read. The panel included members from different backgrounds, including school administrators, teachers, and scientists in reading research.
Specifically, Congress asked the Panel to:
- Review all the research available (more than 100,000 reading studies) on how children learn to read.
- Determine the most effective evidence-based methods for teaching children to read.
- Describe which methods of reading instruction are ready for use in the classroom and recommend ways of getting this information into schools.
- Suggest a plan for additional research in reading development and instruction.
The Panel reviewed over 100,000 reading studies published since 1966, and another 10,000 published before that time. From this pool, the Panel selected several hundred studies for its review and analysis.
The National Reading Panel’s analysis made it clear that the best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates (National Reading Panel [NRP], 2000).:
- Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness
- Systematic phonics instruction
- Methods to improve fluency
- Ways to enhance comprehension
Unfortunately, many of your professors of education, those who are training our nation’s teachers, are not using scientifically-based reading practices; rather, they teach preservice teachers to use a three-cueing system involving syntactic, semantic, and phonological guessing as a primary strategy for word identification (decoding). Syntactic, semantic, and phonological guessing is an extremely misguided approach, one not supported by scientific study, that leads to the instructional casualties that we have today in our nation’s schools.
Students need to learn to read by becoming automatic with symbol-sound correspondences (phonics) and move on to more advanced word study involving word parts—syllables and morphemes (e.g.,Berninger & Richards, 2002; Ehri, 2014; Dixon, Stuart, & Masterson, 2002; Richards, et al., 2006; Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon, 2004). Reading and spelling skills complement one another and should be explicitly taught together (Moats L., 2006; Uhry & Shepherd, 1993). Individuals with reading impairments need to be provided literacy instruction based on sound empirical evidence so they may become fully literate members of society (e.g., Berninger et al., 2013; Berninger et al., 2000; MacArthur & Graham, 1987; Torgesen, et al., 2001).
It is important to note that federal laws require local education agencies to implement scientifically-based practices (IDEA, 2004; 20 U.S.C. § 1414 (d) (1) (A) (i) (IV); NCLB, 2002 § 1202(c) (7) (A)). Shouldn’t institutes of higher education be required to do the same?
Unless students are taught the tools to break the code, many will never experience the joys of reading; many will not be fully employed; many will struggle and never recover from poor self-esteem; and many will end up in our penal system. Why? Because they are needlessly held back due to poor instruction which has been born from the misguided belief systems regarding the teaching of reading which are being promulgated by professors in your colleges of education.
We ask that you read the National Reading Panel’s report, that you examine scientific studies sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and that you ask difficult questions of your deans in your colleges of Education. Colleges and universities have to be a part of the solution, not a continuation of the problem.
There is an excellent historical review of the reading wars written by an elementary school principal who was able to raise the reading scores of his at-risk students in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, because he developed a professional development program and retrained his teachers. You can find his fascinating story in his book, Leaving Johnny Behind, by Anthony Pedriana.
We suggest that we form a partnership between those of us supporting this letter and those who have the responsibility of training our teachers to teach literacy skills. Together, we can create a model teacher-training program based on best practices. This is not about the past. This is about the future and learning from evidenced-based research.
Please do not hesitate to reach out to us if you would like to continue the conversation.
Head of School
National Reading Panel – Teaching Children to Read
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