For most people, reading is second nature – it’s almost muscle memory. As you read the words on this page right now, you likely are not thinking about how you read or the mechanisms our brains use to decipher jumbled letters and words into cohesive concepts and sentences. We learned how to do this and, like many skills, teachers helped us along the way.
The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (often called the National Report Card) showed the largest drop in reading scores in 30 years. While the pandemic exacerbated learning losses, America’s literacy skills have been in decline for decades.
Investing in more effective strategies such as structured literacy and abandoning the failing approaches that don’t work for students is more important than ever. “Structured literacy” is a proven model that takes a systematic approach to phonics instruction. When paired with intentional vocabulary and oral language instruction, it helps children understand letters and the sounds they make, blend those sounds into words, and connect those words to meaning.
California’s test results this year made it clear that our current approach to literacy education is not working effectively, with more than half of students failing to meet English and language arts requirements. The truth is, we haven’t been equipping our teachers with effective tools and practices, yet we’ve been expecting improved outcomes for generations.
Instead of structured literacy, disproven practices that fail to help have been embedded in curriculum and teacher preparation programs, and are part of what is causing children to fall behind in reading proficiency. The current approach, for example, downplays skills like decoding words by sounding them out, which help children to learn and commit to memory a wider variety of new vocabulary. Research on the cognitive science of reading shows that teaching students to read by relying on context to determine unknown words in a passage is a backward technique. When students never learn the fundamentals of phonics, they continue guessing words using cues, pictures or the letters they start with.
But initiating a major shift in literacy education will require a unified effort from philanthropy, parents, advocates and educators. There are four strategies that administrative and funding agencies can adopt to help teachers move away from inadequate strategies and embrace proven ones:
Support people and organizations working to shift literacy policy at the macro level.
Invest in effective curriculum, high-quality decodable texts and teacher training prep strategies that use systematic phonics and “sound it out” tactics.
Prioritize the latest scientific recommendations in grantmaking decisions by funding peer-reviewed evaluations of program effectiveness and assessing the efficacy of grantee programs.
Advocate for and invest in greater training for practitioners, including new certification requirements to ensure teachers are equipped to succeed from the start.
Improving literacy instruction will not only improve test scores but also lead to increased graduation rates, better college and career readiness, and an informed and literate civic population.
This year’s test results and literacy challenges must be met with action. California students deserve it.
Guest Commentary written by Dana Cilono. Cilono is is the education program officer for the Kenneth Rainin Foundation and has been an educator for nearly 15 years. She helped create and implement early learning innovations in Oakland schools.
This article was originally published by CalMatters.