The Reading Crisis

'I Had No Tools': Why Every Teacher Prep Program Should Include the Science of Reading

For decades, reading scores have remained stagnant at best, and the pandemic made things even worse. K–12 teachers at every grade level have students who struggle to read, and regardless of their subject expertise, today’s teachers are facing a reading crisis.

Making the crisis worse is the fact that more than half the nation’s educators were never equipped to teach literacy, according to statistics from the National Council on Teacher Quality. The council’s 2020 report on teacher programsshowed that the percentage of teacher prep programs effectively including the Science of Reading in their curriculum had risen to 51%, widely framed as “significant progress” in the nation’s goals to improve literacy instruction and outcomes. 

But that report also meant that about half of the nation’s new teachers are still graduating without an understanding of high-quality reading instruction.

Educator and literacy coach Kathleen LawTo understand the statistics and their ramifications, THE Journal recently spoke with Kathleen Law, a reading coach, Structured Literacy, an Orton-Gillingham-certified teacher, and current instructional content specialist for IMSE, or Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. Law taught first, second, and fourth grades in Oregon for more than 14 years. She is also certified by the Center for Effective Reading Instruction.

THE Journal: Having had the benefit of 14 years teaching and then working as a reading coach and a content specialist, what do you wish now that you had experienced or learned more about during your teacher prep education?

KATHLEEN LAW: Coming out of my two-year graduate (teacher prep) program, I felt prepared and confident to start teaching. My first job was in a fourth-grade classroom. However, it didn't take me very long to realize that a handful of students could not read the district-provided curriculum, and I had absolutely no tools to help them. So that's when I realized that I needed some help so I could teach those children how to read quickly. Three years into my teaching career, I was asked to teach first grade, and that is where I really learned about the importance of Structured Literacy and teaching reading explicitly and systematically using a scope and sequence.

THE Journal: For all the K–12 administrators and teachers who have never taught first, second or third grades, who probably have never formally taught literacy before, can you break down some of these terms that you're using — the popular literacy buzzwords post-pandemic?

LAW: You bet. So one of the buzzwords or phrases right now is 'Science of Reading.' The Science of Reading refers to a body of research that encompasses years of scientific knowledge, research by experts in different disciplines such as education, special education, literacy, psychology, and neurology. The Science of Reading, if you will, is kind of like the roots of a tree. So this is where we come to understand the cognitive processes that are essential for reading. It is where most reading difficulties can be prevented using that knowledge base from the Science of Reading. 

And then if you think about the tree trunk, that would be Structured Literacy, which is where we're talking about an explicit systematic, sequential, path to teaching students how to read. It has a scope and sequence teachers are following, and as each child becomes proficient in a skill, we can then move on and layer on top of that. So Structured Literacy is really giving us a path to laying those foundations for reading: the phonological awareness, phonics, the fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

THE Journal: So, going back to your teacher prep education, what do you wish had been different about what you were taught as a future teacher?

LAW: Looking back, it was clear that I was not prepared to help students learn to read, especially those who struggled. So I think teacher prep programs could improve and better equip educators for their future students who are struggling with reading. Teachers inherently want to help their students find success; that's why we go into the profession, we want to make an impact on children and want our students to leave each year equipped with what they need for the following year. 

Teacher prep programs are preparing hundreds of teachers annually to educate and impact the next generation, where they will really impact a lot of lives. Our society largely believes that teachers know how to teach reading, that they come out of their teacher prep program knowing how to teach reading. But that's not the case. I certainly was not prepared. It's really not the teachers' fault; we should all be taking a look at the teacher prep programs and how we are trained as teachers.

THE Journal: So how do we help those teachers in the field already? And how do we make sure that all teachers are prepared to teach literacy?

LAW: Thanks to the Science of Reading and my training and work with IMSE as a coach, I now know that neuroscientists have studied the brain for over five decades, and how the brain is wired when it comes to learning how to read — or more accurately, that the brain is not hardwired for reading. The written language is a human invention. This research has shown us that reading must be explicitly taught. And with that not happening uniformly and effectively across the nation, you can see the inequities that are resulting.

THE Journal: Yes, especially since the pandemic; we've all seen it in report after report. Do you think that's why more people are talking about literacy now? And why more people are talking about how to teach literacy — i.e., the Science of Reading versus Balanced Literacy or other methods?