The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is like the American Report Card on reading skills. The assessment has taken place every 2 years since 1992. Schools across America test 4th and 8th graders on a broad range of reading skills. Since the scores have been recorded, American kids have progressed very little in reading, with only a very slight improvement. This is alarming, given that in 1992, schools everywhere were teaching kids to “guess at” and “memorize” the words, a practice unsupported by research.
Around 1992, when the NAEP began, many American education professors were espousing the “whole language method”– a method that assumes learning to read is innate just like learning to walk. Whole language has been proven false by randomized control trials and Cognitive Scientists. Instead, researchers have discovered that kids learn best with step-by-step phonics instruction. Research-based instruction discourages guessing and focuses on teaching phonemic awareness and decoding skills.
Instead of looking at kids as destined readers, we should look at them as potential readers. It’s up to us to teach them.
Early readers are like music students: they learn best by learning one note at a time, learning explicitly (ex. “this is how you play C”), and practicing new material with the old. The Suzuki method in music is a lot like systematic phonics instruction, since it allows kids to evolve gradually and practice with leveled material. Kids learn best with step-by-step phonics, not with whole language.
Reading scores have not budged much since 1992. Many schools still use whole language teaching practices. Yet, since the last NAEP testing round in 2017, Mississippi children showed improvement. In fact, every other state either stayed static or lowered their reading scores. To see the full 2019 test results, check out the NAEP Report. The national average took a dive, meaning, overall, American kids have shown a net loss in reading skills.
This seems odd, given that there’s been a tremendous amount of reporting on how schools throughout America are not using research-based instruction. There’s been a lot of reporting on how teachers have not been given the education they’ve paid thousands of dollars for in those expensive credentialing programs. [SIDENOTE: Have any teachers thought of suing their credential programs for failing to teach them how to teach K-2 reading?]
Quote of the day: “I was an English teacher and I can state that an English teacher gets as much training to teach early reading skills as to teach basketball or calculus.” -From Emily Hanford’s Twitter feed, 2019
There’s been podcasts, articles, and conferences wherein people with quite a following have highlighted that Reading and Cognitive Science research shows that kids learn best with leveled, systematic phonics instruction. In Language at the Speed of Sight, Cognitive Scientist Mark Seidenberg writes:
“Parents who deliver their children to school on that momentous first day of kindergarten, proudly starting them on the venerable path to education, make a big mistake: they assume that their child’s teacher has been taught how to teach reading. They haven’t. (Seidenberg, p. 249).”
Largely, preschools do a great job introducing kids to books and literacy. However, teaching K-2 reading skills is truly more strategic, deliberate and different than any other grade level. In K-2, kids need to learn the code and apply the code. After kids learn the code, then their skill level can improve incrementally by reading more and more sophisticated texts in each subsequent grade. K-2 needs to be treated as a unique time period of pedagogy, because this is when kids learn the code. Essentially, during this unique K-2 time period, kids are cryptographers.
Why did Mississippi improve their reading scores?
The media has done a good job reporting the NAEP results, highlighting that Mississippi is the only state that’s shown improvement. However, the media has also attributed the Mississippi gain to some strange things, as they’ve often claimed that simple “higher expectations” are the root of their success. Higher expectations, however, do not magically improve reading scores. Research-based instruction does improve reading skills… and it’s not magic at all. Mississippi has made a dramatic shift toward research-based instruction.
In 2014-2015, Mississippi performed a review of university teacher training programs. They found that universities don’t consistently teach teachers how to teach decoding skills. As a result, schools have to train teachers themselves.
In 2019, Mississippi is the only state that improved their reading scores. Throughout Mississippi, districts have taken teacher training into their own hands, as they’ve realized that the university systems have failed to properly equip future teachers with the reading science and pedagogical skills necessary to teach decoding. In a 2014-2015 report of the university teacher training programs, Mississippi found that:
The structure and content of early-literacy courses are inconsistent across the state.
Established research-based principles of early-literacy instruction remain largely unapplied in preparation and practice.
“Balanced Literacy”—as interpreted by Mississippi teacher preparation programs and in many K-3 classrooms—has resulted in widespread use of practices that are not supported by research.
These findings were from the 2014-2015 Study of Mississippi Teacher Preparation for Early Literacy Instruction.
Clearly, the university teacher training programs weren’t changing. As a result of these findings, school districts and educators within Mississippi took it upon themselves to learn and adopt the reading science.
Now, in 2019, Mississippi is the only state to show improvements in reading scores. They deserve commendation. Hopefully, other states will follow suit.