Science can lead to better readers

 Aug. 28, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Opinions Page

Science can lead to better readers

By Marcia Henry

It’s a grim story to read.

Fifteen years ago, Wisconsin fourth-graders placed third in the country in state rankings of reading ability known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By 2009, our fourth-graders’ scores plunged to 30th, with a third of the students reading below basic levels. The scores of minority youth were even bleaker, with 65% of African-American and 50% of Hispanic students scoring in the below-basic range.

As a member of Gov. Scott Walker’s blue ribbon reading task force, I am one of 14 people charged with reversing that drop. And, as a 50-year veteran educator, I have a partial solution. Let me spell it out for you: We need better teacher preparation.

How many of you remember your very best teachers? I remember Miss Hickey at Lincoln School and Miss Brauer at Folwell School in Rochester, Minn. They taught me to read.

I travel throughout the country consulting and providing staff development for school districts and literacy organizations. I’ve met thousands of dedicated teachers who tell me they are unprepared to teach struggling readers.

This situation is not the teachers’ fault. Some teachers in Wisconsin had only one course in reading instruction. Most were never exposed to the latest research regarding early reading acquisition and instruction. In contrast, several states require three or four classes in courses that contain the latest in science-based reading instruction.

So, what is science-based reading instruction? This instruction provides students with strategies for reading words accurately and fluently, and improving vocabulary and comprehension. Evidence is based on over 100,000 studies conducted on learning to read over a 40-year period. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and other agencies, in conjunction with research universities such as the University of Michigan, Stanford and Yale, provides clear implications for teachers.

At a word level, well-trained teachers know how to 1) train children to manipulate sounds in words, 2) teach phonics, the letter/sound relationship known as the alphabetic code, 3) divide words into syllables and 4) recognize prefixes, suffixes and other word parts in words. Teachers learn the English spelling system and know how to explicitly teach it to their students.

However, most teachers in training learn to begin with a story. Children learn the words Dick, Jane, run and jump not by sounding them out but by reading the words over and over in a story. Children read to themselves or to others. They are even encouraged to guess at words, by finding clues in pictures and the context of the story.

No specific strategies are provided for figuring out the words. Instead, children are told to skip them or try again or ask for help. Children have to figure out the code on their own; some do, but many do not.

We know that students can learn to read when teachers have learned the necessary skills. Current research finds that teachers can successfully learn to teach strategies and methods useful for all children. Teachers who are trained in science-based reading intervention programs are improving reading scores in Massachusetts, Delaware, Virginia, Florida and other states.

Nationwide research summarized by the National Reading Panel shows that many teachers have not been trained in their universities to teach literacy skills. One study found that significant numbers of teachers were unable to count sounds in syllables, divide words into syllables and identify prefixes and suffixes in words. Another study found that 53% of those training to be teachers and 60% of teachers in the classroom didn’t know the answers to half of the questions regarding the structure of English words.

Children with dyslexia and others who struggle to learn to read need to learn the alphabetic code in order to read and understand text. These programs will help all children learn to read, not only those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Wisconsin’s biggest educational challenge is improving our children’s reading. All our kids deserve the very best teaching.

After five meetings, there is little consensus among task force members regarding adequate teacher preparation and licensing. One step in the right direction is to ensure better teacher preparation.

We need a swell of support from parents, educators and others who value the future of our children.

So, here is your assignment:

Write the Department of Public Instruction and your legislators. Insist that your representatives propose and pass legislation that provides science-based reading instruction for all teachers. Demand that DPI increase the number of units for teacher credentialing in classes, require rigorous licensure exams, and adopt content and knowledge standards based on the evidence from science-based research.

Let’s provide a happy ending to this story.

Marcia Henry is professor emeritus at San Jose State University and former president of the International Dyslexia Association.