Dear superintendents, CAOs, curriculum directors, principals, literacy coaches, teachers, and school board members,
In November, I wrote to you about an important national conversation about reading instruction that gained maaaaaajor momentum throughout the fall, and brought literacy issues to the pages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, EdWeek, and more.
Today, literacy is back in the New York Times, with a feature on Texas reading outcomes: Texas Says Most of Its Students Aren’t Reading at Grade Level. But Are Its Tests Fair? It’s mostly about how proficiency is assessed: the Texas Staar exam says 58% of readers are below proficiency, the NAEP says it’s 72%. I worry about the delta, but not as much as the fact that the majority of kids in Texas are not proficient as readers.
And two days ago, reading instruction issues were on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer:
So, it seems like a good time to revisit the surf watch.
Friends, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, please read the Literacy Tsunami Warning for background. The drumbeat of valid concern about reading instruction is must-know stuff if you work in schools or simply love children. (Also, it’s essential pre-reading to understand this blog.)
So, how is the literacy tsunami cresting?
Educators Have Been Vocal
They’ve talked about their ‘aha moments’ that have come while reading about the research:
“There should be no guessing, no ‘getting the gist of it.’” I’ve seen schools and teachers using the guessing method and was always perplexed by it. However, I, like the article highlights, wasn’t taught to teach reading and so never knew to argue it. https://t.co/rmPTWFT7Un
— Jeremy Horlings (@JTHorlings) January 8, 2019
And how frustrating it is to learn the research years into their careers:
I do not feel attacked. I was mad when I found out there was decades of research on how to teach reading effectively! I felt like I took the red pill in the Matrix. Before that I did believe I taught phonics, all kids learn differently. Hard to change without training and support
— Patricia Revelle (@PatriciaRevel11) February 8, 2019
And how hard it is for teachers to learn the research, and know what sources to trust:
What is frustrating is why it’s so difficult for teachers to gain access to research. For years I wasted money on professional books that I thought were research based and best practice. It’s so hard to dig through what is scientifically sound while teaching full time.
— Ellen Frackelton, NBCT (@EFrackelton) November 12, 2018
It’s challenging and costly:
As a teacher, it is confusing and overwhelming at times researching all of this on my own. Now that I know better, trainings are very expensive to pay myself. And then once I'm trained, what about curriculum and materials? Teachers can't pay for all these things themselves.
— Lindsay Kemeny (@LindsayKemeny) January 13, 2019
Sometimes they doubted what they were hearing about reading best practice – until they started investigating the research, and then they were persuaded:
Hey Brent. I mistakenly got into a crazy conversation/debate about this with Emily (and many others) a few weeks ago. I was super skeptical. Then I started to read this book that many recommended. I’m a reading workshop teacher, and this just blew my mind. https://t.co/jn2vNHf9xy
— Holly Reardon (@MrsRteaches) February 8, 2019
Their accounts have been mind-blowing. Kindergarten teacher Lindsay Kemeny wrote about her experience of learning the research while supporting her dyslexic son:
“As I began researching what helps dyslexics learn, I became angry. Why was I never taught about dyslexia? Why was I never taught about the National Reading Panel (2000)? Why was I never taught about structured literacy? Why was I never taught about explicit, systematic phonics and phonemic awareness? Why wasn’t I told that there was a method that would reach ALL learners and not just the top 40%? Why aren’t teachers given this vital information?”
But this line might be the kicker:
Teachers have asked for advice on navigating districts where the leadership is invested in bad reading practice:
I always find myself nodding in agreement with your tweets/threads, but left w/ a sick feeling in my stomach. My district is all-in on all the wrong stuff. How do you speak up when the decision-makers have invested immense resources, incl. their own careers, in the wrong things?
— teacher2ndgrade (@teacher2ndgrade) January 21, 2019
In fact, they’ve created anonymous accounts, to speak their minds without professional risks:
Thanks! Actually I have another account where I follow many of the people on this thread. Using my real name and criticizing balanced literacy on Twitter would not be a wise career move. I'm still spooked from a bad experience in my previous district.
— teacher2ndgrade (@teacher2ndgrade) January 22, 2019
And lest you think it’s only teachers talking, there are also district leaders blogging about their journeys to research insight – while working in a district role.
March 8th Update: Three district leaders just wrote an astoundingly powerful, must-read editorial in Education Week: We Have a National Reading Crisis.
They remind us that “the lack of knowledge about the science of reading doesn’t just affect teachers”:
“It’s perfectly possible to become a principal or even a district curriculum leader without first learning the key research. In fact, this was true for us. We each learned critical reading research only after entering district leadership.”
Wowza. These leaders go on to name “five essential insights supported by reading research that educators should know—but all too often don’t.” Read it for these insights… and for the reminder that we are currently waging a national “battle against misunderstanding and lack of awareness.”
One recent Saturday night, I got a text from Jared Myracle, one of these thoughtful district leaders, in response to all of the recent outcry. He wrote, “How could we get all teachers to learn the research? What could we do???” Friends, it’s the right question to be asking.
Moms Are Getting Vocal, Too
“Dyslexia moms” are increasingly present in social media and in conversation about reading instruction. These are the parents – almost always the Mamas – of dyslexic kids, who self-educate on the science of reading in order to support their kiddos. Districts have noticed their growing advocacy for better early reading work around phonics.
Their voices have been powerful, too. “I Took a Year Off Work to Learn About Dyslexia Because My Son’s Teachers Couldn’t Teach Him How to Read” is heartbreaking. Debbie Meyer’s struggles to have her son’s dyslexia recognized by a highly-regarded NYC school are remarkable, and they are eerily mirrored by the experience of her sister, a new teacher:
“She arrived armed with a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Arizona, a master’s in education from Northern Arizona University and further graduate classes leading to a reading specialist certificate, she had heard the term dyslexia only once, and it was defined as processing words backwards. My sister had not learned about direct instruction and the five pillars of literacy but was a assigned to a sixth-grade class of struggling readers. She had not learned about direct instruction and the five pillars of literacy but was a assigned to a sixth-grade class of struggling readers.”
Now the media is noticing these stories, too. In recent weeks, a story about the “crazy moms” who’re exposing the reading instruction gaps in Tredyffrin/Easttown – a respected district in a wealthy Philly suburb – went viral. These moms have not merely advocated for better work around dyslexia… in fact, one of them is a literacy-savvy former teacher. They advance “a more subversive idea: that their acclaimed district doesn’t know how to teach reading.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer picked up the story about the district’s “outdated teaching methods” soon after… hence the front page news. What I love about these moms is that they are so focused on “science-based” reading instruction for ALL kids, not just their kids.
It seems the dyslexia moms are organizing:
“As word spread about Everyone Reads T/E, the moms began to hear from parents in Radnor, Council Rock, and other districts. They now want to form a regional group to trade information about a rising debate over how reading is taught.”
With all this media attention, I’m hearing more stories of teachers confronted by parents who walk into parent-teacher meetings with these articles. The educators that I feel for most are the ones who are blindsided by this issue… and learning the reading research via parent pressure, rather than PD.
Legislation is Looming
Where is all this coming from? Well friends, in September, 2017, Emily Hanford wrote Hard to Read: How American schools fail kids with dyslexia. It helped to mobilize the dyslexia moms, and 1.5 years later, we’re looking at legislation.
In September, 2018, Hanford wrote Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? and kicked of the Literacy Tsunami that we’re still discussing today. I wonder what policy impacts we’ll be talking about in 2020.
The Solutions (New Curriculum) Are Kinda Getting Known?
The only silver lining in this conversation has been the talk of solutions: a “curriculum renaissance” that brings us ELA curriculum that has been tailor-built to the research.
Recently, the early adopter districts have been telling powerful stories of its impact on their work.
A buzz has been building: in January, Brian Kingsley and I talked about the Curriculum Renaissance in a FutureReady webinar. Nebraska is hosting webinars on the new breed of high-quality curricula this month.
Still, I sense that the overwhelming majority of educators have no idea that these new options exist.
In the midst of a national conversation about reading problems, how do we raise awareness for the emerging solutions?
The National Conversation About Reading That We Need
I sense a lot of people are asking the same question as Jared and I: how do we bring more people to the conversation about evidence-based reading instruction?
I also sense that this won’t be the last time we’re talking about the literacy tsunami. This wave probably hasn’t crested just yet.
Since two thirds of our students lack proficiency as readers, that’s good news for our kids.