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Understanding the Fuss About Teacher Prep

We’re witnessing a growing outcry about teacher preparation in the US.

Increasingly, teachers lament that their college courses didn’t prepare them to teach reading. (Really.)

It’s a major issue for children’s literacy – and some are just catching wind of it. Here’s some background.

Understanding the Concerns

In 2018, the Hard Words audio-documentary opened many eyes to the problem. Journalist Emily Hanford showed that key research on how kids learn to read, specifically around phonics, was missing from many teacher prep programs. The main culprit: some teaching college professors had their own (not-so-evidence-based) philosophies on how kids learn to read.

Teachers began to speak out about the issue, as EdWeek reported in Teachers Criticize Their Colleges of Ed. for Not Preparing Them to Teach Reading.

Additional EdWeek reporting showed the magnitude of the problem. Many higher education professors have failed to embrace decades of research that say that phonics is essential for many children.

This question, from EdWeek’s survey of education school professors, says it all: the majority of professors think kids can get by without it:

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In addition, 65% of professors teach the ‘MSV’/3-cueing approach, which is found to impede phonics learning.

Teachers see the shortcomings: in EdWeek and Chalkbeat surveys, most teachers agreed that their preservice training didn’t give them the skills to teach reading.

Flawed teacher preparation is now treated as an established fact by EdWeek: “Many teachers likely did not learn the cognitive science behind reading in their teacher preparation programs.”

One point I’d highlight: these articles have been been dominated by discussion of phonics and phonemic awareness in teacher prep. We can infer that the issue extends to other aspects of reading research. I’ve never met anyone who learned about the Baseball Study and related research on comprehension in teacher preparation, for example.

Educators Speak Out

Teachers explain it best. Kindergarten teacher Lindsay Kemeney learned key research while supporting her dyslexic son, and wrote a powerful blog about her frustrations:

“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?”

Jon Gustafson penned Where I Learned How to Actually Teach Reading (Hint: Not in Teacher Training)He teamed up with Jasmine Lane to detail their experiences in Training teachers to fail, which explains what does happen in teacher preparation programs, in lieu of literacy preparation. The funniest take on teacher prep came from Margaret Goldberg, who writes:

“I completed a full course on Vygotskian theory, debated the narrative of colonialism in Where the Wild Things Are and learned to finger-knit a scarf. I did not learn anything about the structure of the English language or how our brains learn to read.”

And then, there have been the countless tweets of frustration, such as this viral tweet (definitely check out the comments from educators):


Lest you think that these are minority perspectives, skim this Twitter chat on teacher preparation for a loud chorus of similar concerns.

How Can You Tell Good From Bad Programs?

Some teacher prep programs are getting it right. In fact, I feel badly for professors who do teach the “science of reading,” because their work may be tarnished by this national outcry.

The trouble is, it’s pretty tough to know the good programs from the bad.

Jon Gustafson wisely observed that we need a list of the good guys. The replies in this thread are worth a read, just for sense of the variance.


Folks seeking a sound program can consult two sources:

  • The National Center for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has issued ratings since 2006. In January, 2020, they released their latest report, which found that 51% of teacher preparation programs adequately cover reading science, based on a review of the syllabus. This was hailed as an improvement versus previous reports, and a sign that teaching colleges are working on the issue. Yet it was still… only 51%.
  • The International Dyslexia Association has an accreditation program; they offer a short list of universities that have applied and been accredited.

Word to the wise: look closely before selecting a program, and before hiring teachers from a program. Literacy-savvy districts are starting to use their hiring leverage to nudge local colleges on their reading coursework. I know six districts advocating for better programs at the local university, and hope to hear of more.

States Taking Action

Colorado has been leading on this issue. Chalkbeat reported that state officials were using their certification power, cracking down on colleges for “emphasiz[ing] prospective teachers’ beliefs about reading rather than forcing them to draw science-based conclusions,” and threatening to withdraw certifications of non-compliant universities. I haven’t seen evidence that other states are doing the same; then again, Chalkbeat needed to make a pubic records request to access the Colorado report, so perhaps there is activity behind the scenes.

Other states are tackling the issue via legislation. Arkansas laws require teacher preparation programs to incorporate the ‘science of reading’ by 2021. A Tennessee bill proposes similar requirements, along with grants to universities to support program upgrades.

According to a recent analysis by NCTQ, nineteen states require teachers to demonstrate an awareness of reading science in order to gain a license. Other states have a ways to go in even screening for literacy know-how.

How Are Districts Closing the Gap?

This preparation issue would be a small matter if school districts offered strong professional development on how kids learn to read. Unfortunately, there isn’t evidence that teachers get good training on the job.

In last year’s Chalkbeat survey, teachers consistently agreed that “American schools pay little attention to the science behind reading instruction.” The chorus of teachers  sharing “Aha!” moments about literacy research in social media tracks this finding.

In fact, we’ve even heard district leaders saying, “We learned critical reading research only after entering district leadership.” These leaders remind us that “there’s no finishing school for chief academic officers, nor is there certification on literacy know-how for district and school leaders.” You can lead literacy for a large district without learning key research.

So, we have a truly systemic problem. Generations of teachers haven’t been taught the basics on how kids learn to read in their training. This info gap isn’t filled on the job… partly because school and district leaders often don’t know the research, either. It’s hard to say that it’s any of their fault, because nothing in the system is designed to force or even inspire this to change.

It’s fertile ground for non-research based reading approaches to flourish.

Is it any wonder that our national reading outcomes remain stagnant?

A National Moment of Professional Learning

In We Have a National Reading Crisis, last year’s viral editorial, three district leaders issued a call to action:

‘Educators urgently need a national movement for professional learning about reading. We should declare a No Shame Zone for this work—to make it safe for all educators to say, “I have unfinished learning around literacy.”’

This sentiment has gained momentum, and we’ve seen a tsunami of interest in literacy, from media focus to increased parent advocacy.

Membership in “Science of Reading” Facebook groups – created by literacy advocates, educators, and Amplify – has exploded. Pioneering districts have announced strong outcomes on the back of reading instruction shifts. The Reading League’s research-centered conference will soon rival the attendance at the less-research-centered ILA convening. We cite a ‘growing national conversation about literacy’ for good reason.

This momentum comes not a moment too soon. I began this piece before the ‘distance learning’ era, but as I publish it, schools are closed for the rest of this school year, and disruptions may persist. The #1 concern among literacy advocates is our K–1 students, because critical reading skill development happens during those years. Our emerging readers are most vulnerable to long-term impact from missed learning. Mind you, to understand the gravity of those concerns, you need to understand the importance of foundational skills like phonics and phonemic awareness, and why it matters so much to establish those foundations by second grade.

Also, to develop effective acceleration or remediation strategies, you need to truly understand the pillars of skilled reading.

We have a twofold crisis for our littlest learners: they are missing months of instruction at a formative time, and most of their teachers haven’t been empowered with training on how kids learn to read. The urgency to address any “unfinished learning” for teachers has never been higher.




Published inLiteracyScience of Reading


  1. luqmanmichel luqmanmichel

    You have completely ignored the fact that the foundation of teaching kids to read is to teach them the correct pronunciation of phonemes.
    The main cause of kids leaving school as illiterate is the fact that they get confused when consonants are taught with extraneous sounds.
    Has the Science of Reading addressed this basic matter?

    • karenvaites karenvaites

      Thanks for reading! The blog references the importance of phonemic awareness in a few spots. I’d encourage you to check out my Phonics 101 blog for more color on that matter; this blog is obviously focused more on the teacher prep issue than the nuances of what teachers ought to learn – and teach – about phonics.

  2. It isn’t about programs at all. The needs of each child should be measured and addressed with proper intervention.

    Reid Lyon stated years ago if the school of ed wanted to follow the proper methods there wouldn’t be an adequate number of people to teach it.

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