Whose Voice Matters?: Reading Teacher Edition

Here is a teacher voice that resonates with me in my work as a literacy teacher and scholar:

A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods.

It is not strange, in view of the extensive literature on language, that the teacher tends to fall back upon the textbook as authority, unmindful of the fact that the writer of the text may himself be ignorant of the basis for his study. …

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we…experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully.

This voice in many ways parallels a dominant narrative in the media about teaching reading in the US:

From how much of the media tells it, a war rages in the field of early literacy instruction. The story is frequently some version of a conflict narrative relying on the following problematic suppositions:

a) science has proved that there is just one way of teaching reading effectively to all kids – using a systematic, highly structured approach to teaching phonics;

b) most teachers rely instead on an approach called balanced literacy, spurred on by shoddy teacher education programs;

c) therefore, teachers incorporate very little phonics and encourage kids to guess at words;

d) balanced literacy and teacher education are thus at fault for large numbers of children not learning to read well.

The opening teacher voice is from Lou LaBrant, published in 1947 in the journal that would become Language Arts (NCTE). LaBrant was a classroom literacy teacher and teacher educator over a 65-year career.

The second passage is by Maren Aukerman, a scholarly analysis of the current media coverage of the “science of reading” (SOR).

Although 77 years apart, these voices and claims about teaching reading seem to suggest that concerns about reading achievement have been similar for many, many decades, and thus, placing blame for current reading achievement on specific aspects of teacher preparation and teacher practice today seems if not baseless at least misguided.

For a couple years now, I have also heard from dozens and dozens of teachers, some of whom send me real-time DMs documenting teacher PD they are receiving in SOR; these teachers identify misinformation in that PD as well as misunderstanding about reading and teaching reading by their administrators.

Often these are LETRS training sessions, or similar programs designed to emphasize phonics for teachers of reading.

Many teachers have contacted me about being reprimanded and threatened for simply asking questions about the training or pointing out the misinformation.

What is important to stress here is that these teachers—often veteran teachers who have a high level of expertise—do not have a podcast or a Facebook page amplifying their stories.

To be blunt, in today’s SOR climate, these reading teachers’ voices do not matter.

But other points need to be stressed also.

First, is the media narrative that teacher education does not include SOR or phonics instruction true?

No, and in fact, there is research that teacher education is grounded in science, but there also is an absence of research on these exact concerns (again, identical to LaBrant’s reference to the “gap” above):

It is clear that the repeated critiques of literacy teacher preparation expressed by the SOR community do not employ the same standards for scientific research that they claimed as the basis for their critiques. However, to dismiss these critiques as unimportant would ignore the reality of consequences, both current and foreseen, for literacy teacher preparation….

In contrast to the claims made by the SOR community, research in literacy teacher preparation has been extensive, scientific, and useful for guiding reform efforts….

Despite the political and media attention given to the SOR and the tools on which the SOR community relies, there is no body of evidence that reflects the SOR perspective on literacy teacher preparation by members of the literacy teacher preparation research community.

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

Next, and really important, if we are demanding scientific research inform practice, currently the research base on LETRS simply does not show that the training improves teaching or learning to read by students:

A growing number of U.S. states have funded and encourage and/or require teachers to attend professional development using Moats’s commercial LETRS program, including Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Texas. This is despite the fact that an Institute of Education Sciences study of the LETRS intervention found almost no effects on teachers or student achievement (Garet et al., 2008).

Hoffman, J.V., Hikida, M., & Sailors, M. (2020). Contesting science that silences: Amplifying equity, agency, and design research in literacy teacher preparation. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S255–S266. Retrieved July 26, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.353

We are confronted, then, with an increasingly harmful pattern: The media continues to make unsupported claims about reading failures by teachers, teacher educators, and students, leading to parental and political responses that have resulted in very harmful policies and practices (see HERE, HERE, and HERE).

And these questions remain:

  • Should we reform how reading is taught in the US? Of course.
  • Should we reform teacher education, notably focusing on literacy instruction? Absolutely.

However, the current SOR movement is doing the same thing once again while expecting different results.

And the SOR movement isn’t playing by the rules advocates and policy makers are demanding for everyone else.

If we are disqualifying reading programs popular throughout the US because of personal and corporate profit (a key claim in one podcast episode), then we must hold people and programs being implemented in their place to the same standards.

Media and journalists are making money off a false narrative, shouting “science” while using cherry-picked anecdotes to sell their story.

Corporations and program designers are making huge amounts of money off PD that isn’t supported by science at all. My home state of SC, like many states, just allocated $15 million for LETRS training.

If we are disqualifying anything that isn’t “scientific” (notably the exact same call as was codified in No Child Left Behind in 2001), then we cannot use anecdotes (especially cherry-picked anecdotes) to demand reform and cast blame.

Yet, the media continue to drive a narrative by including only voices that make that story seem true.

We could easily fill a podcast episode with teachers who have suffered through really flawed LETRS training, and at least several episodes of teachers who have had their professional autonomy stripped from them because of administrators holding them accountable for implementing a program and not teaching students (which is exactly what is happening with structured literacy as a replacement for so-called failed programs):

We recognize that some teachers using structured literacy approaches will find ways to respond to the interests, experiences, and literacy abilities of individual students; however, we are concerned about the indiscrim- inate and unwarranted implementation of the following practices:

• Directive and/or scripted lessons that tell teachers what to say and do and the implementation of les- son sequences, often at a predetermined pace (Hanford, 2018)

• Privileging of phonemic awareness and phonics as primary decoding skills (Hanford, 2018, 2019; IDA, 2019; Paige, 2020; Pierson, n.d.; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Use of decodable texts that do not engage multiple dimensions of reading (Hanford, 2018; IDA, 2019; Paige, 2020; Spear-Swerling, 2019)

• Specialized forms of reading instruction designed for particular groups of students as core literacy instruction for all students and teacher educators (Hanford, 2018; Hurford et al., 2016; IDA, 2019; Pierson, n.d.)

• Mandating structured literacy programs despite the lack of clear empirical evidence to support these programs

• Privileging the interest of publishers and private education providers over students.

Compton-Lilly, C.F., Mitra, A., Guay, M., & Spence, L.K. (2020). A confluence of complexity: Intersections among reading theory, neuroscience, and observations of young readers. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S185-S195. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.348

Throughout my forty-year career as a K-12 teacher and a university professor/teacher educator, I have a clear record advocating for students (1a) and teachers (1b).

The current megaphone allowed teachers and parents who see failure and feel failed is certainly valuable while also being anecdotes, not science, and more problematic, cherry-picked anecdotes.

I have heard much different voices, and I also know they are being ignored or often silenced with threats.

I suspect there are far more reading teachers who need better teaching and learning conditions so that their expertise can be more effective with students than those who need retraining.

Or at least if we addressed teaching and learning conditions, we would have a better context in which to decide who needs PD.

That story isn’t what sells , however.

The SOR movement has pitted teachers against teachers, teachers against administrators, and teachers against teacher educators. Those conflicts serve the interests of commercial programs, not students and teachers.

So, finally, if we drop the “science” bullying and admit that teacher voices matter, then we must hand that megaphone to all voices, not just the ones that serve the market interests of those who see the SOR movement as an opportunity to cash in (again).

See Also

Reading Science Resources for Educators: Science of Reading Edition

If Teacher Education Is Failing Reading, Where Is the Blame?

Of Rocks and Hard Places—The Challenge of Maxine Greene’s Mystification in Teacher Education, P. L. Thomas