Changing Reading Instruction by the Book

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Among the biggest surprises NCTQ encountered in researching our December 2016 Landscape in Teacher Preparation – Undergraduate Elementary were the substantial improvements in coursework aimed at teaching elementary teachers how to teach reading.

In 2014, 29 percent of undergraduate elementary programs earned an A or A+ in Early Reading. In 2016, 39 percent of programs achieved these grades. Programs earn an A by having a combination of required textbooks, lecture topics, and practice (tests, writing assignments, or teaching experience) that adequately cover the five essential components (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension). Programs earn an A+ if their coursework covers all five components in all textbooks, lectures, and practice AND if all their required, relevant textbook adhere to the science of reading.

We wondered what was going on, so we examined the programs that earned a D or an F in 2014 yet improved to an A or B in 2016. We restricted our analysis to this group of programs in order to identify the ways in which rapidly improving programs changed the design of their coursework.

In short, we discovered that the improved in 2016 programs required different textbooks.

Among the 32 programs we could compare between 2014 and 2016, nearly 80 percent of them - 25 programs - made changes to their textbooks: requiring ones which adequately cover the five essential components in a manner consistent with the science of early reading. In many cases different textbook were not the only changes programs made (some programs added or revised lecture topics or practice assignments, for example), but, in nearly half of these programs, textbook requirements were the principal change.

To be clear, according to our review methodology, it is not sufficient for a program just to choose the "right" textbooks to earn "credit" for a component; it must combine better textbook selection with addressing the component in lectures and/or assignments.

While this seems totally obvious (and eminently doable) – instructors need to just choose a textbook that reflects the state-of-the-art of the field and cover it in class – in too many programs this does not happen. Indeed, the 25 programs that improved their texts are just 3 percent of the total programs in our 2016 release.

Why so few?

First, as researchers from Texas A&M, SUNY Binghamton, and UT Austin have shown, the folks teaching these courses have not mastered the science of reading themselves: "(t)he results of this study showed that teacher educators do not possess a good understanding of basic language constructs…. This may be at least one reason for poor teacher understanding—as teacher educators cannot give what they themselves do not possess."

Second, academic freedom in universities includes "the right of the faculty to select the materials, determine the approach to the subject, make the assignments, and assess student academic performance in teaching activities for which faculty members are individually responsible, without having their decisions subject to the veto of a department chair, dean, or other administrative officer." While this freedom is a bit more complicated when instructors teach multi-section courses (there has to be coordination across the group of instructors), course instructors have tremendous freedom in selecting course materials, including the required readings.

And finally, as we have detailed before, there appears to be no end of possible elementary reading texts from which instructors can choose. And too many of these do not incorporate the research on how to teach reading. As of 2016, our expert reading reviewers have reviewed 859 textbooks required in thousands of reading courses across the country, nearly half (49 percent) of these textbooks are inadequate because they fail to cover scientifically-based early reading instruction.

Putting these all together -- teacher educators who struggle with basic language constructs themselves have the responsibility to select textbooks from an endless selection of possibilities, of which half lack vital content.

Untangling this is clearly a multi-faceted and long-term project.

Here's our modest contribution, the seven most popular textbooks which cover all five components. Programs that use these texts—and address the components they cover in class and in assignments—will introduce their aspiring teachers to the instructional techniques research shows help students learn to read.