5 Ways to Achieve Better Reading Outcomes Based on Science
We need explicit handwriting and spelling instruction in all schools and more.
Posted February 27, 2023 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- The Science of Reading movement promotes expectations of English reading levels at 95 percent proficiency—drastically above current levels.
- It advocates teaching handwriting explicitly and systematically, which is not happening in many schools.
- The Science of Reading movement supports a grade-by-grade curriculum for teaching spelling that is currently absent in struggling schools.
Science has evolved in reading research, especially in the areas of developmental psychology and neuroscience. Recent reports in refereed scientific journals have focused on multidisciplinary contributions from various fields and different theoretical perspectives. The current powerful movement is largely spearheaded not only by researchers, teachers, and other education practitioners but also by journalists and a powerful presence on social media. This Science of Reading movement (tagged SoR) is huge but not without controversy, as would be expected in any movement calling for systemic change (Schwartz, 2022). But even across varying perspectives, there are actions stakeholders should agree on and questions to be addressed about a decade of literacy shortcomings.
First of all, we can agree every student must learn to read. Science now supports that 95 percent of children should crack the complex English alphabetic code by the end of first grade or get an early intervention to achieve that level of success. While the systemic change that is needed will take time and face resistance, 95 percent of all children reading is achievable. Compare that with current proficiency rates in America, ranging around only 40 percent proficiency in virtually every state, with dreadfully low scores hovering around 10 percent proficiency in many underperforming schools with concentrations of low-income students, students of color, or large numbers of English learners. Shockingly, reading proficiency was down in every state based on fourth and eighth scores on the recently released U.S. Nation's Report Card (Hull, 2022).
Secondly, we can agree learning to read in English is complex. In America and elsewhere, it generally takes a child two years in school, within the span of years between preschool and second grade, to learn to read in English. There are plenty of naysayers, often with unsubstantiated claims whose own opinions, personal experiences, and sometimes self-interests resist expectations of 95 percent reading proficiency. These attitudes do not support the change needed to avert declining literacy rates and gaps in learning such as the ones reported above.
We can all agree that reading success requires more than five foundational skills identified over a decade ago in the U.S. by the National Reading Panel (NRP). We have been floundering down the "five big ideas" path—often focused on separate skills lessons for phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—for too long (Catts, 2022). Addressing other essential skills, such as explicit spelling and handwriting instruction, is backed by SoR (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019).
Explicit and systematic instruction in these skills requires a curriculum. An SoR curriculum for explicit and systematic instruction in handwriting and spelling is needed to make it easier for teachers to know what to teach and when and how to teach these skills.
Today we have conscientious teachers surfing the internet for grade-level spelling and handwriting lessons or going to sites and spending their own money to pay for worksheets. This hit-or-miss practice, much too prevalent today, is not supported by SoR. It bypasses explicit instruction, lacks continuity across grade levels, and often puts inferior or harmful instructional materials in the hands of teachers with no modern, science-based curricula.
5 Needed Solutions for Systematic Change Based on the Science of Reading—A Call to Action
SoR teachers are those who are tuned in and committed to joining a movement calling for a change in support of better literacy for all children. Currently, many teachers who qualify as SoR teachers are enrolling for special training, such as LETRS training, EBLI training, or SPELL-Links training, or engaging in other Science of Reading training opportunities.
Here are five actions SoR teachers can take supported by research in cognitive development:
1. Start early. Don't be sidetracked by spurious claims that some kids' brains aren't developmentally ready until age 8. Ignore the cacophony of wails from those who equate early literacy instruction with "drill and kill."
SoR teachers understand that there is an emotional side to reading. They want kids to love reading, and they know that drudgery, boredom, too much criticism, and receiving minimal guidance in any aspect of teaching literacy are unacceptable. Teachers trained in the science of reading do not subject kids to worksheets, long periods of independent work without guidance, or lists of spelling words to memorize on their own or for parents to teach.
2. Teaching legible and fluent handwriting is supported by research (Santangelo & Graham, 2016; Berninger et al., 2002). Insist that we implement explicit handwriting instruction, beginning with teaching preschoolers to write their names. When a child learns to write her or his name, it's a joyful accomplishment and a natural jumpstart to reading.
SoR teachers teach handwriting explicitly. They show kids how to hold the pencil, crayon, or marker; utilize simplified letter formation language; and provide extensive guided practice. Handwriting skills aren't simply quaint or optional crafts no longer needed for literacy. A beginning reader's automaticity for writing letters, as well as automaticity for knowing letter names and their syllable combinations and mapping them to sounds in their spoken language, is part of the brain's reading architecture needed for reading comprehension (Ehri, 2014).
3. We have known for decades that poor spellers do not develop into skilled readers. Calls for spelling instruction to remain an important goal of teachers and schools by developmental psychologist Linnea Ehri and others have not been heeded during two decades of whole language domination, which continues in many classrooms today (Ehri, 1987; Mather & Jaffe, 2021)
Teach spelling as structured literacy 20 minutes a day in a modern, grade-by-grade, integrated spelling curriculum beginning in the first grade and continuing through sixth grade and beyond. All of the foundational skills components from the National Reading Panel studies identified as important for literacy instruction can be integrated into a research-based spelling curriculum delivered in an SoR spelling book or other modern curricula based on spelling-to-read methodology (Gentry & Ouellette, 2019). SoR spelling instruction helps kids master phonemic awareness of the words being learned and activates reading circuitry for phonics (Herron & Gillis, 2020). Providing teachers with a modern, integrated spelling curriculum saves time as opposed to teaching all the foundational skills in separate lessons, as is often the case in the most popular reading programs not supported by SoR (Gentry, 2022; Swartz, 2019)
4. Tackle the knowledge gap. In a theoretically transformational article entitled "Rethinking How to Promote Reading Comprehension," renowned reading researcher Hugh Catts clarifies the cognitive complexity and multidimensionality of reading comprehension. To teach comprehension as a "skill" like handwriting that can be mastered by the end of third grade is shortsighted. Comprehension is not simply a skill.
Reading comprehension "is dependent on a wide range of knowledge and skills," Catts reports (p. 27), and requires a knowledge-building curriculum. Comprehension as skills instruction is insufficient. Teachers must tackle the knowledge gap by teaching background knowledge and academic vocabulary to improve students' comprehension (Catts, 2022).
5. Teach the whole child. In addition to teaching literacy, there is time in the school week for recess, physical education, art, music, health and safety, science, technology, math, and civics. These are all part of a whole-child curriculum.
Time in school is a zero-sum game. The more time kids spend on one thing, the less they have to spend on another thing. How teachers and students spend their time in school must include time for teaching handwriting and spelling along with all the aforementioned whole-child curriculum components listed above.
Ending the Reading Wars—Research? Reconciliation? Resources? Support?
Many teachers feel like they are in a war zone with illiteracy. They are the boots on the ground in the so-called "Reading Wars." They don't need 10 more years of congressionally supported NRP-like research with clever research designs and meta-analyses to bring about changes urgently needed today. They don't need calls for the reading wars to end unless a change is achieved. They need resources, such as supplemental curricula for handwriting and spelling. They need support from administrators committed to the kind of change required urgently for equity in order to reach 95 percent reading proficiency for all children.
Berninger, et al., (2002). Teaching spelling and composition alone and together: Implications for the simple view of writing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 291-304
Catts, H. W. (2021-2022). Rethinking how to promote reading comprehension. American Educator, 45(4), 26-33.
Ehri, L. C. (1997). Learning to read and learning to spell are one and the same, almost. In C. A. Perfetti, L. Rieben, & M. Fayol (Eds.), Learning to spell: Research, theory, and practice across languages (pp. 237–269). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Ehri, L. C. (2014). Orthographic mapping in the acquisition of sight word reading, spelling memory, and vocabulary learning. Scientific Studies of Reading, 18:5–21.
Gentry, J. R. (2022). Why spelling instruction should be hot in 2022—2023. Raising Readers, Writers, and Spellers. Psychology Today blogs. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/raising-readers-writers-and-spe…
Gentry, J. R. & Ouellette, G. P. (2019) Brain words: How the science of reading informs teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.
Herron, J. & Gillis, M. (2020). Encoding as a route to phone awareness and phonics. Perspectives on Language and Literacy. International Dyslexia Association.
Hull, S. J. (2022) Inequality is still at the heart of student NAEP score performance. The Hechinger Report, November 15, 2022
Santangelo, T., & Graham, S. (2016) A comprehensive meta-analysis of handwriting instruction. Education Psychology Review, 28(2), 225-265.
Swartz, S. (2019, December 3). The most popular reading programs aren't backed by science. Education Week, 39(15). https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2019/12/04/the-most-popular-reading-…
Swartz, S. (2022). Why putting the science of reading into practice is so challenging. Education Week. August 17, 2022.