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The ‘Science of Reading’ in 2023: 4 Important Developments

One of the most fundamental skills students learn in school is still at the forefront of the national education conversation—how kids learn to read.

The “science of reading” movement pushed forward in 2023, with at least five more states passing new laws designed to bring reading instruction in line with evidence-based practice. At the same time, opposition to these attempts to overhaul classroom practice has surfaced, too, with one state seeing the first major legal challenge to new legislation.

Looking back over the year, Education Week rounded up four important developments in reading instruction policy and practice. Read on below.

The ‘science of reading’ solidifies its buzzword status

The term is ubiquitous—used by district leaders to describe their approach to reading instruction, cited in state legislation mandating changes to curriculum and instruction, and inserted into publishing companies’ promotional materials.

However, as the movement to align reading instruction with evidence-based practices has only continued to grow, not everyone is using the same definition. Some reading researchers have raised concerns that education companies are putting “science of reading” labels on their materials without ensuring that their products follow research-backed approaches.

This past October, we asked more than 1,300 educators, “What does ‘the science of reading’ mean to you?” The responses ranged from those who only mentioned foundational word-reading skills, such as phonics and phonemic awareness, to the very general: “What works in reading.”

Read more about the survey results here.

New research suggests which reading laws lead to better outcomes for students—and which might not

More than half of all states have passed new reading legislation since 2019, mandating that schools use materials, instructional approaches, and assessment tools that align with the evidence base on how children learn to read.

Lawmakers and advocates have promised that this overhaul in how teachers teach will lead to higher student achievement. In 2023, the field started to evaluate some evidence.

A study from researchers at Michigan State University examined states that had passed reading laws over the last decade. They found that these policies were linked to improvement in end-of-year tests. But they also found that some laws led to stronger results than others. Only states that provided a host of instructional support—such as training and coaching for teachers and interventions for struggling students—and provided funding saw gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. These comprehensive policies also included 3rd grade retention mandates, which require students to meet a certain standard of reading proficiency to advance to 4th grade.

Another study, from California, looked at a grant program aimed at raising reading scores in the state’s lowest performing schools. The program gave schools about $1,000 per student to spend on evidence-based approaches to teaching reading. Schools that participated in the program saw a moderate increase in student scores compared to schools that didn’t.

Importantly, the researchers said, the grant program didn’t just mandate changes. Like the state laws that led to better student outcomes in the Michigan study, this grant program also offered financial and programmatic assistance to schools.

Even though some researchers have identified implementation support as a key component of effective literacy laws, not all policies provide for it. A report published in July by the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, found that most reading laws passed between 2019 and 2022 don’t offer a roadmap for changing curriculum or developing instructional leadership.

Science of reading laws face some opposition

Many states’ new reading laws prescribe—or ban—specific teaching methods and materials. In response, some groups have pushed back against what they see as an overreach by lawmakers into decisions about classroom practice that educators should make and a discounting of teachers’ professional judgment.

In 2023, several state teachers’ unions, including in Ohio, Indiana, and New Mexico, spoke out against proposed or recently passed reading laws. Some raised concerns about what they saw as rushed implementation plans; others took issue with proposals to ban an instructional approach known as “cueing,” a strategy that can impede students’ ability to learn to read words.

While union leaders said they appreciated attempts to bring instruction in line with the evidence base, they opposed bans on specific methods, which they said could undermine trust in teachers and intensify scrutiny of their work.

Other groups have fought bans on cueing, too. In Ohio, the Reading Recovery Council of North America, the organization that supports the Reading Recovery program for struggling 1st grade readers, filed a lawsuit to block the state’s new reading law from taking effect. The law bans cueing, which “would prohibit the teaching methods employed by RRCNA,” the Reading Recovery Council’s lawsuit states.

In its lawsuit, the council argued that the legislature overstepped its authority in attempting to ban cueing. The case is ongoing.

Attention turns beyond phonics

Reading researchers have long cautioned that the “science of reading” shouldn’t just mean a focus on foundational skills.

Phonics, or the ability to connect written letters and spoken sounds, is an essential building block for reading well—but it’s far from the only skill that matters. Students also need deep and wide vocabularies, opportunities to develop their spoken language skills, and world knowledge that helps them understand what they read, among other important ingredients. This year, a few developments shed light on these components of reading instruction.

In April, researchers at the University of Virginia, the University of Notre Dame, and Auburn University released a working paper that examined one reading curriculum that used a “knowledge-building” approach. The materials were organized and themed to systematically build students’ understanding of social studies and science topics.

Research findings have long shown that students’ background knowledge closely correlates with their reading comprehension ability. “Knowledge-building” programs attempt to leverage this connection. Still, few have been studied to determine if they actually do improve students’ reading comprehension abilities.

This study found that one program, Core Knowledge Language Arts, does. The curriculum structures English/language arts lessons around topics in literature, history, geography, and science. The researchers found that students in grades 3-6 who used CKLA did better on end-of-year standardized reading tests than a control group of similar students who did not.

In November, the Knowledge Matters Campaign, a group that advocates for a knowledge-building approach in ELA, released a new tool to help districts choose curricula.

For more on what Education Week covered in reading this year, and what’s upcoming in 2024, see the video below.

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