Principal Reflects on Moving to ‘Science of Reading’

Changing established practices in education is difficult—even if they don’t serve all students. But what makes it so difficult to evolve towards better approaches? And how can school systems begin to address some of these challenges?

These questions are the focus of Education Week’s recent project on putting the science of reading into practice, published in July. The stories explore the national movement to align early reading instruction with the evidence base behind how young children learn to read.

Decades of research show that the most effective way to teach beginning readers to recognize words on the page is to explicitly teach them how letters represent sounds and how to blend those letters together into words. But many schools in the United States minimize this type of instruction or mix it with other, ineffective strategies for learning to read.

In the past two years alone, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation requiring classroom instruction to follow research. A series of stories published this summer examines what’s driving that effort, where it might succeed or fail, and why.

Earlier this month, social media producer Hayley Hardison and I spoke with Sherry Miller, principal of Lacey Elementary School in Raleigh, North Carolina, at a Twitter Spaces event that delved into how this movement is developing in North Carolina. The state recently passed a law requiring sweeping changes to the way schools teach reading.

Miller, whose school is featured in the Education Week series.talks about the history of reading instruction in the state and why changing schools’ approach is such a massive undertaking.

“Your philosophy about reading is as deep as religion,” Miller told me last spring. “I’ve had a lot of matches with people where you just spin and spin. It’s kind of like politics in our country.”

Here are some takeaways from the conversation on September 7:

Most school systems use a mix of strong and less strong teaching practices. Miller recounted how, two decades ago, North Carolina created its own training for teachers in evidence-based reading practice with the goal of raising the achievement of students with disabilities. But the uptake of the course varies from district to district and even from school to school, meaning that getting this evidence-based training is “hit or miss” for students, Miller said. The goal with these statewide mandates is to standardize access to high-quality education, she added.

Understanding the research is one thing. Putting it into practice is another. Many states, including North Carolina, require teachers to take a course called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, better known as LETRS. The two-year course gives teachers a thorough grounding in reading research, but doesn’t always lead to adopting new practices or raising student achievement (for more on the research base behind LETRS, see this story). That’s where support for teachers is critical, Miller said. “I’m done with Section 8, but then what does that look like in my classroom?” she asked. That’s where coaches step in, she said.

Change can be an emotional process. Teachers’ practices are “deeply ingrained,” Miller said, the result of years spent in teacher preparation programs, hours of professional development and advice imparted by mentors and encouraged by literate educational celebrities. Communication with and support for teachers should be well planned, she said. Otherwise, asking teachers to change what they do can feel like an attack on their professional qualities.

For more on what schools are doing to address these barriers, listen to the full conversation on Twitter Spaces here:

And check out Education Week’s full collection of stories about putting the science of reading into practice.

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