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Educators rethink how to teach reading after flaws are revealed in prior methods

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Educators are rethinking how reading should be taught in schools. New research has highlighted flaws in decades-old methods. As a result, dozens of states have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction. This comes at a time when two-thirds of children in the U.S. are struggling to read. So how are colleges and universities that train teachers responding? That's the question NPR's Elissa Nadworny, with the help of a dozen member station reporters, has been asking. My colleague A Martínez spoke with her about that.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

So, Elissa, what did you find? I mean, are teacher prep programs aligning with the science of reading?

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: So NPR and our member stations reached out to a dozen institutions with education schools. Many said they were constantly changing and updating their curriculum to match current research on reading. A recent study by the National Council on Teacher Quality that looked at 700 teacher training programs at universities found that too many programs weren't aligned with the research on how to teach kids to read. Here's Heather Peske. She's the president of the organization that did that study.

HEATHER PESKE: Only about a quarter of the teachers who leave teacher preparation programs across our nation enter classrooms prepared to teach kids to read aligned to the science and research on reading, while the rest of the teachers who've invested lots of money and lots of time in learning to teach enter classrooms unprepared.

NADWORNY: One of the persistent strategies not backed by research is the cueing system. So that's where students rely on context and sentence structure to identify words they don't know. This method often downplays phonics and sounding out letters. And the study found that many teacher prep programs still were using that method.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so then how should we be teaching reading?

NADWORNY: Well, research shows there are five core components of teaching reading, including phonics, vocabulary and comprehension. I want you to listen in on a reading class at Oklahoma State University. That member station reporter, Beth Wallis of StateImpact Oklahoma, visited. And you're going to hear some really good examples of university students learning about syllables and sounds from their professor, Robin Fuxa.

ROBIN FUXA: So the first one, the phoneme, that sound is fuh (ph). So you're going to think about how your mouth is positioned and take some notes there. When you say buh (ph), what does your mouth do?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Buh.

FUXA: Everybody ready? We're determining how many sounds are in this word. So let's do the word map.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Map.

FUXA: What about peat (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Peat.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. Elissa, that takes me back to when I was learning English in the first grade, you know, when I got up at first grade. I mean, OK, so for the places who have changed the way they train their teachers, I mean, how did they do it?

NADWORNY: Well, in many places, it was because politicians got involved. Or the state set new standards better aligned with the research. One example is in North Carolina, where the legislature passed a law mandating that curriculum be backed by the science of reading. They also evaluated universities in 2021 on how well they were doing at that. Brianna Atkinson from member station WUNC talked with faculty at several universities in North Carolina. And many said the changes have not been easy. Here's Gretchen Robinson, a professor and department chair at UNC Pembroke.

GRETCHEN ROBINSON: So it's taken some time to kind of get the buy-in. It's taken some time for for faculty to kind of understand the changes and things.

NADWORNY: You know, she said there have been faculty that have left who weren't on board with the new approaches. And so they've had to hire new faculty who are.

MARTÍNEZ: You know, Elissa, despite all of the new research and the attention on reading, there's still a fear at some universities that politicians are kind of getting involved, throwing their thumb in the pie there. So, I mean, did you hear from educators who felt wary of that?

NADWORNY: We did. Yeah, we heard that a lot. Several states have passed laws to remove things like that cueing strategy we talked about. Florida is one of them. WUSF reporter Kerry Sheridan in Tampa Bay talked with Jenifer Jasinski Schneider about this. She's a professor of literacy studies in the College of Education at the University of South Florida. And she said USF is not changing their way of teaching reading because they've always taught phonics and incorporated, you know, those five pillars. But she really balked at the idea that politicians would get involved.

JENIFER JASINSKI SCHNEIDER: Legislating how we teach reading - no legislators, no collective group of legislators have the knowledge to do that.

NADWORNY: And, you know, she's right. It can't just be politicians. But it is clear that many training programs need a push or at least a strong incentive to change. And look. The bottom line is too many kids in this country are not learning to read. The good news, of course, is that we have the tools and the science to be able to turn that around.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Elissa Nadworny covers higher education for NPR. Elissa, thanks.

NADWORNY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.