Moving Upstream: Strong Literacy Instruction Starts with Teaching Our Teachers

What do you remember about learning to read?

Maybe it seemed effortless – you were one of the lucky 5% who seemed to teach yourself. Maybe you had teachers who encouraged you to look at pictures and guess the word. Saying “bunny” when the text reads “rabbit” may allow you to gain some meaning from what you are reading, but that type of instruction does not teach you to decode the words on the page. About 35% of students will reach grade level with this type of broad instruction that often consists of looking for clues paired with limited phonics.

In 2021, 48.5% of MN 3rd Graders met or exceeded standards on the State MCA–III test. If about 40% of students will read successfully with broad instruction, then what do we need to do differently to ensure all students – especially the 10%-15% with dyslexia – have the opportunity to become confident, successful readers?

For over 20 years research has demonstrated that the whole language or balanced literacy approaches to reading instruction are not supported by the science of how brains learn to read. Based on the science of reading, the 2000 National Reading Panel Report stated that students need explicit instruction in the essential components of reading: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension.

So why aren’t we seeing this structured approach implemented in our schools? Simply put, while the science is there, movement from research to practice has been slow. Balanced literacy is still the most common form of instruction in our schools, and still the way many Higher Education Institutions prepare new educators to teach reading. Until college and classroom instruction align to the Science of Reading, our reading rates will remain unchanged.

During the 2021 legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers dedicated $3 million to provide educators with rigorous training in the science of reading. Nearly 3,000 classroom teachers, administrators and faculty have taken advantage of this access to LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) training. It’s encouraging to know that so many professionals want to increase their understanding of a complex topic.

Here at the Sauer Family Foundation, we’re excited to see the public conversation move towards solutions for students and teachers. Working with organizations such as Great MN Schools, ServeMinnesota and The Reading Center we are supporting real-time professional development for teachers who want to increase their skills in science-based literacy instruction and improve reading outcomes for all students.

– Emma Mogendorff, Program Officer