How to improve literacy through the science of reading

A Structured Literacy approach to teaching helps students build a strong foundation for a lifetime of reading

The Fall 2021 PALS Report found that reading skills in young learners are at a 20-year low. Over the past three years, reports have shown there had been little growth in reading and in some cases, states were backsliding. The majority of students who are exiting our school system do not have the reading skills they need to be successful at a job that requires reading skills.

I have analyzed how literacy education has evolved, exploring why we are where we are today and how we can improve. Educators can improve their K-3 students’ reading achievements by focusing instruction on structures of the English language. By applying findings from the science of reading, educators can positively affect students’ confidence in their academic careers and beyond. Here’s how to get started.

Assessing Your Curriculum for Elements of Structured Literacy

The science of reading is massive, and there’s much to learn from it. Structured Literacy is the practical approach that helps educators implement that science.

A few of the key elements of this approach include:

  • Phonology is the study of the sound structure of spoken words. Phonemic awareness gives students the ability to distinguish, segment, blend, and manipulate phonemes and is highly relevant to reading and spelling.
  • Sound-symbol association is the alphabetic principle of how to map phonemes to letters— known as phoneme-grapheme correspondence.
  • Syllables: Knowing syllable patterns help readers know which sound the vowel is representing—whether in single syllable or multisyllabic words. Syllable division rules guide readers in dividing and decoding unfamiliar words of any length.
  • Morphology is the study of the units of meaning in words, which involves using base elements and affixes to help readers decode and unlock the meanings of complex words.
  • Syntax, the set of principles that dictate the sequence and function of words in a sentence, includes grammar, sentence structure, and the mechanics of language.
  • Semantics, which is instruction in the comprehension and meaning of words.

As you’re looking through your curriculum, assess if your lessons will meet students’ needs. The good news is that you don’t have to focus on each separately—all these elements can come together in a single lesson.

Offering Differentiated Instruction

There is never going to be a time when you don’t need to differentiate learning. Differentiation is when educators provide specific ways for each individual to learn as deeply and quickly as possible. Educators who have mastered the art of differentiation continue to work diligently to ensure that all students are getting the support they need; including typically developing students, students who are struggling, and students who are advanced.

In a K-3 classroom, differentiation is most easily demonstrated during small group instruction and centers. Small group instruction gives teachers the opportunity to provide targeted instruction and feedback for their students. Centers give students the time to apply what they are learning during literacy instruction enough to become fluent readers. High quality centers allow students to work independently and with others to solidify learning.

Materials in a differentiated classroom allow teachers to tailor instruction by engaging any and all modalities of learning. Appropriate types of text are available for all students as well as high-quality instructional materials for teacher use. Trained paraprofessionals in the room are also evidence of dedication to meeting the needs of all students.

Differentiated instruction is important because not all students are the same. Differentiated instruction ensures that all students have the greatest chance to master what is being taught. It is especially valuable to students who require more instruction, feedback, or time to master the content. When students’ instructional needs are met, they each have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. Differentiation is important to teachers because helping students reach their full potential is a big part of why they became educators.

Seeking out Professional Development

The ideal for educators is to know what they need for a quality curriculum and then obtain training that aligns with that. For educators seeking out resources that support them in teaching the science of reading, Reading Horizons offers professional development in how to implement differentiated learning through the application of Structured Literacy practices. Reading Rockets also has great information on their website and offers a course that educators can complete.

Professional development can help teachers hone their ability to deliver instruction in new formats. Professional development topics are typically addressed in one setting and might include a focus on things like a particular aspect of classroom management, how to administer a specific assessment, or how to use specific curriculum materials. High-quality professional learning opportunities are more long term and will lead to increased teacher knowledge which will help inform how teachers provide instruction to their students throughout their career. Both types of professional instruction are valuable and require administrative support as teachers implement what they have learned. You will know it is worth the investment as teachers improve their practice and student-learning becomes evident.

Starting with the end in mind, instruction based in science will produce proficient readers and writers. Along the way, you will know the method is working when teachers feel supported in implementing high-quality differentiated literacy instruction for all of their students. As a result, teaching will be energized and elevated. Most importantly, students will thrive in their classrooms and in life as they become better readers. Not only will scores reflect proficiency in reading, but students will be reading, writing, and learning from more content in visible and meaningful ways. Systemic changes take time but with focus, determination, scientifically aligned instruction, and the right resources, reading proficiency will increase for all learners.

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