I didn’t learn how to teach reading in my teacher prep program

My nonlinear path to the Science of Reading was a frustrating, difficult journey--it didn’t need to be

Key points:

  • As students continue to struggle with reading, it is critical that teachers receive structured literacy training in teacher preparation programs
  • Literacy serves as the foundation of learning, and families should be involved in this learning process
  • See related article: How to support reluctant readers with literacy strategies

After 14 years in education, I consider myself to be a good reading teacher. Unfortunately, the path to getting where I am today was a long, frustrating journey.

Growing up, as the child of two teachers, education was in my blood.

After college, I was accepted into a graduate program to get my teaching certificate and Master of Arts in Teaching. I learned the latest and greatest in elementary education instruction and pedagogy…or so I thought.

But I was never taught HOW to teach students to read.

I landed my first job as a fourth-grade teacher in a suburban district outside of Portland, Oregon. Before the students arrived, I set up a cozy classroom library, complete with a couch, rug, lamps, and boxes filled with rich literature and chapter books.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize that a handful of my students could not read the district-provided curriculum. I was surprised, because I thought that by fourth grade, students were reading to learn, not learning to read. I had no tools in my proverbial tool belt to help my students that year. I did not learn this in my teacher preparation classes.

Nationally, the 2008 recession was affecting the school community and due to budget cuts, it also affected my job and I ultimately landed in a first grade classroom. I was definitely not prepared to go from teaching fourth grade to teaching first grade.

That August, I was handed the Structured Literacy reading curriculum used in the primary grades. It was a scripted program, complete with a scope and sequence and decodable books. It included workbooks, assessments, and several CDs. Admittedly, I did not know all the letter sounds and had no idea how to teach first graders how to read, so I threw myself into the curriculum and committed to learning this new way of teaching. I listened to the CD of the letter/sound song on repeat and read the teacher’s guide from front to back.

The next several years were that of learning and unlearning. I worked with an incredible group of educators through our Professional Learning Community (PLC), where we met weekly to discuss reading data, interventions, and next steps. I saw the positive effects the explicit, systematic instruction was having on the majority of my young readers. I saw students’ faces light up when they realized they had the tools to decode words. Families were seeing success at home and wanted to know what our school was doing. We were teaching students to read, but I was still unable to help a handful of students each year.

Eight years into my teaching career, the state of Oregon passed a senate bill requiring school districts to ensure that at least one teacher from each K-5 school receives training related to dyslexia. I volunteered and completed my comprehensive training–I learned a ton in those six days.

Shockingly, this was the first time I had heard about the years and years of brain research, science, and data collected by neuroscientists on how the human brain learns to read. I walked away in utter disbelief and frustration. Why was this not taught in my graduate school program?  How many students could I have reached if I had this knowledge?

Every student deserves a teacher armed with this information.

My newfound knowledge was only the tip of the “Science of Reading” iceberg. I started diving into the research, learning what I should have learned in my teacher preparation courses so many years ago.

Ten years into my teaching career, I was still uncertain of how to implement all that I had learned in the classroom. That’s when I discovered the various resources available through the science of reading-based teacher trainings. Through an intensive, 30-hour process I learned about Orton-Gillingham methodology, the importance of Structured Literacy, and the Five Essential Reading Components defined by the National Reading Panel in 2000. I learned about phonemic awareness, phonics, decoding and encoding, articulation, spelling rules, syllabication, and so much more. I was finally taught how to assess foundational reading skills and I was given strategies and materials to meet all students at their ability levels.

After only the first day of training, I had the tools to take back to my classroom and use immediately. I quickly started seeing improvements in my most struggling readers and their confidence was building. Other teachers noticed and attended training shortly after. The training feedback was extremely positive (“The best PD I have ever had!”) and we all questioned why none of us had learned this in our teacher prep programs.

Each school year thereafter, I got better and better at identifying what my students needed and how to help them learn how to read. After 14 years, I finally felt prepared to meet the needs of my students.

When I look back on my teaching career, I feel great sadness and frustration that I was unable to reach all my readers. I will never forget their names and faces, and I often find myself wondering if I could have changed the trajectory of their lives by teaching them the foundational skills needed to become successful readers. I may never know.

Like many educators, I had the best of intentions, but as the saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I spent over a decade searching for instructional reading training to help support my students. I advocate for Science of Reading teacher training every day so others don’t have to spend years searching as I did.

As students continue to struggle with reading nationally, it is critical that teachers receive structured literacy training in their teacher preparation programs and continued professional development throughout their careers. And we must not forget about the families of our readers, as they need continued support, information, and guidance. It is imperative we all come together to teach our children to read so they can one day become confident, successful adults.

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eSchool Media Contributors