How to Help Kids Become Better Readers

Elementary students working with teacher in library

Schools have many jobs, but arguably the most fundamental is teaching kids how to read. When a student struggles with literacy, it can inhibit their discovery of the world—and their future prospects. Studies show reading helps children grow their vocabularies and remember more material, and strengthens their social, emotional, and character development.

The last few years haven’t been easy for fledgling readers—or their parents. Pandemic stressors, mandatory quarantines, and remote learning left a huge number of kids struggling: the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the nation’s report card, found that about two-thirds of fourth and eighth graders in the United States are reading at a basic or below level.

Miguel Cardona, the US secretary of education, called the news a “moment of truth” for education. “How we respond to this will determine not only our recovery, but our nation’s standing in the world,” he said.

One bright spot in recent assessment data comes from a February 2023 report that found more young students are reading on track than at any time since the pandemic began, with Black and Hispanic students making the greatest gains. Still, no grade has yet returned to its pre-pandemic levels, and more than half of US adults aren’t proficient readers, meaning they read below a sixth-grade level, according to a Gallup analysis.

Reading is “truly the most essential skill that we provide our children early on,” says Nancy Nelson, deputy director of the National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL) and a Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development assistant professor of special education. “If they cannot read, we know they fall further behind. They have less access to opportunities, and aren’t able to participate in society actively.”

Everyone wants to help children succeed in reading, but there’s a passionate debate—termed the “reading wars”—among educators over how to do it. The arguments go back decades. On one side are advocates of phonics, with its explicit and sequential mapping of sounds to letter patterns; on the other side are those who push for a teaching philosophy called “whole language,” which exposes kids to reading and writing in a less directive way.

If you’re roughly 40 or older, you might remember the rhyme, “If two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking,” or the phrase, “Magic ‘E’ kicks the vowel and makes it say its name”—these are examples of phonics lessons. But younger generations learned different, whole-language techniques. When these students came across an unknown word, they were taught to look at the picture on the next page, guess the first letter or sound in the word, and plug their guess into the sentence to see if it made sense. If that failed, they’d read on.

At Wheelock, literacy experts are pushing back on the reading war’s binary choices, arguing for a more nuanced approach that pulls in the best of each philosophy, as well as other evidence-based teaching techniques. Applying rigorous research and decades of experience actually working in classrooms, they’re bringing science to literacy education and suggesting best practices to help students, from fast-paced core reading lessons to new family-school partnerships. Much of their work is also dedicated to helping people understand that literacy goes way beyond grappling with the printed word—it also extends to cultural and digital knowledge.

Building a Systemic Intervention

What used to be a debate between teachers has now become national conversation, covered extensively in the American Public Media podcast, Sold a Story, a takedown of the way generations of Americans have been taught to read. In six episodes, journalist Emily Hanford (who is the keynote speaker at the 2023 BU Wheelock Forum on March 30) argues that research on the science of reading proves that phonics instruction is critical for fluency and word recognition—and that other whole-language approaches make reading more difficult for many children when used alone. One of those she targets is Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University professor whose hugely popular curriculum is used in a quarter of US schools. Calkins teaches a three-part cueing system for students to follow when they see an unknown word, such as guessing using context and grammar clues, rather than sounding out the word. A report issued in April 2022 found that third and fourth graders who used these methods were behind students who used traditional decoding skills. (In 2022, Calkins launched a rejiggered curriculum, including more phonics instruction.)

Multiple studies have shown that foundational reading skills are typically among the weakest areas of instruction in schools. One reason, according to Nelson, is the full-on embrace of Calkins’ method, which has meant some of the basics have been lost. “For students in the early grades, and for students with disabilities, explicit systematic phonics instruction is often what’s lacking for probably 60 percent of students in their trajectories toward reading,” she says.

Photo: Portrait of Nancy Nelson. Nelson peeks out from the edge of a wooden bookshelf and poses for the camera. A white woman with long straight brown hair and wearing a black blouse and grey jacket leans against a bookshelf and poses for the camera. Other filled bookshelves can be seen to her left and right.

For students in the early grades, and for students with disabilities, explicit systematic phonics instruction is often what’s lacking for probably 60 percent of students in their trajectories toward reading.
Nancy Nelson

Nelson’s NCIL team partners with literacy experts, state and local agencies, teachers, and families to help students with literacy-related disabilities, including dyslexia. The NCIL, now based at BU, was created at the University of Oregon as part of the Every Student Succeeds Act and is funded by the US Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

To help struggling readers, Nelson and colleagues have developed a program that provides core reading instruction for all students, as well as extra intervention for those who need support to read on grade level. It’s one of the only evidence-based models—known as a multitiered system of support for early reading (MTSS-R)—of its kind. The systemic intervention, called Enhanced Core Reading Instruction (ECRI) and made possible thanks to a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, utilizes screening and progress data and is designed to be used in tandem with a school’s existing kindergarten and first- and second-grade reading curriculum.

Tier I instruction aims to benefit all students in the classroom, Nelson explains. In the program, teachers plan a 90-minute reading block for the whole class, with a third of that time focused on foundational reading skills (like practicing letter-sound combinations, decoding words, and reading fluently), a third on building vocabulary and comprehension, and the last chunk for small group work. By design, much of the lesson is active instructional time, where students practice in whole and small groups. “It’s fast-paced to keep students engaged,” Nelson says. Tier II is a supplemental intervention for students who need extra help to achieve grade-level objectives.

The ECRI approach, which is used in schools across the country, is proven to be strongly effective. It is also part of the federally funded evaluation of MTSS-R being conducted by the American Institutes for Research. Nelson and her colleagues are currently working on designing a more intensive Tier III intervention.

“Certainly students need language, they need to understand text, and be able to draw meaning from text,” says Nelson of her approach, “but they can’t do that independently if they can’t decode.”

Helping with a Wide Range of Reading Issues

Katherine Frankel, a Wheelock associate professor of literacy education and program director of reading education, dislikes the term “reading wars.” She feels it sets up a false dichotomy.

“The way it’s played out over time in terms of policy initiatives is that the pendulum swings to ‘Let’s really focus on phonics,’ to ‘Wait, there’s more to reading than just that,’” Frankel says. While phonics and decoding are integral to beginning readers, she worries that teachers’ quest to have their students master these topics can mean “kids—and minoritized children are likely to experience this more—are just skilled and drilled,” she says.

Photo: Portrait of Katherine Frankel. A white woman with short, curly brown hair and wearing a navy blue, blue, and dark pink, and muted orange block-striped dress sits and poses with legs crossed in a wooden chair. She smiles for the camera as she sits amongst bookshelves filled with books.

Katherine Frankel worries that teachers’ quest to have their students master decoding can mean “kids—and minoritized children are likely to experience this more—are just skilled and drilled.”

It’s one reason, says Jennifer Bryson (Wheelock’98,’05,’21), a senior lecturer and director of the elementary education program, why Wheelock prepares its future teachers in all the domains of literacy—phonics definitely, but also fluency, reading comprehension, vocabulary, writing, and reader motivation.

“Phonics is foundational to reading,” she says. “But imagine a school day filled with only phonics instruction, without discussing text or the characters. You end up having children who can recall words, but may not actually be able to deeply understand text.”

Wheelock offers a few different teacher-instruction programs that prepare future educators in literacy instruction: early childhood education, elementary education, reading education, and literacy education. Students learn how to lesson plan, how to administer assessments, and complete practicums. Some graduate students train in Wheelock’s Donald D. Durrell Reading & Writing Clinic, where they are paired with local elementary to high school students for one-on-one instruction.

“We are connecting what we’re teaching in our courses to the field immediately,” Bryson says. “For example, the language arts methods course is taught on-site at a Boston Public School. So, students have this opportunity to see it happening in real time, to practice it, to make mistakes, and to get coached.” Undergraduate students often log over 1,000 on-site hours, while the state only requires one-fifth of that. Frankel says the graduate-level reading program is redesigning its curriculum for fall 2024 in an attempt to take better advantage of the breadth of research in literacy across Wheelock and the NCIL.

“We have such a broad group of people who all think about literacy from slightly different perspectives,” Frankel says. “We’re trying to revise our program to move out of this model that we tend to have in higher education, where programs are in their own silos. And instead to say, what would it look like for our program to draw on the expertise of the whole college?”

A smattering: Bryson studies family-school partnerships, specifically ones that help promote literacy, often in communities with high populations of Black and Latino families. Andrea Bien, a Wheelock clinical assistant professor of elementary education, researches what curriculum conveys about who and what is valued. She also helps lead the new BU Center for Educating Critically, which provides professional development on anti-oppression teaching and learning. The center’s codirector is Laura Jiménez, Wheelock’s associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion and a senior lecturer in language and literacy education, whose scholarship asks who is being represented in children’s literature and how literature is used to teach students to view the world.

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