It’s Time to Turn the Page: Why No One Wins in the Reading Wars

 //  Nov 25, 2019

It’s Time to Turn the Page: Why No One Wins in the Reading Wars

Educators, literacy experts, and parents have long debated best practices in reading instruction, leading to the rise of the so-called “reading wars.” Meanwhile, the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), otherwise known as “the nation’s report card,” paints a dire picture: the average reading scores for both 4th and 8th graders in the U.S. have dropped since 2017 with few significant changes in performance since 2009. The reading wars will rage on unless we shift our focus beyond an either/or argument to a conversation on how we make what each child needs available to them when they need it. Now, more than ever, we believe the solution is an equitable, personalized, responsive, and comprehensive approach to literacy instruction—leading with building teacher knowledge, informing with cutting-edge research, and enabling with technology. 

We can all agree, this is not simple. But we cannot allow that to be why we don’t make forward progress. Scholastic has spent 99 years in classrooms learning from and partnering directly with educators, administrators, students, and families. We bring that to our collaborations with leading researchers, authors, and practitioners every day to ensure we are helping to support the success of all children. Informed by this, we propose a pathway forward to meet the needs of each school, classroom, and student. 

  • Foundational skills have lost their place in the classroom: Learning to read means mastering a set of complex skills: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. Just as you cannot build a house without a foundation, you cannot expect a child to pick up any book and read it without being able to first decode and understand words in a text. The pendulum is swinging back and forth on this matter with some classrooms having lost the time for thoughtful instruction around foundational skills while others have been overwrought. We believe good literacy instruction must include focused lessons on skill-building, as well as time to practice at each student’s pace. As Catherine Snow from Harvard Graduate School of Education notes in The New York Times, finding exciting ways to integrate foundational skills—such as knowledge of letter sounds and combinations—into lessons plans increases student engagement: “If the task you’re engaged in is researching lizards’ reproductive cycle or discussing who Harry Potter’s best friend was and why, those are intrinsically motivating tasks. They drive you back to texts to find information.”
  • Teachers (and administrators) need help to get this right: Are teachers receiving professional development? On the whole, yes. Is it what it needs to be? I’d argue perhaps not. In too many cases, PD can take a cookie-cutter approach and be a one-off occurrence that doesn’t focus on the real-time needs of an educator, include the latest research, or arm educators with the technology and resources they’ll need for daily practice. We believe that teachers and administrators need continuous opportunities to grow and learn in order to scaffold instruction, differentiate learning, effectively teach the 44 sounds of phonics and phonemic awareness, use decodable and authentic texts to support all readers, integrate writing in the literacy block and across disciplines, use the programs available to them and, yes, learn how to work with families. Job-embedded coaching is an empowering solution. It can bring real-time support for the specific needs of each classroom and students, exactly when it is needed. Applaud and support teachers on this mission with encouragement and importantly, ongoing, relevant professional learning.
  • Teachers need access to real-time data around students’ progress: As I shared, there is a set of foundational skills every child must learn. Each student will reach mastery at a different pace and that demands individualized attention. In a classroom of 30 students, teachers need support to be nimble and responsive. Technology provides a safe—and differentiated—place for students to reinforce and practice specific skills or concepts they may find challenging. Digital tools also provide real-time, important data around foundational skills, time on texts, and students’ reading interests, allowing teachers to prescribe the right combination of skill reinforcement, one-on-one or in small group instruction, and that just right book to keep a child motivated. It cannot be ignored that digital resources can be a powerful tool for engagement as well as enhance access to texts, personalized instruction, and practice 24/7.
  • Authentic books must come back to the classroom: Only one-third of school-aged children say they have a classroom library full of books they want to read, according to the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™. Without opportunity to choose from a wide range of characters, genres, themes, and formats, how can we expect children to fall in love with reading and begin to harness self-motivation around the task of learning? Central to Scholastic’s mission is our conviction that every child both deserves to read, and can read, with access to books and texts. We must provide all children with a variety of authentic texts—real books and stories (not written first and foremost for instructional purposes) that tell universal stories of hope and resilience and impart information. It is only through experience with these stories that children can be expected to transfer learning in real-world settings. Vital to this idea is also the importance of choice. The majority of kids (89%) agree their favorite books are the ones that they have picked out themselves. The more we can provide children with access to engaging, high-quality authentic print and digital reading materials, the more we can help them build their identities and confidence as capable and engaged learners and independent thinkers.
  • Families are critical, but few schools engage them well: More than 50 years of research proves a simple truth: when families are involved in their children’s learning, students are more successful. And yet, educators are still finding their way in how to work with families. In the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report, 62% of teachers and principals say their school’s staff is not effective in engaging families. Seventy-four percent agree they need help. We’ve seen firsthand that professional development for educators in this area is paramount and achievable, as are workshops and resources for families that teach them how to support literacy development at home. Partnering with families is a crucial part of our commitment to equitable literacy instruction. This helps to build a literacy community with shared responsibility for students’ success. “We need to ask families what they want, and what they know, because they can share a lot about their children that will help teachers be better practitioners in the classroom,” explains Dr. Karen Mapp, author and senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Together, the right mix of events and resources, such as ones that bring books into the home, can be created for your community.

Collectively, we all must commit our efforts to meeting the individual needs of our children, our schools, and our communities—not on winning a polemical debate. Only then, will our literacy instruction drive success for the nation’s students.

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