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April 6, 2021

A Glimpse at the Science of Reading

By Mykenzie Johnson, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading

I recently had the opportunity as an Engagement Team member to tune into the Cox Campus presentation of the 23rd Annual Montag Family Community Lecture Series, “Unpacking the Science of Reading So All Kids Can Learn.” The 90-minute webinar was broadcast across four social channels, with more than 3,000 in attendance. All 50 states were represented, and listeners from around the world joined too! Advertised as a must-see for parents, teachers, and scholars, I was intrigued to hear what research has uncovered about best practices for increasing childhood literacy. 

Comer Yates, executive director of The Atlanta Speech School, began the call by offering a brief introduction. He noted that the gathering was to think about who we are, who we’ll be, and how we can show up for our children in the coming decade. Yates provided a strong call for action—to decide what the story will be for our future generations. 

Given their location in Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King’s hometown, Yates shared a quote he felt was fitting to the lecture, “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny.” 

Yates reiterated his gratitude for everyone committed to the purpose of eradicating what he called the twin pandemics—COVID-19 and centuries of racial inequity—both of which are deeply affecting access to childhood reading and literacy. Yates commented that proficiency is not the end goal and referenced 2020’s Annual Montag Family Community Lecture Series speaker, Maryanne Wolf, who educated on deep reading. Yates also offered Dr. Gholdy Muhammad as an additional resource, who authored Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework. Muhammad says, “Reading is for the purpose of creating identity and can give power to liberate others.” He mentioned these two literacy experts as starting places to inspire future personal research and reading. I’ll be adding their works to my list! 

While Yates’ introduction was a wealth of knowledge, the lecture itself featured Emily Hanford, an investigative reporter and journalist with over 25 years of experience in public media. Her current primary focus is on equity and how the way we teach reading impacts literacy. Hanford believes we cannot achieve social justice until we ensure every child has access to reading. Two articles she wrote and recommended for further exploration were What the Words Say and Hard Words

Hanford’s full lecture was filled with graphics, statistics, and tips on how to help children read and help them actually comprehend what they’re reading. She balanced explaining the science of teaching reading and the role of literacy in an equitable future. Her work covering education for the past 13 years has been intentional, raising awareness of how important teaching is and emphasizing that what happens in the classroom is critical. She boldly shared that teachers aren’t taught how to teach reading in alignment with science and research. Hanford continues to express specific concerns that complicate learning how to read, such as dyslexia and the availability of valuable yet finite resources such as time and money. 

I was interested in hearing the nuances of school structure limitations (such as public vs. private vs. homeschool) and the snowball effect of children not having the tools they need to succeed. Many agree reading is the most fundamental skill a child can learn, but in the U.S., Hanford claims low- to moderate-income homes have little to no safety net if reading education is suffering in school. Insufficient or lack of instruction, possibly combined with an undiagnosed learning disorder, can quickly spin into further complications such as frustration, behavioral problems, depression, and withdrawal if left unaddressed.

Hanford shared diagrams like The Ladder of Reading (Nancy Young, 2019), SVR or Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986), and Scarborough’s Rope Model of Reading (2001) to communicate how educators should be helping children learn to read. My head was swirling with definitions of phonics, history of the written English language, and words such as syntax, semantics, and orthographic mapping. To say this was an extremely comprehensive and dense explanation behind the science of reading would be an understatement! By the end, I felt it’s no wonder there’s confusion and disagreement behind how to teach reading…there are so many factors and considerations! Then, insert COVID-19 and the transition to virtual classrooms— an uncharted territory for most teachers and students alike. 

I don’t want to give too many spoiler alerts in hopes that this glimpse will inspire you to watch the full-length lecture, but my takeaway was to find the silver linings mentioned despite our reading literacy crisis.

  • One note of hope was that because several kids are learning online at home, parents who never learned to read themselves now have access to lessons via Zoom with their children. Parents who may not have been involved with their children’s education are now much more aware of what they are learning. We have a great opportunity to partner together— educators, parents, policymakers, and school leaders, to align instruction with the now 50+ years of scientific research on reading instruction.
  • Hanford praised a specific group of people, parents of children with dyslexia, calling them advocacy champions in creating awareness and calls for action. She encouraged viewers to do their homework and believe they have power in numbers. Hanford encouraged groups to come together to find solutions and advocate for a change in their local school systems. She emphasized our kids are the future, and we have to help them be the best they can be! I loved the point that literacy is not the end goal but rather a gateway to self-determination.
  • There’s a movement to combat the underrepresentation of black and brown children in special education. Hanford explains that socio-economic status and race can exist as barriers to receive an accurate diagnosis due to cost and access, resulting in less intervention. That leaves our most vulnerable unable to receive special education—assuming that schools have sufficient special educations to begin with. Another topic for another blog!
  • We must question our deep societal beliefs. Why do we assume all adults can read? Why do we associate smartness with literacy? What does the role of family play in encouraging reading? Why is the only answer to read with your child more? This lecture provided several thought-provoking questions to ponder how we approach reading instruction and what elements of inequity are further contributing to its challenges. 

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