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Is Your State’s Literacy Approach Aligned with the Evidence?

April 4, 2024

As both an education researcher and a former kindergarten teacher in New York City, I am particularly committed to the need for evidence in education, and I’ve watched the latest debate about strategies for teaching reading with interest. With the Education Sciences Reform Act (ESRA)—which, among other things established the Institute of Education Sciences to create an evidence base to inform and improve educational practices—up for reauthorization after 21 years(!), now seems like a good time to look at how resources developed by federal technical assistance centers can support states in using evidence to inform instructional methods.

Nearly all states have reading legislation that mentions the need for evidence—consistent with the guidance under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—and over 30 states have policies that mention the “science of reading.” While ESSA has specific definitions for “evidence,” states and local education agencies must interpret and use this evidence to inform their decisions. The following are tips for using publicly available resources that can support states, districts, and schools in their quest to improve reading instruction with evidence-informed decision-making.   

1. Review current instructional resources. Since it is time-consuming and expensive to change curriculum and instructional materials, education leaders might want to first determine whether the resources they are currently using are worth keeping. Education leaders might consider assessing instructional materials against this rubric for evaluating reading/language arts instructional materials for kindergarten to grade 5 created by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).    

Parts of the program materials that align with effective practices can be maintained while problematic elements (such as three-cueing, in which students are prompted to use context and sentence structure, along with letters, to identify words) are phased out.    

For example, while the school I taught in encouraged balanced literacy approaches that are being phased out, they had adopted a mix-and-match curriculum that included phonics-heavy curricular materials that remain “up to code.”   

2. Consider all the evidence when selecting curriculum or intervention programs. “Evidence-based” doesn’t mean unanimous results. The evidence on programs may be mixed: findings may vary across studies, or a study of a program might find positive effects for some reading outcomes but not others.  And that assumes there are findings at all; many programs aligned with the science of reading do not yet have rigorous evidence of effectiveness. For example, New York City required elementary schools to choose from one of three curriculums that its Department of Education said are aligned with the research, but no studies of these programs met the requirements for inclusion in the Evidence for ESSA clearinghouse.    

What’s a leader to do? I see this as a study in the importance of triangulating information. For example, the Michigan Department of Education compiled a list of resources, including IES’s rubric for evaluating reading/language arts instructional materials. The U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse reviews rigorous studies of educational programs and interventions. In support of ESSA’s evidence requirements, the Center for Research and Reform at Johns Hopkins University developed Evidence for ESSA, which identifies programs and practices that align to the ESSA evidence standards. So, if your current programs aren’t aligned with evidence, you have options to search for alternate approaches.  

3. Once you’ve identified programs to implement, tap into the evidence-based resources that provide instructional support. Some articles describe reading instruction as terrible across the board. I suspect there’s more variation in instructional quality than is typically portrayed but there’s always room to improve, and there are resources out there to help do so. IES has several Practice Guides related to reading instruction, including Foundational Skills to Support Reading for Understanding in Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade, Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4–9, and Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School. Practice Guides also have related resources, such as the Professional Learning Communities Facilitator's Guide and Instructional Tips for teaching academic content and literacy to elementary and middle school students learning English.  
Just as we expect teachers to provide differentiated instruction to students, we could also emphasize the importance of providing differentiated feedback to teachers. IES has a Phonological Awareness and Phonics Instruction Rubric that highlights evidence-based recommendations for instructional practice and provides a framework for leaders and teachers to work collaboratively towards improving instruction in phonological awareness and phonics.   

Some states have developed research-aligned resources in collaboration with their Comprehensive Centers, which are federal technical assistance centers that address pressing educational needs across the country. For example, the Comprehensive Centers supported the development of Alaska’s AKLearns Reading Playbook and accompanying materials, which emphasize five reading skills highlighted in the National Reading Panel: phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. California’s Early Literacy Support Block Grant invested more than $50 million to support implementation of new policies around reading instruction. Researchers found that this effort resulted in improved reading achievement, with some smaller improvements in math outcomes as well.

Where do we go from here?  

As is often the case, many questions remain. How much time should be devoted to each aspect of reading instruction in each grade? What materials best support students at different grades and levels of reading skill? Do different practice recommendations apply to teachers of multilingual learners? My hope is that educators and researchers will work together to develop a practice-oriented research agenda that answers these questions, and the underlying question: how can we support improvements in reading instruction?

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