Solutions for Our Reading Challenges

Wisconsin took an important step forward in the summer of 2023 with the passage of Act 20

This comprehensive literacy bill defines science-based early reading in a way that aligns with the research. It requires schools to follow the research and bans the disproved 3-cueing  and whole word memorization strategies that have been so prominent in our schools. An Early Literacy Curriculum Council is charged with recommending instructional materials that align with reading science, and some reimbursement is likely for districts that elect to purchase off this list. Funding has been provided for a new director of a Wisconsin Reading Center at DPI and for up to 64 coaches who will be trained and sent out into high needs schools. There is mandated professional development for educators, administrators, and higher education personnel, as well as universal early screening with parental notification of results and personal reading plans for students below the 25th percentile. 

Much work lies ahead in the implementation of Act 20, but it does have great potential. It has addressed many of the following well-known and well-established solutions for under-performance in reading.. It has all been done elsewhere, with measurable results. This is not laboratory theory. It is basic best practice. Where schools and states do these things, children read better. More children achieve at the highest levels and fewer children fail. Fewer children need intervention, and interventions are more efficient and effective. We save time, money, and futures. Everyone benefits.

Scientifically-based early core reading curriculum

Excellent early core reading programs match the way brains learn to read, connecting written symbols to speech sounds. They do not promote word recognition strategies that draw attention away from analysis of the written word, such as whole word rote memorization or context guessing. They cover the five essential components of reading - phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and comprehension - as elaborated in the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough's Reading Rope. Instruction is explicit and systematic, age-appropriate in balance and intensity, and includes planned, deliberate practice in isolation and in controlled texts. Reading acquisition is not left to chance, but ensured by design.

Children are taught to distinguish and manipulate the sounds in spoken language (phonemic awareness), and to link the smallest units of sound with their letter representations (phonics). These two components are emphasized in the early grades, along with syllable structure and beginning elements of morphology (prefixes, suffixes, and base words/roots). Spelling and reading are taught together and are mutually reinforcing. Vocabulary development and language comprehension are woven into the curriculum, recognizing that until a child has automatic word recognition (fluency), language comprehension must be developed through oral and experiential means.  The complex relationship of the five components and the individual strands of Scarborough's Reading Rope is recognized.  Aided by quality assessments, teachers know what children are supposed to learn, whether they have learned it, and what to do right away if they did not learn it.

Screening for at-risk readers

10% to 20% of children will struggle to read due to a neurological reading disability such as dyslexia. Another substantial percentage will enter school with a weak literacy background, and may continue to lack home support. Still others have experienced poor instruction. We can often spot risk factors before a child ever begins to read. Simple and quick screening instruments in phonemic awareness, rapid naming, alphabet knowledge, oral vocabulary, and basic early literacy awareness can identify the nature of the risk and guide further assessment and intervention. When we identify struggles early and intervene effectively, we get better and faster results. 

Systematic and Targeted Intervention Programs

Without intervention, children who struggle early almost always struggle or fail later. 74% of struggling readers in 1st grade remain struggling readers in 9th grade. Science shows us that early intervention works better and faster than later efforts. It also shows us that interventions must be targeted to the specific problem, and be based on proven methods rather than classroom philosophy or personal preference. There is no perfect intervention for all students, because each student has an individual profile of strengths and weaknesses. For students with neurological word reading disabilities, it is important to use an intensive, scientifically-based instructional program with sufficient practice and continuous review of skills, as well as direct, explicit, and simultaneous multi-sensory teaching techniques. This is often referred to as "structured literacy." Brain imaging studies (Shaywitz et al., 2004; Simos et al, 2002; Temple et al., 2003) show that as little as 100 hours of early, intensive, evidence-based remediation can rewire brains for better reading.

Tools for Educators

We know that student success depends on knowledgeable, well-trained teachers.  It is not enough to care about children, work hard, and follow a curriculum, even if it is good. Educators have to know why it works, why things are done as they are, how to recognize problems, and what to do about them when they occur.  The demands become even greater in a school that has chosen a constructivist, literature-based program for teaching reading basics. By helping our teachers to understand the complex processes of reading development and instruction, they become a critical part of the success equation.  We know our universities do not teach everything they should, and teacher in-service opportunities are not all they should be.  Teachers, almost universally dedicated and hard-working, are often burdened with a lack of information, and even some misinformation. But the knowledge is at hand to fix that. Read about the Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading, and the teacher preparation programs that have adopted them. Individual certification in the Knowledge and Practice Standards is available from the Center for Excellence in Reading Instruction (CERI). Some teachers are already getting an excellent foundation in the essential knowledge of reading foundations through independent teacher training organizations; we have to make sure they all do. Students deserve fully-trained teachers, and teachers deserve training that matches their hard work and dedication.

Teacher Licensure Requirements

Teacher licensing is a sensitive issue, but we know that tougher licensing has led to improved student achievement in other states. No one wants to burden teachers unnecessarily, but we have to be sure the knowledge is getting to the teachers so they can carry it to the classroom. Unfortunately, passing through the curriculum of a college of education is no assurance that the necessary information has been imparted, or practiced in real instructional situations.  Exams can let teacher preparation programs, school districts, and teachers themselves know if they have the knowledge they need.   In 2012, Wisconsin followed in the footsteps of Massachusetts and Connecticut by adopting the Foundations of Reading Test as a new requirement for initial licensure for teachers of reading, including special educators and reading specialists.  Unfortunately, little seems to have changed in Wisconsin teacher preparation, and numerous ways to avoid the exam requirement have been established. 

Detailed State Standards for Students

Outstanding, detailed, and complete state standards based on the best science of beginning reading give critical support to local districts. The best standards not only culminate in creative, 21st century skills and experiences for high school graduates, they begin with detailed, specific standards for early reading that are based on science and set the foundation for later years. The best standards in early reading give every district a head start on the rest of their work, saving everyone time and money, and better assuring that every child gets the best instruction possible.