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Teacher training programs don't always use research-backed reading methods

Students scale a mountain of books, as a teacher helps them up.
Noemi Fabra for NPR

A dozen college students are saying the word "pat" and jotting down notes about the sounds being made.

"Puh - AH - tt"

Pay attention to the shapes your mouths make as you pronounce the word, instructs Robin Fuxa, their education professor at Oklahoma State University.

She asks her students if they can feel the way the words sound as they speak.

"Say it again and see if you feel it in your vocal cords," Fuxa prompts her reading instruction class, held last October.

Fuxa is trying to get her students to pay attention to phonics, the reading method that links a sound to a letter. Extensive research has shown phonics is an effective way to teach kids to read.

But teacher training programs like this one don't always prepare educators to use researched-backed reading methods, like phonics. In a 2023 study, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) surveyed nearly 700 teacher training programs across the country. Their findings:

"Only about a quarter of the teachers who leave teacher preparation programs across our nation enter classrooms prepared to teach kids to read [in a way that's] aligned to the science and research on reading," says Heather Peske, president of NCTQ.

The rest, she says, are investing money and time into learning methods like "three- cueing" and "balanced literacy," which aren't backed by research.

Thomas Dee, an education professor and researcher at Stanford University, says this disconnect between research and practice has been a long standing issue in education.

"Things for which there's good evidence of efficacy don't always make it into [the] everyday classroom practice of teachers," Dee says.

This comes at a time when reading proficiency among some school-aged children has been declining.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, otherwise known as the Nation's Report Card, shows reading scores among 13-year-olds have dropped since 2012, with a sharper dip during and after the pandemic. While test scores for 9-year-olds have mostly held steady since 2012, they too suffered a decline during the pandemic.

What makes the "science of reading" different

Dee is a big proponent of the "science of reading," which incorporates phonics, reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency, among other techniques. There is growing evidence that the science of reading is a more effective way to teach students how to read.

More effective than, say, "three-cueing," which is when students rely on context and sentence structure to identify words they don't know.

"Balanced literacy," formerly known as "whole language," is another commonly used method of reading instruction.

"The idea there was that kids sort of learn to read naturally and we just have to surround them with great literature," says Ellen McIntyre, dean of the teachers college at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

MyIntyre says balanced literacy had some great ideas about how to get students excited about reading, but she found the model was lacking.

"Really early on, the model didn't include systematic, explicit teaching of phonics or any of the other foundational skills."

Neither three-cueing nor balanced literacy are backed by research.

The 2023 study from NCTQ found 40% of surveyed schools are still teaching methods that "run counter to the research on effective reading instruction."

How teaching programs adopt "science of reading" methods

From 2019-2022, 46 states, including D.C., have passed reading legislation, according to The Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit connected to one of the country's largest teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers.

In North Carolina, for example, a 2021 law requires current teachers to undergo training in the science of reading. To adapt, some colleges and universities with teacher training programs are amending their courses so they're more in line with the latest research.

And they have some guidance: In 2022, the UNC System – the network of public universities in North Carolina – hired an outside company to audit teacher colleges and their use of the science of reading model. The institutions were given an evaluation of "strong," "good," "needs improvement" or "inadequate." Most teacher colleges were labeled as "needs improvement."

Gerrelyn Patterson, chair of educator preparation at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black college, says the school was already teaching science of reading concepts, and even though the audit delivered a "good" score, they made additional changes to their curriculum. This included changes to syllabi, course descriptions and a review of the materials used for assignments.

Patterson says she and faculty met for hours at a time to review the courses they were teaching. In the end, the committee revised some courses to be more in-depth when it comes to reading.

"The students would say [the courses were] time intensive... they already felt like the literacy classes are very rigorous," Patterson says. But students told her the revised literacy courses were aligning with other training they got, "so they could see that connection."

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, the state's only four-year American Indian and Alaska Native-serving institution, was not among the campuses that received a "strong" or "good" score from the audit.

In response to the lower evaluation, the university added two additional classes to the curriculum, increasing the required reading courses for students from three to five.

In 2023, school administrators said that they were planning on hiring an endowed professor of literacy, with a focus on leadership, research and teaching in the science of reading. The person hired in the position will also have funding to conduct literacy research.

However, not all educators have been on board with the changes at Pembroke.

"It's taken some time to kind of get the buy-in," says Gretchen Robinson, an education professor there.

According to Robinson, faculty met last spring for weekly feedback sessions. She said some were skeptical of the changes because they were being asked to teach in a way they weren't used to.

The university ended up losing two faculty members in 2023 as a result of the instruction shift.

Teachers pushback on legislating the classroom

Some educators have been uncomfortable with state legislators making decisions around how reading is taught.

"No collective group of legislators have the knowledge to do that," said Jenifer Jasinski Schneider, a professor of literacy studies at the University of South Florida.

She said USF is not changing their way of teaching reading because they've always incorporated principles like phonics and vocabulary into their lessons.

She acknowledges that there are a lot of K-12 students who are not learning to read, but she thinks there are bigger issues that state legislators should address before taking a critical stance on reading.

"We have internet access issues...We have kids that have food insecurity," Jasinski Schneider said.

"If they want to legislate something, legislate that every kid gets to eat three meals a day, instead of banning a teaching method, right? If they really want to help... make sure schools are over-resourced not under-resourced."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hiba Ahmad
Brianna Atkinson
Ann Doss Helms
Ann Doss Helms covers education for WFAE. She was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer for 32 years, including 16 years on the education beat. She has repeatedly won first place in education reporting from the North Carolina Press Association and won the 2015 Associated Press Senator Sam Open Government Award for reporting on charter school salaries.
Kerry Sheridan
Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.
Beth Wallis