Already troubled by her 4th grade students' low reading levels, San Antonio-area teacher Melody Fernandez entered "survival mode" when she was moved down to 1st grade—and discovered the full scope of what she and many of her elementary colleagues were not prepared to teach.
She had learned a lot in her preparation about reading theories, but no specific protocols for teaching the subject. So she did what many teachers new to a grade do. She used the methods more seasoned colleagues told her to use, and the curriculum on hand, which relied on leveled picture books with easily memorized, repetitive sentence structures.
"You would just do different strategies, different little activities to get this rote memorization of sight words," she said. "I did everything I was supposed to do. Kids were supposed to need kinesthetic movement, and so we did 'reach up high for the tall letters and hang down low for the low letters.' We had our weekly spelling test and our sound of the week, and that was supposed to translate to reading," she said.
In all that's been written about early literacy, little attention has been given to the cultural factors that influence how such practices are learned, reinforced, and transmitted. Yet sociology plays a major role in why they linger on in classrooms—despite evidence that they can hinder young readers' ability to crack the code.
This is a story about how Fernandez realized there was a better way to teach early reading. It's also a cautionary tale illuminating the cultural obstacles that hold back many of her K-2 reading peers, and the field at large, from similar shifts.
For one thing, new data from the Education Week Research Center, released as part of this special report, suggest that in the pursuit of "balanced literacy," many teachers are blending multiple approaches in a way that can weaken instruction. What that means is that shifting early literacy practice on a large scale won't happen merely by switching out a textbook or two. It will require helping teachers make a culture shift—without blaming or shaming them.
Teachers are using flawed reading practices not because they're ignorant, ill-prepared, or incompetent. They are doing it because, like Melody Fernandez, they are being told to use them—usually by deeply trusted sources, like cherished mentors, colleagues, or the popular curriculum sitting in their classrooms.
The Education Week survey paints the first nationally representative picture of how K-2 teachers instruct students to decode, or identify new words on the page—a critical piece in the complex process of learning to read.
Nearly 70 percent of K-2 and special education reading teachers in a nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center said that they are using balanced literacy. But what did they mean by it? In responses, teachers outlined how they defined the term, with most falling into one of the following three categories.
A combination of phonics and whole language instruction
Balanced literacy is often defined as "taking the best parts" from these two approaches. Among the most common blended approaches is the notion of using "cueing systems" to solve unfamiliar words: Students are asked to use meaning cues like pictures and context, syntactic cues like sentence structure, and "graphophonic" or visual cues like initial letter sounds to identify a new word. In practice, phonics is often subordinated to the other two cues.
Guided reading or leveled reading
These are most associated with two specific curriculum providers, both of them popular among educators. The Education Week survey found that 4 in 10 teachers use Fountas & Pinnell's Leveled Literacy Intervention and 16 percent use Units of Study for Teaching Reading, developed by Teachers College Professor Lucy Calkins. In a guided reading program, students work with a teacher in groups separated by their reading level, usually determined via periodically administered "running records" looking at student reading errors based on cues. The students read and analyze texts at their instructional level, rather than books deemed too challenging or easy. Phonics skills are generally introduced within context.
A program that bases instruction on all five major components of literacy
The "big five" refer to the 2000 National Reading Panel report. The federally financed panel concluded from a review of empirical research that phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension were critical elements of early literacy teaching.
But the panel did not prescribe a particular way that these components should be put together in a curriculum.
Balanced literacy is a term with a number of interpretations, but teachers appear to use a mix of techniques to put it into practice—some research-based and others not. Nearly 60 percent of teachers said that when students encountered a word they don't know, they taught them to first "sound it out," a core component of phonics, which helps students master how to decode and encode letter sounds. But that's undercut by the more than half who said they agreed that students didn't need a good grasp of phonics to read unfamiliar words. And 3 in 4 U.S. teachers said they taught students to use the "three-cueing system" when reading.
Cueing, sometimes called "MSV"—shorthand for meaning, syntactical, and visual—developed from whole language, an approach that prioritizes meaning over learning the alphabetic code. The basic idea is that students use cues like pictures, sentence structure, and sometimes letters to decipher a new word. Students are assigned books with predictable sentence structures that reinforce the use of the cues, and they're frequently put in teaching groups based on which cues they supposedly need help on.
Empirical research studies overwhelmingly support a systematic code-based approach over the meaning-first ones. But many teachers protest that the two should be complementary—what's wrong with uniting them? It's a common refrain among reading teachers, after all, that students can benefit from "all the tools in the toolbox." Or, that students can use cueing systems to "cross check" whether they've successfully decoded a word.
In essence the problem is that phonics and cueing work at cross purposes to one another. As researchers like Marilyn Adams and Keith Stanovich have found, good readers attend to all the letters in words when they read, rather than predicting upcoming words from context. Cueing, on the other hand, encourages students to take their attention off of printed text.
Fernandez actually had heard about phonics, phonemes, and digraphs in her teacher preparation program. But she also was told about the reading wars, that a balanced approach was the best way to teach, and that students should spend a lot of time reading "authentic texts," while learning their sounds separately. So alongside phonics, she learned about sight words and the principles of "guided reading."
Once in the classroom, with no scope and sequence for teaching phonics, Fernandez prompted her students to use the cueing methods when they came across words they didn't know. She had posters on the walls depicting animals, each touting a different reading strategy: "Eagle Eye," who encouraged students to look for pictures if they didn't know a word, and "Skippy Frog," who told them to "skip the tricky word" they didn't know and come back to it later. She made popsicle-stick reminders that students could refer to when reading independently.
But she began noticing small things that didn't add up. For one thing, students' brains "seemed to turn off" in her small-group lessons. They weren't paying attention to the printed words on the page; they were scanning the page looking for pictures and making guesses.
For another, they couldn't recognize words out of context: "They would memorize a story in a book, but when they saw those same words in another book they wouldn't be able to transfer their knowledge," she said.
By the end of her second school year teaching 1st grade, Fernandez wasn't satisfied with her students' reading growth. "They'd improved, but the students with the lowest skills still had the lowest skills," Fernandez recalled. "And that was a problem to me. I had won Teacher of the Year one year. And I felt like a failure."
This mix of techniques isn't a bug in the system: It is often communicated to teachers as a best practice. When the cueing systems are taught in education courses next to phonics, the message that sends is that no one method is superior to another. Logically, teachers assume that it's perfectly acceptable to pick and choose, or blend them together.
Teacher preparation is hardly the only transmitter of mixed signals. For years teacher licensing exams have included questions related to cueing, often alongside important literacy topics like phonemes and morphemes. Though the Educational Testing Service has phased out most references to cueing in its tests, its reading-specialist exam, required in about 20 states, still includes the topic. (ETS officials said that test will be replaced in September 2020, and will no longer include cueing.)
A set of reading standards used by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which runs the prestigious national board-certification process, state that "accomplished teachers know that strategic readers use a variety of cueing systems, and they understand how to instruct students to use these systems flexibly."
Both the ETS and NBPTS exams are taken by teachers of an array of grade levels, including those working with K-2 students, where cueing is likely to cause the most harm.
As explored elsewhere in this special report, some of the most popular early-reading curricula encourage teachers to use the cueing ideas with their students. Even in those that have recently rushed phonics supplements to market, an implicit message continues to tell teachers that phonics should be separated from the "real" work of reading.
Marketing materials for the Units of Phonics K-2 curriculum, written by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Teachers College, Columbia University, and published by Heinemann, say: "Lucy and her coauthors aim to protect time for authentic reading and writing, while also helping you teach a rigorous, research-based phonics curriculum."
Professional associations also send a variety of mixed signals. Conferences hosted by the International Literacy Association and the National Council of Teachers of English continue to include sessions critical of code-based instruction. The American Association of School Administrators' November 2019 issue contained an article written by Calkins on her balanced literacy curriculum, whose materials use some of the cueing prompts. It ran right next to an essay by another superintendent, who noted—correctly—that the curriculum's approach lacks empirical research.
In light of that, it's no wonder misunderstandings persist, some frustrated district officials said, in response to the odd juxtaposition.
"We're talking about things that are settled, versus things that aren't settled or proven outside of anecdotal little stories," said Jared Myracle, the chief academic officer for the Jackson-Madison district in Tennessee, about the articles. "Most superintendents are not experts in the science of reading. … The next time the discussion comes up in the district and you're making decisions about materials, you've opened a door for an unsupported theory to take over your district's literacy initiative, even though I'm sure that wasn't the intent."
For Fernandez, things came to a head after one particularly brutal lesson. Students were working on the word family of the week, specializing in a particular vowel sound, like the long o. They were excited, peppering Fernandez with examples. But then she ran into a problem: Students were naming words with the correct phoneme but lots of different spellings. And Fernandez realized she couldn't explain to them why the /o/ sound could also be spelled -oa or -ow or -oe.
"They came up with these great ideas, and it would absolutely be the right sound, but it wouldn't fit into that word family. And I'd tell them that, and their faces would fall," she said.
She commiserated with a colleague, newly arrived from a different district that had been using a systematic code-based approach, who ultimately told her: "You're really not teaching it the best way. Letter names aren't as important as teaching all the letter sounds," Fernandez recalled.
She thought that was crazy at first, but she determined over the summer that she'd get to the bottom of matters before starting at a new school district. She Googled "teaching letter sounds." She spent hours on blogs. She eventually came across articles on the science of reading, participated in webinars, even paid for some private training on phonemic manipulation and phonics out of her own pocket. And eventually, all the pieces clicked.
"I was just kind of shocked, I guess, like, 'Huh! This is so weird. This makes sense to me, and it makes sense to teach. Why isn't everyone doing it this way?' " she said. "It's baffling to me, still."
It's not as baffling, though, when you consider just how complex foundational alphabetic skills are. The rules for phonics aren't simple or intuitive, and guiding students through 44 sound patterns is a lot more difficult than reading alongside a student and prompting him to use context to guess at new words.
Marnie Ginsberg, a former federally funded literacy researcher, is now a literacy consultant and one of the sources Fernandez credits with her breakthrough. She says the teachers she works with generally fall into several categories. Some have access to great phonics resources, but simply feel overwhelmed trying to put them into practice. Others, like Fernandez, don't arrive with a particularly strong philosophical bent: They're using weak materials and approaches because that's what they know.
More challenging, she says, are those teachers who have seen old-fashioned phonics worksheets and thus have the idea of phonics as "drill and kill" teaching. But the hardest of all is working with teachers who have been trained in specific balanced literacy curricula.
Indeed, many teachers are deeply skeptical of recent reporting, including Education Week's, that questions staples of the balanced literacy classroom. And it's no wonder: Whole teaching careers, not to mention professional reputations, have been built on these methods. Ideas like cueing are so ingrained that many teachers don't even realize their origins; they may only know them as the "animal strategies."
In those cases, working with teachers is a little bit like trying to separate two colors of clay that have been kneaded together: getting rid of practices like cueing while keeping the commendable focus on reading and writing.
That usually means showing how teachers can start to shift in small, digestible ways. For example, Wiley Blevins, who trains teachers nationwide, helps teachers who lack "decodable" or controlled texts that help students practice newly learned phonics skills create some of their own, and he insists that teachers spend at least half of their lessons having students apply phonics knowledge to actual reading and writing to dispel the idea that building background knowledge isn't compatible with foundational skills.
"We work on how teachers can write [decodable] text sentences—like maybe five sentences, with one new word introducing a new phonics skill. You can write sentences on the topics you're talking about so you're reinforcing it in a phonics way," he said. "I don't make them write stories—that's too hard. But five sentences and one new word? That they can do."
As teachers gradually learn effective decoding practices, they also start to realize that they've become experts in early literacy research, he said.
The challenge facing the nation now is how to do that work at scale. And surprisingly, much of the recent interest in early literacy has been driven by grassroots parent groups, rather than by district brass.
Increasingly, it's also being led by practicing classroom teachers, who are organizing themselves into networks to spread research-based approaches to early literacy and other subjects. ResearchED, a teacher-led network inspired by a similar effort in the United Kingdom, has been leading conferences and trainings, as has The Reading League, which began in 2015 as a dedicated group of teachers and administrators in Syracuse, N.Y.
"We don't push strategies, activities, or programs—we push knowledge," said Maria Murray, the CEO and president of The Reading League. She's heartened to see the rise of like-minded groups and senses that a sea change is coming even if it's early days yet.
"I think because it takes a while for phrases and realities to make their way into schools. Twenty years ago you didn't dare do PD and say 'science of reading,' but now it's been around so long that there's more than one person in a school who knows what it is," she said.
There are some emerging signs that states are pressing for more systemic changes, too. Mississippi has invested significantly in teacher preparation, while in an aggressive recent move, Arkansas recently declared that it won't give any early literacy curriculum program whose theoretical base includes cueing a state stamp of approval.
Still, major knowledge gaps remain. And even those teachers who have successfully shifted their own practices often feel that they're swimming upstream against the cultural tides.
Fernandez's current district recently selected a new curriculum with a lot of word memorization, and it came with fewer decodable books, she said. There's a separate phonics program that doesn't appear to be well integrated with the core curriculum. She must still administer periodic "running records" based on the cueing philosophy, because the district uses them to track progress in all its elementary schools.
And fear of falling afoul of administrators remains a powerful deterrent. Education Week spoke with at least two teachers in other districts who shared remarkably similar experiences to Fernandez's, but declined to share them on the record, citing concerns about professional repercussions.
Fernandez understands. She worries that someday, she'll be asked to tell students to take the new, not-great curricula out of their desks and to use them.
"I've had to find all these reading materials myself, and learn the research by myself without getting caught," she said. "There is always that fear that the other shoe's going to drop, and I'm going to get my hand slapped for not doing what the district has said is the way to teach reading."