POV: We Need to Be Better at Teaching Kids to Read
Wheelock dean addresses new report that criticizes area colleges for not adequately preparing future educators—and shares steps BU is taking
Being able to read independently is powerful. Despite its power, in Massachusetts schools today many children are not taught to read independently, significantly limiting their potential. These children are overrepresented by children from low-income communities, communities of color, and children with disabilities. Fortunately, we have the knowledge to change these outcomes. In the United States, few areas of education have been studied more than how children learn to read. For many decades researchers from several disciplines (e.g., psychology, linguistics, speech pathology, education, neuroscience) have studied how the human brain perceives and processes print and connects it into oral language and concepts in order to understand an author’s message. This area of study has recently been dubbed the science of reading.
Recently, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) published a report that ranked Massachusetts 35th overall for preparing future educators to teach children to read. This included studying the programs of 19 Massachusetts higher education institutions that prepare teachers. Many of these institutions performed very poorly on the NCTQ’s ratings—including Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, which received a rating of D. As the dean of Wheelock, I feel it is important to address this disappointing rating directly and to talk about the recent change initiatives that have been underway at Wheelock to ensure that we are at the forefront of efforts to empower students through literacy.
Like other areas of research, there are many things we know and don’t know about learning to read. We do know that learning to read is not a natural process; it takes effort. Some children seem to learn relatively easily, while others struggle. This variation can be misleading to parents and teachers. Still, studies have continued to show that with explicit and systematic instruction, upwards of 95 percent of students can learn to read by the end of first grade, though in Massachusetts just 43 percent are reading proficiently by fourth. Clearly there is a disconnect here, and this disconnect is one that the BU Wheelock faculty is committed to doing our part to address.
For many children, with the right sequence of experiences and reading material that is motivating, the process results in learners becoming increasingly independent with texts early. However, for other children, learning to read requires special effort. Why is this? The answer to this question varies considerably. For some children, reading challenges are organic, the result of language delays or learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia) that impact their early reading. For others, reading challenges may occur because they are not taught how to read effectively, and they develop poor word reading strategies. Poor text reading has a compounded impact on the overall process of reading and on children’s motivation to read. Evidence suggests that these children, in particular, benefit from carefully designed instruction and practice with reading in order to prevent them from developing greater challenges with reading later in their development.
It is important to acknowledge that the NCTQ review focused on the foundational skills required for teaching and learning how to read. As discussed, this knowledge and skill set is necessary for more equitable outcomes, but not entirely sufficient in building the literacy-rich, joyful love of reading we all envision for young learners. Language and literacy development is a complex and comprehensive endeavor, and it’s through that lens that we are moving urgently at Wheelock to work in a more interdisciplinary approach to preparing teachers aligned with evidence-based practices.
What we are doing at Wheelock
More than two years ago, recognizing that our faculty had expertise in some areas of literacy development and not in others, we hired several new faculty members with expertise in foundational literacy and in working with children with dyslexia and other reading-related disorders. Building our expertise was an essential first step to addressing the gaps in our teacher preparation. These nationally recognized experts also brought with them the National Center for Improving Literacy, the federally supported center funded to help schools and districts improve reading outcomes for children. These new additions to our team helped complement our existing expertise in preparing reading teachers. Together, our faculty has begun revising course offerings and program sequences to better address these foundational skills.
This is no small feat. One thing we have recognized is the structural challenges that have been built up over time around the way we organize our programs and courses, which have not always lent themselves to the cross-discipline knowledge related to reading. For instance, faculty across early childhood, elementary, special, literacy and language, and English education have all been working to revise our literacy course offerings and experiences in order to ensure that our graduates are prepared to teach using the science of reading broadly, not just in early reading.
We have also engaged actively with state policymakers on this effort. This includes faculty serving on task forces around the early literacy standards or working groups to create a new early grades curriculum. With the support of the state department of education here in Massachusetts, we were among only a handful of teacher prep programs who invited an independent agency (TPI-US) to conduct a thorough review of our syllabi and lesson plans, observe our courses and students’ practical experiences, and interview our faculty, students, and alumni. The goal was to further explore the gaps we needed to address to improve our students’ preparation to teach reading and literacy skills more broadly and to align with the DESE early literacy standards.
The results of the TPI-US review have continued to push us further to improve. Our faculty went to work immediately using the findings to chart a new sequence of courses, retaining the content and experiences that are aligned with the science while improving on areas that were not aligned. For example, we will offer a new foundational literacy course for all our teacher candidates that will also require that students demonstrate their ability to enact these practices in classrooms with students.
NCTQ’s rating for BU Wheelock was based on a limited view of our work. They reviewed only two outdated syllabi, not the totality of our students’ experiences. However, NCTQ’s review was not entirely wrong and identified some of the same areas that were highlighted by TPI-US. We’ve invited TPI-US to come back to BU in the near future to review our revised program so that we can continue to learn from their feedback. We will continue to engage with NCTQ and welcome future reviews of our teacher preparation programs. I’m pleased that our faculty is engaging in a comprehensive revision of our teacher preparation to align with the science of reading. We are addressing the gaps in order to help our teacher candidates be prepared to teach all their students to read independently and critically.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.