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Virginia officials working to ensure all students are taught the scientifically-proven way to read

People seated in desks
Richmond Public Schools teachers delve into research about how children learn how to read in August 2021, part of the district's attempt to improve literacy. (Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM News)

It was August 2021, right before schools in Richmond fully reopened after more than a year of virtual learning. Teachers from Richmond Public Schools packed into the basement of the downtown public library to listen to Michael Hunter, co-founder of Readsters, talk about the reading research on the first day of the district’s literacy institute.

“Anyone who has heard of the Simple View of Reading feel like they could explain it to the rest of the group?” Hunter asked.

Nobody volunteered, and Hunter continued.

“The Simple View, guys, is a framework that I would like to try to introduce you to this afternoon,” he said. “That is the basis for understanding what we mean by the science of reading, and how the reading brain works.”

Hunter dove into what decades of research shows: Proficient reading is a learned behavior, and all proficient readers use the same set of skills and neural processes. The skills and processes, Hunter said, fall into two categories — decoding and language comprehension.

Language comprehension includes things like vocabulary, word knowledge and grammar — while decoding includes phonics, which connects letters to sounds. And the Simple View makes clear that, as American Public Media correspondent Emily Hanford has reported, “the first task of the beginning reader is to learn how to decode the words he or she knows how to say.”

Understanding the sounds that correspond to letters on the page is an early predictor of reading success, said Emily Solari, professor of reading education at the University of Virginia.

“Even when automatic readers encounter words on the page, we are actually attending to every single letter and the corresponding sound in the word,” Solari said. “So, the notion that children can learn to read by just attending to the whole word, and not the individual sounds and their corresponding letter … that's just not how our brain reads.”

Despite decades of research on how we learn to read, a statistic on Hunter’s slide stated that more than half of U.S. adults read below the 6th grade level.

How we got here

Earlier in the day at Richmond’s literacy institute, district officials presented some alarming statistics. For example, just less than 60% of RPS students passed the state standardized tests for reading in recent years prior to the pandemic.

New national data shows the issue isn’t specific to Richmond: Only about 60% of Virginia 4th graders were reading at grade level when tested earlier this year.

Part of the problem is that many instructional materials used in schools across the country — including in many parts of Virginia — aren’t aligned to reading research, according to Solari.

Solari said frequently used curricula like Lucy Calkins and Reading Recovery have been aligned with a debunked approach to teaching known as “whole language,” which instructs kids to use pictures or context clues to guess words, instead of using high quality phonics instruction to have students sound out words.

“And the thing that's troublesome about that is when you tell a child who encounters an unknown word to use a picture, it takes their eyes off the actual word,” Solari said. “They're not engaging in decoding the word by using letter knowledge and the corresponding sounds, or phonemes, to sound out the word.

“And you can imagine that as children get older, and texts get more complex, it becomes more difficult to use context or pictures. Sometimes pictures aren't there.”

Legislation passed earlier this year removed Reading Recovery from the list of programs Virginia school boards can use certain state funds for.

“It wasn't really science-of-reading based,” said Del. Karrie Delaney (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the bill. “It wasn't a program that was effective for our students.”

In addition to curriculum materials not always being aligned to the research, some current teacher education programs also aren’t aligned to science.

“You have to think about the fact that folks are trained as scholars in a certain way,” Solari said. “And so, they are going to teach teachers in what they know.”

That creates a trickle-down effect in public school classrooms.

“In our [individualized education plan] meetings, everyone looks to a reading specialist to say, ‘Well, what's the best way to do it?” said Shannon Duncan, co-founder of the advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia.

“And the unfortunate piece is that the reading specialist doesn't have this science-based reading research information, and so the information that they're sharing is counter to what truly would help a child.” 

What Virginia is doing about it

Well before the pandemic, advocates like Duncan and Kristin Kane were raising alarm bells about reading instruction through their work with Decoding Dyslexia.

“We've been screaming this for 10 years,” Kane said. “The babies are not reading!”

Duncan and Kane both have children with dyslexia, which is how they got involved in advocating for evidence-based reading instruction.

Research has shown that kids with dyslexia benefit from clear phonics instruction the most because without it, they’re at the greatest risk of not becoming proficient readers.

“If it is not a good, strong, foundational literacy instruction … they are going to fail quick and hard,” Kane said.

There’s been heightened attention on literacy during the pandemic. For example, groups like the Fairfax County NAACP and the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers sent letters to school district officials last year demanding changes be made to reading instruction for students in the county.

Kane said she thinks that increased scrutiny pushed the state of Virginia to finally start moving the needle on literacy instruction.

“You have recovery money, and I think there's just a number of things that sort of came together to say, ‘Now's the time. We're going to go big, we're going to fund this and we're going to make a change,” she said.

There’s also a new state law that Kane’s excited about — which passed unanimously earlier this year — called the Virginia Literacy Act. For one, it tasked the Virginia Department of Education with reviewing the reading instruction materials districts are currently using.

That review of primary materials is currently underway, and curriculum developers are encouraged to submit their materials if they want Virginia districts to keep using them. If districts have developed their own curriculum materials, they’ll have to submit those, too. The law requires districts to pick from a list of vetted programs. 

“We're not mandating any one particular program or curriculum, but it should all be grounded in the same scientific-based research practices,” said Del. Carrie Coyner (R-Chesterfield), who sponsored the legislation.

Components of the Virginia Literacy Act were modeled after similar legislation passed in other states like Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Colorado. Virginia’s law has several components.

It calls for the state to create more resources for parents to help their kids become strong readers, and will revamp the screening tool used to identify struggling readers.

It will increase the number of people teaching literacy across the commonwealth by providing funding for regional literacy coaches as well as increased funding for districts to hire additional reading interventionists. The state must also develop a new credential that districts can use to promote classroom teachers to the role of reading specialists.

The law also makes changes to teacher training, including ensuring teachers in training at Virginia higher education institutions are taught the science of reading and by mandating professional development on the topic for public school teachers.

People stand in a group discussing
Teachers discuss the science of reading at Linwood Holton Elementary School in Richmond. (Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM News)

Some districts like Richmond Public Schools are ahead of the curve, as the law doesn’t take effect for over another year. Teachers like Cheri Manning  were pleased with the district’s first literacy institute last year. 

“I thought today’s training was awesome. I was telling people around me: This is probably the best thing I’ve ever been to in my 14 years of teaching,” Manning said.

The literacy institute didn’t end there, either. A smaller group of Richmond teachers gathered at Linwood Holton Elementary School the day after the institute, delving into the research through another training with the group CORE Learning.

Educator Patricia Williams was grateful to already be getting this training. She said it was more comprehensive than anything she received while in school.

“We've got a lot of catching up to do,” Williams said. “Now, we've got to get on the bandwagon. And we've got to make some quantum leaps to get our kids to where they need to be.”

RPS teacher Lisa Lancaster was familiar with the reading research, but she said it’s always good to get a refresher.

“I'm just really excited that the city is taking a step in getting back to the basics of how children learn how to read,” Lancaster said.