Reading is an essential skill, and research from several disciplines over the last few decades has allowed us to gain an understanding of the instructional practices that are most effective in learning to read. In our elementary schools, all students need instruction reflecting the latest research. An initiative is underway to support improved reading for all children in our state, and it’s important for families and educators to know how we might advocate and support our schools in revisiting the curriculum and instruction on reading in the early elementary grades. 

Nationwide, states and districts have shifted instruction to more explicitly reflect scientific research on reading and provide support for districts to build teacher and administrator knowledge. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), our state curriculum, has reflected the research for two decades. In Texas, what is troublesome, is that the instructional practices and programs being used in schools don’t reflect the research, or science.

Third-grade data from the 2019 State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness suggests more than half of students in Texas do not read on grade level. In the San Antonio region, 2019 STAAR data indicates even fewer read on grade level. The good news is that House Bill 3 was passed in June 2019 to provide training through the Texas Reading Academies (TRA) to improve K-3 reading instruction. The TRA began this summer for Texas districts. 

Often called “the science of reading” or “the science of teaching reading,” in San Antonio, this state initiative provides professional development along with new screening and diagnostic tools aligned with the research. TRA helps teachers connect data with instruction and revisit and revise decades-long traditions of ineffective approaches. Adoption of more research-based practices in reading instruction is especially helpful in our community to improve reading scores, address equity and opportunity, and align with other San Antonio initiatives targeting early reading and literacy skills. 

Improving reading scores

It really is possible to teach all students to read when we follow a continuum of early reading skills that are developmental and supported by decades of instructional and neuroscience research. 

Mark Seidenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Language at the Speed of Light, suggests our “culture’s emphasis on the importance of reading to children creates the impression that it plays the same role in learning to read as speaking to children plays in their learning to talk.” However, there does not exist the same direct connection. “In short, reading to children is not the same as teaching children to read.”

We have to teach and guide children through the practice of skills. Early reading skills build on one another. While learning the names of letters is important, a strong foundation in hearing, discriminating, and manipulating sounds, also called phonemes, that are not connected to the letters themselves, is more important and predictive of later reading success. This is called phonemic awareness, a term you may be hearing more and more and something I am seeing less and less in curriculum and programs that do not align with the science of reading. 

What this looks like in instruction is when holding up a picture of a cat (without the word written on it) we ask a child to tell us what it is. When they say the word cat, they can then be prompted to identify the sounds (again, not the name of letter) at the beginning of the word. Extensions of this activity can include finding or naming other things that start with that sound (not the name of the letter). The science suggests we teach identifying the first (initial) sound and then moving to more difficult tasks. 

Connecting the letters and letter names to the sounds comes later in first grade after students become phonologically aware. This is one of many practices not supported by the science of reading that are confusing our children. Other rampant, ineffective strategies include when we ask an early reader to check the picture for a clue about the word or look at the first letter and guess the word. These are not strategies that support learning to read. Yes, it’s absolutely ok to look at pictures for comprehension once you are a reader, but it is not effective when you are learning to read. 

Phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are the precursor and building blocks of decoding, which is the formal term for the sounds we are hearing and making when sounding out words. Decoding, which is an important piece of phonics, another word you are likely hearing more and more and something I am also seeing less and less in curriculum and programs that do not align with the science of reading, finally connects the sounds (phonemes) to the letters. 

After strong language and phonemic awareness instruction in kindergarten and early first grade, we can begin to really address phonics and decoding daily to teach children to read. Children need teacher-led, explicit instruction in these skills that follow a systematic approach to ensure we work on the skills until they are automatic. Otherwise, persistent gaps in foundational skill knowledge persist and prevent fluent reading with comprehension. 

Explicit instruction in phonics should continue through at least third grade alongside instruction and practice in fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Third grade is an important grade level for measuring progress. If the skills to learn to read have been adequately taught and practiced, this is where we should see the evidence. 

Supporting the science of reading in San Antonio

So, what can community members and parents do to support this new initiative? We can ask our teachers, administrators, and school board members more about how the Texas Reading Academies are becoming part of their instruction and practices. For kindergarten and first grade parents, let’s offer our partnership and dialogue as we begin receiving the results from the Texas Kindergarten Entry Assessment (TX-KEA), the newly mandated early screener that schools will begin using and that reflects the skills informed by the science of reading. If your school isn’t using this assessment yet, ask about your child’s phonemic awareness and how the school is incorporating phonics instruction.

We can also ask educators and administrators about what they need in the classroom to really implement the TRA professional development that is part of HB3 so they can make important shifts based on this information they are possibly learning for the first time. While HB3 now requires new elementary teachers becoming certified in Texas to pass a certification exam on the science of reading, already established teachers may need additional support.

Even though the TEKS is already aligned with the science of reading, in many schools they may need more resources to supplement, or even replace, programs. This is important for our community because it supports alignment with other city and county initiatives already targeting early reading. For example, the United Way Successful Students Impact Council, using results based accountability, is funding initiatives in the community that reflect reading instruction aligned with this research. 

I have been a part of initiatives in Texas informed by the science of reading for more than two decades. To really improve reading outcomes we need everyone to ask the questions and look deeper into what methods our districts are using because we can’t afford to miss another opportunity to support teachers making meaningful changes to their instruction that support all learners.

Heather Haynes Smith, Ph.D. is mom to a five-year-old who just started kindergarten in San Antonio ISD and an associate professor at Trinity University. She teaches courses on learning disabilities, reading,...