Kevin: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 34% of students are below grade level for reading by the fourth grade. And the most recent test score showed that students have fallen back to levels 20 years ago. Why are so many students falling behind in reading? And what impact does this have on their future? Are we using the best methods to teach reading and literacy in our classrooms? And how can we be smarter about teaching reading and keep students from falling behind in school and in life? This is what I want to know.
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Dr. Maria Murray to find out. Dr. Maria Murray is the founder and CEO of the Reading League, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-aligned reading instruction. Prior to founding the Reading League, Dr. Murray was an associate professor at SUNY Oswego, where she taught courses on literacy assessment and intervention. She is passionate about the prevention and remediation of reading difficulty for students. Today, she joins us to discuss the important connection between research and practice when it comes to literacy education. Dr. Murray, welcome to the show.
Maria: Thank you. I'm honored to have been invited. This is going to be a great opportunity.
Kevin: All of America is talking about reading loss. They're talking about math deficits, but this idea of reading has been such a fundamental challenge for American schools for so many years. I want to talk about that, but before I do, talk a little bit about some of those other things that you were doing before you got into reading.
Maria: I was interested in history, political science, et cetera. And so, I became a secondary social studies teacher and was stunned at my students who could not read. I blamed it on them not trying; in my mind, I didn't say it to them, that they weren't trying hard enough. I did not understand that that could even be a thing. I thought, "I'll see if my master's degree could help me to address this concern," because I knew they weren't getting the content as other students were. And I landed in the place of Dr. Bonita Blackman, who was my advisor, and coordinated multiple studies for her, NIH-funded, federally funded studies, here in Syracuse area schools, in Syracuse City schools. I got to meet teachers who were doing that work for us and with us, and I learned as much from the teachers as I did from Dr. Blackman and our work.
But now, the blips on my radar were starting to concern me, because as soon as a study ended, a study that was wildly successful in teaching children to read,who had been previous non-readers, of teaching the teachers how to do that.once the study was over, you can guess what happened. It was over. There was no one in the district to say, "Wait, let's continue doing that." It just ended. Congress spent a lot of money for many years — decades — on this research across the country in many universities.
And at some point they said, "Let's send a producer to create a film and show us what is happening out there." They sent a producer to Syracuse. He spent a summer here with the children and families that had been in our studies — one particular study, excuse me. And that became a movie, a film, a 10-minute film called “When Stars Read.” That's still on YouTube. But I got to see what happens after the end of a long day of school, where you've not succeeded in this challenge. You're now in second or third grade, and you are not reading on grade level. And I got to see that, when they go home, that doesn't end. There are video games you can't play. There are friendships you can't navigate. There's bullying that you've just faced all day. There's homework to be done, and you start to want to run away, hide, disappear, but not be invisible, and start acting out. So, I was getting the understanding that this is even bigger than getting a word off a page. This is a psychological, social, emotional, frightening time for children that's unnecessary.
Kevin: And it's also, frankly, Maria, it's a cultural phenomenon we're facing in this country, that so many children are not reading at grade level. And just so we're clear, two-thirds of America's high school graduates across the board are not at grade level in reading. Many fall off and begin to fall behind by, as you said, third or fourth grade. But for a host of reasons, a far increased number of our students come to school not ready to learn, with these deficits. And I think our edge schools haven't upgraded their approach to preparing many of our young teachers to teach and engage those students. So, there are so many things to unpack. But when you look at the challenges associated with reading, what's the starting point for making sure that we get our systems in place to begin to address that need?
Maria: It's not as simple as just addressing any one thing. We need to, as a society, support educators in providing them with children in advance who are prepared, and during the time that they are working with our children. So, that involves district and school administrators, school boards and school committees to prioritize professional development for themselves and their educators; state departments of education to design responsible rollouts of initiatives, not just, "Here it is, it's the law. Go do it," without any preparation or support. When we first started the Reading League, I went around my community, wanting to know who was doing what and where we could fit in. And I know that we are doing amazing things here in Syracuse, and many other cities are in early childhood preparation, in many ways that are needed to make sure children are fed and loved and cared for and their parents have the tools that they need and materials they need and are talking and reading and singing to their children in all ways.
Kevin: As we talk about the Reading League, because you mentioned best practices, and I think the best practices really suggest that we engage students in the right way to teach them to read, particularly those that come to schools with deficits. And there are a whole lot of reading programs. There are a whole lot of mentorship programs. School districts contract with a host of providers, and many don't meet kids where they are. So let's step back and talk about the science of reading, which you have really been focused on, because reading is not just reading the words. But it's also reading comprehension.
I remember years ago, and fortunately, he's in high school and he is doing well now, but my nephew, when he was four or five, could read several paragraphs and read it cogently, thoroughly, enunciate every word. And you'd ask him what he read; he had no idea. His reading comprehension was nonexistent. Now, since then, he's doing very well and tracking to go to college. But this science of reading contemplates being able to not just make sure that kids are able to read the words, but cognitively, they can understand what they're reading and then apply it to help with critical thinking in life. So let's talk about the science of reading.
Maria: Absolutely. And I thank you for asking me this because one of the most important jobs we have here at the Reading League in our mission is advancing the understanding of the science of reading. When we talk about the science of reading, what we're referring to is a vast body of scientifically-based reading research that is interdisciplinary. Meaning it has come from fields such as cognitive psychology, communication sciences and disorders, developmental psychology, neuroscience, and many others. But it has, altogether, over five decades now, produced thousands of studies that have very much converged and confirmed each other's work and really given us some solid understandings of what helps the most students move the farthest in issues related to reading and writing. But we now know a lot about how proficient reading and writing develop, why some children have difficulty, and then how we can effectively assess and teach and improve reading outcomes and even prevent reading difficulties, which is exciting.
Kevin: Well, let me ask you this, though, Maria. So we understand that the work you've done in the Reading League to understand the science of reading is all research-based. And not only are you able to diagnose where kids are falling short, your approach meets them where they are. But how does that compare with the traditional methods being used by most of our traditional schools in reading? Because there's often a disconnect.
Maria: The science of reading is not just phonics. It is just not just phonemic awareness. It is not an ideology. It's not a philosophy. It's not a one size fits all program. One of the things that have been discovered in multiple disciplines is that reading is not a visual memorization process. It seems like it is, because skilled readers like you and skilled readers like me, when we look at a word, it just pops off a page; it looks like we read it as a whole unit. And that idea became popularized, because that's how it seems reading takes place. That's, therefore, how we should teach it. And that's not the case. We now know that your brain and my brain and other skilled reading brains, when we see a word, we actually tend to every single letter in that word. If your I and E were switched in your first name, I would notice that immediately.
So it would still look like Kevin, but I would know it's not. Because my brain, and we know our brains are amazing machines and computers; it will notice that and pick it up. So we have these understandings. And yet, our instruction still has this approach that kids can intuit things naturally. They can be given a little exposure. They can be guided with little hints instead of explicit instruction. Every other topic that we teach children, why does that involve that explicit instruction, whether it's math? We don't let kids figure it out on their own at the earliest stages. We give them multiplication tables and basic math facts and basic operations, and they practice them. When I learn how to play an instrument, my teacher tells me where to put my finger to make a certain note and what that note means when it's hollow or darkened for a measure or a beat or a key.
When we teach a child how to play a sport like hockey, we teach them how to tie their skates, hold the stick, fall down, get up, cross over, handle the stick. There is someone coaching us along the way with the basics of everything, and yet, in reading, we leave it to chance. So I ask you, why do we wonder why so many of our high school students are graduating without a proficient ability to read? We haven't done anything about it. We've just pushed them through year after year after year, and by the time kids reach third, fourth grade, people are saying, "Well, if they don't know how to read by now, we can only teach them compensatory strategies. And that's it."
Kevin: It almost feels like, by the time a kid gets through middle school, if they're not reading, the system almost gives up on them, and there's not really a dedicated focus to engage them in a way that will help them grow and develop their reading. Many feel that, class by class, grade by grade, there should be this mastery approach. But at some point in time, and this is particularly true if you have deficits in reading or math, you've got to individualize it and coach kids along the way, so that ... Some kids may be a step seven, some may be a step two, some may be a step 13, but we know, by the end of the year, everyone's going to get there. Why can't we do that?
Maria: I think maybe some of the things leading to that social promotion of, "Well, he didn't learn or she didn't learn," come from a couple issues. One is that there are so many of these students in a class that it just becomes the norm. "That's just how it is. You're always going to have these kids who can't do it." And then, we blame the child or the child's family, home, et cetera. We can't be responsible as educators, as a classroom teacher, et cetera, for a school system, for all of that. What we can be responsible for is early screening. There are so many amazing screenings out now, and I do see a day when we are doing more regularized, if that's a word, use of screening in pre-K and K. So that's one big huge thing we can do. That alone should suffice to get about 85% of students reading on grade level.
Kevin: Let's give teachers the professional development. Let's give them the resources. Let's change the classroom approach, so that it's not “everyone work at the same pace.” But you have this mastery approach, individualized, personalized. And this is a question I really want to know. What advice would you give to teachers and administration leaders on how to provide the best methods to bring their students advancement in reading?
Maria: So yes, Reading League does provide professional development in a unique way, but there are so many others. We have a very vast country and a lot of opportunities for excellent teacher training. What I then advise, after providing some basic understandings, is that that becomes an ongoing part of school culture, that it never ends. And the buy-in and challenge, too, have to be at the administrative level. So we don't want to see administrators just sign the purchase order and assign a day off for them to go learn 10 hours a year. We want them to be there too. Too often in the past, professional development has involved admins popping in and then popping right back out. But everyone has to say, "I have unfinished learning, and I'm going to be right here with you. And we're going to learn together and sustain this."
Kevin: I tell you, that makes a lot of sense. I love your definition of transformation, where it's not anything additive, but the professional development, the coaching. I think, district leads have to begin that process, but they have to be committed to make it ongoing. So it's not just the one introductory session, when everyone comes back for the school year or a refresher in January. Let's make it ongoing. And this idea of making sure that it survives the politics of any school district is equally important. So we could talk forever. I need to have you back to engage more, once you get this done, and I really thank you so much for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Maria: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know, using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Dr. Maria Murray is the founder and CEO of The Reading League, a non-profit organization dedicated to the awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-aligned reading instruction.
Prior to founding The Reading League, Dr. Murray was an associate professor at SUNY Oswego, where she taught literacy assessment and intervention. She is passionate about the prevention and remediation of reading difficulty for students.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.