Early Reading: Teacher Preparation

This is an updated excerpt from a publication I developed in 2000 while working for the AFT Educational Issues Department, “Putting Reading Front and Center: A Resource Guide for Union Advocacy.” By tapping the expertise of teachers of reading among members, local unions can use their collective voice to strengthen reading instruction.

New findings from 50 years of international research in such diverse feels as neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, cognitive science, and education have helped illuminate the process by which children learn to read. This research indicates that, although some children learn to read with relative ease, others will never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach. And, although a large number of students come to school unprepared to achieve in reading, the reading difficulties of most at risk and struggling students could be prevented or ameliorated by literacy instruction that includes a range of research-based components and practices, unfortunately very few teachers of reading have been taught how to deliver such instruction.

Where We Are

Ask almost any elementary school teacher what he or she knew about the teaching of reading before entering the classroom, and the answer will be: “Not nearly enough.”

Indeed, there appears to be a huge chasm between what research demonstrates that educators need to know and be able to do to be effective teachers of reading and the typical course of study offered by most teacher education programs. At the same time that many states are developing plans to hold schools and teachers accountable for students’ reading achievement, we find that most state licensing bodies vastly underestimate the length and depth of preparation and practice that are necessary to train teachers to teach reading well.

For example, in a 2021 review of states’ policies and teacher licensure, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that only 21 states fully measure knowledge in the science of reading for all elementary candidates (Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). Among these, 6 states (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, and Texas) have instituted a test that addresses teacher knowledge of how to build the essential skills of a successful reader. Two states use a test that measures knowledge in the science of reading for all elementary candidates, but combines it with other subject matter (Pennsylvania and Washington). Some 17 states use an inadequate test that omits some key aspects of the science of reading (Delaware, District of Columbia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Wyoming). And 11 states don’t measure the science of reading for all teacher candidates (Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota).

Compare these last 11 state policies with the recommendations for pre-service education from the National Research Council’s (NRC) panel on preventing reading difficulties in young children. The NRC recommends that teacher licensure requirements and teacher preparation programs be upgraded to incorporate 14 specific areas of knowledge, including: “…information about the relationship between early literacy behavior and conventional reading; …information about comprehension and its dependence on other aspects of reading and language skills; information about phonological awareness, orthographic awareness, and writing development; procedures for ongoing, in class assessment of children’s reading abilities,” etc.

And in the AFT’s Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020 (What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do), Louisa Moats gave some recommendations for improving reading instruction:

Specifically, teachers must understand how the brain learns to read, how students move through the phases of reading development, how strong readers differ from weak readers, how the English language is structured in spoken and written form, and the validated principles of effective reading instruction. Cultivating expertise in designing and delivering lessons to academically diverse learners, selecting validated instructional methods and materials, and using assessments to tailor instruction are all central goals for long-term, continuous improvement in teacher practice.

Moats continues:

A core curriculum on effective literacy instruction for pre-service and in-service teacher education can be divided roughly into the following four areas, each of which is elaborated on…in the report]:

  1. Knowing the basics of reading psychology and development;
  2. Understanding language structure for both word recognition and language comprehension;
  3. Applying best practices in all components of reading instruction; and
  4. Using validated, reliable, efficient assessments to inform classroom teaching.

This core will, of course, be supplemented and honed over time, but its goal is to bring continuity, consistency, quality, and comprehensiveness to the many different programs, organizations, and systems through which aspiring and current teachers receive information about how to teach reading.

Ideas for Next Steps

It’s possible to launch a comprehensive overhaul of pre-service and in-service teacher preparation practices, but it won’t be easy.

The first step is to specify the knowledge and skills necessary for effective practice. Fortunately, leaders in the field, including the NRC and member organizations of the Learning First Alliance (including the AFT), have come a long way toward articulating a consensus agenda for reform. They agree that new teachers require more extensive, research-based knowledge to inform classroom practice, as well as more clinical experiences during which they can hone their skills.

Second, try to focus attention on the two most important levers for improving teacher preparation:

  1. Strengthening standards for the accreditation of teacher education programs: There are approximately 26,000 state-approved teacher preparation programs are in operation across United States. Overall, 147 preparation providers from 36 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have received accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP). Some of the remainder are accredited by states that use CAEP standards. The rest are accredited by states using standards of their own devising. Given the diversity of circumstances, your union is the best judge of the most appropriate strategy for strengthening accreditation standards in your community—campus-by-campus persuasion of local teacher preparation programs; or lobbying for stronger state accreditation standards for all teacher education programs. Certainly, where union affiliates have a good working relationship with local colleges and universities, discussions with higher education contacts should be pursued. Where these relationships do not exist, teacher unions should develop them.
  2. Strengthening your state’s requirements for teacher licensure: Another means of pursuing institutional change is to lobby for reform of your state’s licensure procedures—requiring that teacher candidates take more rigorous courses and/or pass more rigorous assessments. Long under the pressure to fill the ranks of a shrinking teacher force, states have traditionally been reluctant to make licensure requirements very demanding. Nevertheless, research linking teacher knowledge with public pressure to show gains in students’ reading scores, have recently persuaded a few states to strengthen licensure requirements for elementary reading instruction.

State governments, wielding their powers of accreditation and licensure to adopt enlightened policies, have a role in helping to ensure a well-prepared teaching force. And local and state teachers unions have a significant role to play in strengthening standards for all teachers.