Reading Reform on the Ground: How SoR Policy is Showing Up in Schools

On International Literacy Day, we publish a guest post by educator, researcher, and author Callie Lowenstein who shares her incredible perspective of the in-depth thinking teachers offer to their practice and how sincerely teachers want to meet the needs of students.


One thing about teachers: we want to get our instruction right. 

After decades of mixed messages and misinformation in our professional development (PD), teacher training programs, and curricular materials, many classroom educators are eager to get on top of the science, to ensure that our efforts and hours, our lesson planning and detailed feedback and materials prep and book purchases and deep care for our students, are not being wasted. 

Indeed, after a major balanced-literacy leader published an unapologetic deflection of the science of reading movement last year, a group of teachers from across the country wrote our own open letter, collecting over 650 teacher signatures in a matter of days, attesting to the ways we, teachers, wished we had done better by our students.

As authors Susan B. Neuman, Esther Quintero, and Kayla Reist so expertly and carefully highlighted in the Shanker Institute’s Reading Reform Across America report, it’s not just us. 

Forty-six states across the country have passed reading reform legislation in the last four years, attempting to codify this movement and guarantee “evidence-based” literacy instruction as a matter of course. The authors point out the strengths of this legislation (no, it’s not just phonics!) and highlight bright spots that other states might emulate, like California’s more comprehensive support for multilingual learners or Kentucky’s focus on writing. They also name areas that need inclusion in literacy policy moving forward, beyond the much-cited (but 20+ year-old) National Reading Panel’s five pillars — areas like oral language, writing, and the role of background knowledge in comprehension. 

But most importantly, in my view from the ground, the authors emphasize the importance and complexity of implementation, citing the work of researchers Sarah Woulfin and Rachael Gabriel on the role of supportive infrastructure in moving the collective effort of reading reform forward productively, rather than focusing on individual teachers as the target locus of change. Instructional infrastructure like curriculum, PD, and leadership are the levers that will determine how these reforms are enacted, whether instruction is coherent or contradictory or just muddled through, and whether changes are sustained beyond this moment of collective energy.

I want to talk about what some of these reforms look like in schools, how they are being experienced and taken up by educators, and how infrastructural levers are affecting implementation as reading reform goes from the statehouse to the chalkface. 

Teacher Advocacy and Teacher Uptake 

When we talk about instructional policy, it’s often talked about as something that is done to teachers — and not for no reason; this is often how it feels, particularly when new policy involves new mandates with no paid time for the additional labor that the mandates entail. But on the substance of the reading reform policies sweeping the nation, teachers have been undersold as the recipients of reform, rather than active advocates and agents in a movement to change practice. 

Journalists have fallen into a pattern of using shocked and concerned parents of struggling readers as the lede on their reading science articles (see here and here), often managing to cite every stakeholder in the game except teachers on the movement to shift literacy practice in our schools. 

Sometimes the framing has been as ugly as: “So why do so many teachers refuse to adopt methods that work — and hold fast to those that don’t?” from a Washington Post editorial (which, like many mainstream media articles, shorthands phonics for the science of reading, contributing to the confusion), often misleadingly framing teachers unions as sources of resistance to important instructional change (when, as Mary Cathryn Ricker and Ruth Wattenberg recently noted, the AFT has played a vital role in sharing and disseminating reading research for decades). 

But teachers have been, and continue to be, crucial actors in this movement for reading reform! Many of the foremost voices in this movement — Meredith and David Liben, authors of Know Better, Do Better; Kareem Weaver of the NAACP Oakland and FULCRUM; Margaret Goldberg of the Right 2 Read Project — became advocates not as researchers or policy wonks but because of their own experiences as classroom teachers. The same goes for me and the hundreds of signatories of our collective teacher-voice open letter last fall, in which we spoke to the ways we found ourselves and our students needlessly encumbered by the misguided curricula, training, and coaching we had received over our years in schools. 

We have sent gentle nudge emails to our school leaders (“Thought you might find this article interesting!”), invited colleagues to book clubs and webinars and many long chats in the hallway, all critical informal organizing that has tilled the soil for real change on the ground — and we have engaged in more formal advocacy, speaking up in statehouses, proposing new curricula in our schools and districts, and facilitating school-wide SoR PD ourselves. In our classrooms, teachers are repurposing leveled texts in knowledge-based topic bins, dropping patterned text and moving to decodables, and reorganizing small group reading to address specific gaps in code knowledge and comprehension, rather than ill-defined reading levels. 

Teachers are no monolith, so of course there are many of us with decades of balanced literacy training and experiences of firsthand success with students who are skeptical of what feels like “another new initiative” — we can’t expect an overnight switch for everyone. But in the schools and teacher communities where I’ve seen new literacy policy introduced, I have seen an overwhelming hunger for research and knowledge, and, particularly, for what is going to best serve the striving students who need effective instruction the most. 

Where I’ve seen the most pushback, it has come from the wisdom of the trenches — the recognition of incoherence or contradiction in the ways we’re asked to implement; worries about crowding and imbalance as our schools take on the new District Priorities™ that supersede other key parts of the instructional program; concerns about new curricular adoptions lacking a culturally sustaining lens; and the inevitable questioning that comes when the ones teaching you are still in the early stages of learning themselves. 

Who’s Training the Trainers? Who’s Leading the Leaders? 

As Neuman, Quintero, and Reist aptly note, in 70% of states adopting new reading policy, there is an explicit focus on teacher learning through PD — but only 37% address leadership. 

In schools, this means teachers might engage in weekly PD on orthographic mapping, but the folks making decisions about curriculum and school-wide goals, the folks conducting teacher observations, may be developing very little of this knowledge. This means teachers are asked to engage in contradictory practices or receive feedback that doesn’t match what they’re learning. In my last school, even as both school and district stated that they were “shifting to the SoR,” the kindergarten and first grade teams were required to sit through a full day three-cueing PD and to conduct beginning of year leveled-reading assessments (in addition to DIBELS); if our leadership had even cursory knowledge of the science, they probably wouldn’t have made this choice (along with the massive investment in new testing kits and leveled libraries that accompanied it!). 

We see a similar challenge in higher ed, where novice teachers in many states are now required to take an SoR licensure exam while being taught by faculty steeped in balanced literacy. According to EdWeek’s 2020 survey on Early Reading Instruction, 68% of postsecondary literacy instructors believe in the use of pictures and context clues for word identification — and 65% of these faculty are solely responsible for creating the syllabi for their classes. At one large Texas university I worked with, the faculty member charged with teaching the entire literacy course sequence that would prepare novice teachers for their licensure exam stated that “running records” (an assessment based on the three-cueing framework) were the number one thing she hoped students would take away from her class.

The old quip, “Who’s watching the watchman?” holds true in schools too. Unless we fully engage school and district leadership and teacher prep faculty in shifting beliefs and practice, teachers will be subject to this kind of incoherent, confusing messaging. 

Pendulum Swings, Piecemeal Adoption, and Testing Pressures 

Two other adages capture related pitfalls that have emerged as actual schools get to work implementing new reading policy.

As schools try to avoid causing overwhelm by diving too fast into new practices, there’s a tendency to try to just “do one thing well.” This often looks like adopting something simple and easy to get the ball rolling, but can feel piecemeal or half-baked in practice; the Heggerty phonemic awareness (PA) program is a case in point. Only 10 minutes a day of scripted, routine lessons —  to many administrators, Heggerty has felt like a “quick win” to move toward the “Science of Reading,” and districts like mine have jumped to adopt it. In a dual language school I worked at recently, this looked like a misguided double-down on phonemic awareness  (completing the full Heggerty program in Spanish and English). But our student data showed that PA gaps were only notable in students’ second languages (L2), suggesting that the normal need for L2 oral language development may have been misrepresented by the assessment as a phonemic awareness deficit. (It’s harder to hear the parts of words you don’t know — let alone segment them!) Those ten minutes a day add up, and our multilingual students may have been better served by more extended read aloud and discourse, or even explicit L2 instruction and practice, at least some of the time. 

And there’s the rub: in literacy, you can’t just “do one thing well” and expect real long-term gains — as Scarborough’s Rope illustrates, reading is a complex set of skills that all need to weave together in real time! From our up-close work with students, teachers feel this complexity keenly, so efforts that seem to skew our instructional day to one side or the other will naturally be met with apprehension. Leaders must balance taking a comprehensive approach — perhaps guaranteeing at least one in-depth PD cycle per year on each of the two major strands of the rope (word recognition and language comprehension), and one on writing too — without pushing too much too fast. 

This is also where testing comes in. Forty-five out of 46 states mention assessment in their policy, and 35 do so in detail. The move from Fountas & Pinnell running record style testing (which measure “reading levels” using lengthy one-on-one assessments that root in a three-cueing perspective and are wildly unreliable) to DIBELS and other testing batteries has been an important mark of progress towards evidence-based assessment. However, schools are under immense pressure to “show growth” on short time scales (particularly in districts serving marginalized communities) and comprehension measures tend to be slower growing and harder to move. Under pressure from district officials, the adage “what gets tested gets taught” becomes a truism — yes, state policy emphasizes all five NRP pillars, but if your school needs to hit DIBELS benchmarks in six-week cycles, students are going to get a lot of phonics. 

Unless the metrics used to monitor and motivate progress are multidimensional, many schools will end up with “data-driven” pendulum swings that produce short term “growth” but miss ingredients that are crucial for sustained impact. 

The Art and Science of Reading Reform

In many senses, the science of reading movement (and its attendant policy) has been a mea culpa for the profession — re-setting the bar for aligning literacy instruction to cognitive research, repositioning student reading struggles within our locus of control, and honoring all students’ capacity and right to read and read well. 

As we shift gears towards implementation, it’s time for leaders at all levels to turn eyes and ears to the ground, attending to points of contradiction, incoherence, or over-emphasis of one shiny new initiative at the expense of other important things. And, perhaps just as importantly, to elevate the humanity, the art of teaching reading alongside the science. It will be critical to ensure that new curricula are both cognitively sound and culturally responsive, reflecting students’ cultures and identities and dreams for themselves. And as educator Kata Solow writes, highlight that science of reading-aligned classrooms can be “interactive and playful and beautiful and satisfying,” that they can “foster a love of reading too.” We’ll need more than numbers to sustain the hard, human work of changing practice — so alongside those equitable, gap-closing metrics, let’s showcase the beauty and wonder of effective reading instruction to bring these policy reforms to life.