Kindergarteners work together during a reading intervention session in Katie Hoiland's kindergarten classroom at Aragon Elementary in Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 on Jan. 23, 2019. Aragon is one of the schools that showed drastic improvement in reading levels after using READ Act funds to overhaul teaching techniques. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Early in my teaching career, like many other educators, I used a balanced-literacy approach and believed that using the “three-cueing” theory of reading instruction was sufficient for teaching my primary grade students how to read. (As the journal EducationWeek recently defined it, three-cueing is a strategy that “involves prompting students to draw on context and sentence structure, along with letters, to identify words.”)

Unfortunately, years of using these approaches with fidelity left me feeling frustrated as I observed many capable and eager students fall further behind grade-level benchmarks. 

Heidi Batchelder

In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” 

Reading is arguably the most foundational skill you learn in school, and more than half of Colorado fourth graders are not reading on grade level. It is more urgent than ever for teachers, administrators, and university faculty to “know better” by becoming students of the science of reading. 

This is why I am energized that the State Board of Education on Wednesday is scheduled to consider a recommendation to help ensure future educators are prepared to teach reading using scientifically based approaches, through an additional licensure test that more specifically assesses a candidate’s knowledge of the five key areas of reading development.

The current licensure exam regimen in Colorado does not test new educators on reading instructional practices backed by science. In turn, many prep programs do not teach educators the “how” of teaching reading, although some programs are making updates to their curriculum to include evidence-based reading strategies, which is excellent news. 

Learning about the science of reading can change the outcomes for students, and teachers, across Colorado.

Twelve years into my career as an elementary educator and literacy interventionist, I received a gift through the radio: Emily Hanford’s American Public Media radio documentary, Hard Words: Why Aren’t We Teaching Kids to Read?” It was through this that I learned about the “science of reading,” which refers to the body of over 40 years of research that reading experts, especially cognitive scientists, have conducted on how people learn to read. 

Coincidentally, hearing this story coincided with my first year teaching at a school in Denver that had recently adopted a curriculum rooted in this same science. 

I turned off my radio after the hour-long program and made a new commitment to my students. If I claim to be a life-long learner, then I need to trust the science behind this evidence-based approach that has been growing and confirmed for decades, and dive in.

Just a few weeks later I was rewarded as I began to witness how using a curriculum with a systematic approach to teaching word recognition (which includes developing phonemic awareness, utilizing phonics to decode, and developing sight recognition), more equitably supported all of my kindergarten students — including those who had not attended pre-school and those who are English language learners. 

Additionally, the progress of my kindergartners who entered the classroom with more advanced decoding skills was not stalled. Instead, these students thrived in an environment where they could learn the “why” behind what they’d learned to do with ease and soon became more skilled writers.

In the weeks and months that followed, my students grew as readers and writers and I grew as a practitioner. Understanding these phases of reading development, which I’d never learned about in my undergraduate program or during my first decade as a teacher, helped me to promote progress in both typically developing and struggling readers. 

Perhaps most importantly, using an explicit and systematic approach to teaching foundational skills allowed me to clearly identify roadblocks for a particular reader. I could better identify a gap in a student’s knowledge or skill set (whether phonemic awareness or phonics) and craft lessons and interventions that targeted the specific skill a student needed to master in order to progress. 

Using more precise information meant that I could more accurately measure whether the intervention was having the expected impact. And, knowing exactly which skill was a challenge for that student gave me specific information I could communicate clearly to a student’s family.  

Ensuring educators are prepared with the knowledge and skills to teach students how to read is crucial. At a policy level, Colorado has bought into the science of reading for close to a decade. Unfortunately, districts across the state continue to use unaligned approaches through curriculum not approved by the Colorado Department of Education, and many educators graduate from four-year teacher prep programs, like me, as well as alternative prep programs without knowledge of the science of reading. 

Yet, there are reasons for optimism. The Department of Education is offering kindergarten-to-third-grade teachers evidence-based training in teaching reading, required under legislation passed by the General Assembly in its 2019 READ Act updates

We are taking concrete steps toward providing all early literacy teachers across Colorado with the foundational knowledge and skills to support every student in learning to read. Updating our licensure test to reflect this important knowledge and these skills is an important step toward ensuring future teachers “know better.” 

I would like to see the State Board of Education adopt this recommendation swiftly at its meeting on Wednesday.

We can “do better” by utilizing evidence-based practices to support existing young readers whose learning has been disrupted during the pandemic and ensuring future teachers are equipped before they enter the classroom. In doing so, teachers will be more prepared to increase educational equity, support reading gains, and grow confident lifelong readers. Let us commit to doing better for all of Colorado’s young readers.

Heidi Batchelder of Louisville, who has taught young readers in Denver and other cities, now works as a curriculum designer to ensure that more teachers and students have access to literacy curriculum rooted in the science of reading. She was a 2019-2020 Teach Plus Colorado Policy Fellow.

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