Science of reading informs reading education

Lift your arm and reach for an imaginary apple. Bring it to your mouth and make a slurping sound as you take a bite. Then quietly utter the short “a” sound, followed by the word “apple.”

This is one of 26 hand motion-sound prompts that literacy volunteers like me have been sharing with kindergartners at Boulevard Elementary School for the last 15 years. This practice builds what is known as phonemic awareness, and it is an essential first step on the path to becoming a reader. Understanding symbolic language is no simple task, but its mastery is key to the treasures of the written word. And mastery takes work and time.

Repetition is key to building the neuropathways that pay off in reading. And volunteers provide kids the chance to practice, practice, practice. It can take a month or eight months of practice to finally make this connection automatic, but it almost always works. The top priority and hardest sounds to master are vowels.

My kindergarten friends are learning the sounds that go with the symbols we use to translate the words we say to paper. Learning the connection between a letter and its sound trains the brain to read. Adding a hand motion gives another clue. I find many kids can make the sound as soon as I move my hand and often long before they can name the letter that it represents. It’s fascinating!

Teaching kids to read is a high-stakes task for educators, so it is no wonder there has been controversy about what constitutes effective instruction. Decades of research by neural scientists have clarified how the brain processes sounds and letters and produces readers, and that research, which has produced a “science of reading,” provides clear guidance for educators.

According to Michael Jenkins, curriculum director for the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district and a former Boulevard principal, Heights schools have embraced this body of research for some time. Last year all K–3 teachers in the district received state-funded training on appropriate strategies for the early years; this year, fourth- and fifth-grade teachers will have their turn.

Gov. Mike DeWine, a proponent of the science of reading, included $168 million in his budget proposal to help school districts implement practices consistent with the research. His proposal took effect in July. Funds can be used for professional development, educational materials, and hiring teaching coaches for school districts with lower test results in reading.

Despite the wide acceptance of the validity of the ideas that fall under the science of reading, the governor’s move was controversial. Did he go too far in mandating an education decision that should be made by local boards of education? The Columbus-based Reading Recovery Council of North America, which promotes a different approach to reading education, filed suit against the state, claiming overreach. The council’s “three-cueing” strategy is not consistent with the science of reading and therefore not eligible for state funds.

In Jenkins’ view, the state mandate is consistent with existing practice in our school district. It won’t push the district in a direction it doesn’t want to go. I am hopeful that, at least for now, we don’t need to spend our finite education-advocacy energy fighting this fight.

I look forward to my Tuesday mornings helping my kids learn the unusual sounds that are tied to the letters of the alphabet. I look forward to the satisfying experience of knowing and guiding a delightful assemblage of kindergartners as the light of discovery goes on and they become ready to read.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights, and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of a book about local activism, Resisting Segregation.

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Volume 16, Issue 12, Posted 3:11 PM, 11.29.2023