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Experts express concern about proposed definition of high-quality reading instruction

Words matter. 

State education leaders have grappled over the right words to define “high quality reading instruction” for more than five months.

Stakeholders are concerned ahead of the next meeting of the State Board of Education on June 3-4, 2020, about the definition being proposed for adoption by the B-12 Literacy Committee.

In 2019, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) convened a B-12 Literacy Committee “with cross-divisional/cross-area involvement to examine the alignment of policy, legislation, instructional practices, initiatives, and programs to support literacy in NC Public Schools. Subsequently, and in line with the focus to improve student reading proficiency in the early grades, the State Board of Education (SBE) adopted a Collaborative Guiding Framework for Action on Early Reading. … The first action of the framework is to develop a definition of high quality reading instruction that is aligned with the National Reading Panel and current research to guide state policy and practice in reading, from Birth-12th Grade.”

In late 2019 and early 2020, DPI held three regional stakeholder meetings and conducted a survey of more than 1,600 educators to gather feedback on a working definition of high-quality reading instruction. That definition referenced five domains – phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension – which are similar to those listed in a 2000 National Reading Panel report.

At about the same time, the State Board of Education established a PreK-12 Literacy Instruction and Teacher Preparation Task Force. Barbara Foorman, a national literacy expert who has consulted with the state on improving its approach to reading instruction, is listed as a consultant on the membership roster of the task force. Through that involvement, she heard about the work of the B-12 Literacy Committee.

In February, the committee’s working definition was presented to the task force. Foorman, who was acknowledged for her contributions in the 2000 National Reading Panel report, was present and provided her feedback. She said, “we know so much more and have learned much more in the 20 years” since the report. She suggested that the definition of reading instruction be grounded in the “current” science of reading, offering a revision to the five domains.

Here is how the proposed definition evolved during the winter and spring:

Tracked by Rupen Fofaria/EducationNC

A May 2020 update to the task force on the work of the B-12 Committee includes this proposed definition:

Grounded in the science of reading, high-quality reading instruction is guided by state-adopted standards, evidence-based planning and teaching, and the ongoing monitoring of essential skills and understanding to support the learner in comprehending and engaging with increasingly complex texts.

But the words in the proposed definition are troubling to Foorman and Monica Campbell, a professor and literacy department director at Lenoir-Rhyne University’s College of Education. Both say it calls for following the science of reading in name only, while in practice, it signals a shift away from making any changes to instruction – a somber thought for many in a state where only 57% of third-graders read proficiently.

“There’s nothing in it of substance,” Foorman said. “They took out all of the substance, and I don’t know why.”

By removing such words as “systematic” and “explicit,” and by deleting mention of specific skills, the definition is overly simplified, Foorman said.

“I think they don’t understand the importance of those domains and how reading instruction should cover them,” Foorman said. “Because there’s solid research – there are meta-analyses, there’s systematic reviews, there are well-designed studies showing how important those domains are. And those studies – the National Reading Panel covered the 20 years prior to 2000, and I’m talking about the research after that, from then until now.”

Campbell is also concerned about the definition. This year, the reading department she leads was named one of only three programs in the nation as exemplary when it comes to educating pre-service, or incoming, teachers in the science of reading.

She pointed to the two ideas retained in the proposed definition – that instruction be grounded in the science of reading and that instruction result in students who can read increasingly complex texts. Campbell said that naming the science of reading means little without any specifics. 

“And then, what reading instructors as a community, what we’ve all agreed on — regardless of our philosophy – is that the end goal in reading instruction is comprehending those complex texts which both definitions include,” she said, referring to Foorman’s definition and the proposed definition. “But what’s been so different all along, and what we know from the science and the research and the converging evidence now, is that there are certain things that must be taught – and they must be taught explicitly and systematically.”

“Explicit” and “systematic,” both Foorman and Campbell said, are words that matter.

“Explicit” refers to direct instruction from teacher to student about what kids need to know, what it looks like, and how they use that information. It goes beyond a teacher modeling reading practices in front of a class. “Systematic” refers to when different skills are taught, and in what order – an order the research lays out.

“But more importantly, it refers to essential skills,” Campbell said of the proposed definition. “It says, ‘essential skills.’ That’s it. It doesn’t pull out any of what we know those essential skills must be. And those are the things that are included in Foorman’s definition where it talks about the phonological and phonemic awareness, word identification, and language. I love that Foorman included that. The other definition says nothing. I mean, it really says nothing.”

The concern, according to Foorman and Campbell, is that a definition like the one being proposed would not require reading instruction across the state to actually change.

“What this would allow to happen is that our state, systems, and schools within our state will continue to adopt these faux [science-based reading research] programs that claim to be aligned with the research,” Campbell said, referring to a white paper recently published titled Whole Language High Jinks. “But they’re camouflaged. So I don’t know how this helps us at all. I don’t know how this definition will help anyone who reads it.”

Dr. David Stegall, DPI’s deputy superintendent of innovation, and Dr. Angie Mullennix, DPI’s director of innovation strategy, did not have time to respond to an email from EdNC seeking comment prior to publication because of the pandemic.

In an email in the evening on May 22, Stegall wrote, “The state board consulted with Dr. Foorman for the literacy task force as a consultant. The state board did not ask any specific individual to write the definition, but instead asked the consultant to help facilitate the discussions, give insight and provide support. The definition received feedback from the field after each iteration – which included reading teachers, higher ed literacy professors, school administrators and others.”

Why the definition matters

While the definition is not intended to mandate specific instructional practices, State Board of Education member JB Buxton said it is intended to be a centering point for specific policies and practices.

“The goal of having a definition is that it’s the anchor,” Buxton said. “It’s the anchor for all the professional development, for the way in which districts are doing work, for what we say to universities about what we want to characterize their preparation (of pre-service teachers) or their professional development, for what vendors ought to be offering. It just becomes a clear anchor for all the work we do around early literacy, so we’re all on the same page, speaking the same language, focused on the same things.”

However, the proposed definition being presented to the State Board in June by the B-12 Committee, Foorman said, would be a poor anchor if the goal is to align reading instruction with the scientific research.

In the task force’s recommendations at the June board meeting, Foorman’s definition will be included.

“What we have to keep going back to is the fact that so many students in our state are not readers; they are not reading at a proficient level,” Campbell said. “And that is not OK. I mean, that has, you know, lifelong impacts on the individuals, and it perpetuates so many cycles.”

In other words, the words in the definition matter.

“I really worry about our state,” Campbell said. “I really am worried about what’s going to happen to the students that are impacted by some of these things.”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria is the equity and learning differences reporter at EducationNC who is passionate about shining light on under-reported issues.