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September 11, 2023

Bringing the Rocket Science of Reading to All Students: Recommendations for Enhancing State Legislation

To better understand how states have responded to increased pressure for improved reading outcomes, we conducted an analysis of reading-related state legislation enacted between 2019 and 2022.

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By Susan B. Neuman, Esther Quintero, Kayla Reist

The clamor for the science of reading has reached fever pitch. Media outlets have amplified the call for changes in reading curricula and instruction due to the troubling performance of too many of our nation’s students. Learning delays resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have heightened these concerns, creating an even greater sense of urgency among families, educators, and policymakers.

To better understand how states have responded to this increased pressure for improved reading outcomes, we conducted an analysis of reading-related state legislation enacted between 2019 and 2022. Our study involved categorizing 223 bills enacted in 45 states and the District of Columbia during this period. We examined over 40 dimensions of interest, such as teacher preparation, professional development, and curriculum. We then read each bill to determine whether these areas were addressed.

Our goal is to provide a granular and systematic description of states’ efforts to improve reading instruction. Although legislation is not the only means for policymaking, literacy laws matter because most states are relying on them to shape how reading is taught. Our analysis aims to facilitate a factual and nuanced discussion about literacy improvement among a broad range of stakeholders, including policymakers, families, practitioners, and scholars.

Whether we see the current state of American students’ reading achievement as a crisis or as part of a stable trend, the truth remains that more than one-third (37 percent) of the nation’s fourth-graders performed below the “basic” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022. These students are likely to struggle with foundational skills in meaningful ways.[1] While there are no quick fixes, the path to meaningful change will require time, consistent investment, and a holistic approach to reform. The magnitude of the task should motivate us to persevere and collaborate more effectively; we hope that our review can support this process as well as productive dialogues about the strengths and limitations of state efforts.

In this article, we share an overview of our results. In our full report (from which this article is adapted), we begin with an overview of our study’s purpose and guiding questions. Next, we detail our methodology, including the limitations of our approach. Then, we present our results, highlighting states whose legislation stands out in one or more domains. Finally, we summarize our conclusions and offer policy recommendations. To read the full report, and to access related resources including a dashboard to explore the legislative data, visit shankerinstitute.org/read.

Results

The momentum to enact laws proposing changes in reading and literacy instruction has built steadily in these past few years. Forty-six states* passed at least one bill between 2019 and 2022. Only 5 states (Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and West Virginia) did not enact reading legislation during our study period.

Our analysis indicates that states are envisioning a pivot in their approach to reading, with a deliberate turn toward the science of reading to guide instruction. While the specific expression “science of reading” is used in only 40 bills from 18 states, other bills use terms such as “scientifically based reading,” “scientific reading instruction,” “science of teaching reading,” “evidence-based,” or “research-based” to describe how children should be taught to read and/or to overcome reading difficulties. This terminology appears in approximately two-thirds of the analyzed bills; in fact, legislation from only 4 states does not use this language.

At least one piece of legislation in virtually every state requires local districts to adopt an evidence-based approach to reading instruction, generally supporting the five pillars outlined in the National Reading Panel’s Teaching Children to Read report: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.[2] These skills often appear as a packaged entity throughout the legislation. However, states fall short in foregrounding the role of additional skills like oral language development or writing, which are mentioned with less frequency. Building content and background knowledge as a foundation for reading comprehension is almost completely absent from this legislation.

As summarized in the table below, states vary in their definitions of the science of reading. In some cases, “science of reading” captures the relationship between cognitive science and outcomes (Virginia, Rhode Island, Arkansas). In other bills, the expression refers to specific skills, highlighting the five pillars of reading with the addition of oral language and spelling in some cases. Writing as a skill is rarely referred to in these definitions, suggesting a more targeted focus on reading than on the broader aspects of literacy.

How Science of Reading Is Defined Across the Legislation

bills and definitions

Taken together, this legislation has wide scope. Laws in only 12 states are aimed exclusively at Title I schools, and 37 states explicitly include charter schools in their efforts. There’s an implicit recognition that reading improvement needs to address a greater span of grades, and that reading difficulties do not necessarily end in third grade. Many states (31) are beginning as early as preschool with a focus on school readiness skills and are extending all the way to the upper grades. Specifically, laws in 42 states target students beyond third grade.

Student monitoring through screening and assessment is a central aspect of the legislation, with almost all states discussing it in their laws—and doing so extensively in 35 out of 45 states. Yet, the legislation is more limited when it comes to describing student support and interventions to address the identified needs. Reading plans, multi-tiered systems, and summer programs are the supports most frequently described extensively (in 16, 12, and 12 states, respectively), followed by tutoring and afterschool programs. These findings, and many more discussed below, are summarized in the following chart.

state findings

While parent notification of reading difficulties has long been a standard practice, there is now a growing emphasis on involving parents and guardians in their children’s literacy development. This includes soliciting their input in the selection of materials and resources, as well as strategies for providing home-based support. Most states (38) have made family engagement in student literacy a priority, which is a positive step forward. Engaging families in their children’s education is known to have a positive effect on their school readiness skills and later academic outcomes.[3] Engagement strategies that are systematic, purposely designed as a core component of an improvement plan, and focused on improving educational outcomes for all children are most effective, helping to mobilize families and other stakeholders in the community to share in the responsibility for the work of improvement. Community initiatives are also beneficial but are given less attention in this legislation than family engagement, with only 26 states mentioning community initiatives in their legislation. In some states (8), libraries are taking on a more prominent role in communities, establishing partnerships with schools that leverage their resources for improving students’ information literacy.

There is much to commend states for in their designs for increasing reading achievement. While advancing the science of reading, these bills provide a road map but give flexibility, leaving implementation largely in the hands of local districts. And while high-quality core instruction in classrooms is where reading improvement is to happen, these bills acknowledge that additional resources and programs will be needed to ensure students’ proficiency.

Teacher pre-service preparation and in-service professional development lie at the heart of this legislation. For teacher preparation, which is addressed at least somewhat in 38 states, bills emphasize training prospective teachers on the five pillars of reading and the scientifically derived evidence for our current understanding of how children learn to read. In addition, of the 25 bills that cover teacher preparation more extensively, 19 require instruction on dyslexia and 4 mention multisensory instruction. Professional development is mentioned in 40 states, more extensively in 32, making it one of the features most-often discussed in the legislation as a whole. It is second only to student assessment, which is discussed in laws from 45 states.

Specialized supports for English language learners (ELLs) and students with dyslexia are also addressed in these bills. While most states (32) mention ELLs, only about a third of bills discuss these students’ needs more extensively. Specifically, 13 states enacted legislation outlining reading support or interventions for ELLs, but only 3 (Alaska, California, and Florida) mandate that they be evidence based. Dyslexia is prominently addressed in the legislation, with 40 states incorporating related language into their laws and 33 offering extensive discussion. Our analysis suggests states are earnestly considering students with dyslexia in their legislation. Dyslexia is mentioned in relation to teacher preparation programs in 17 states. Additionally, many states are focusing on dyslexia screening for students, teacher training, and the creation of dyslexia handbooks for diverse stakeholders.

However, far less attention is placed on other features that are needed to ensure that teachers can teach in accord with the science. For example, if a new, high-quality curriculum is adopted, then teachers will need professional development not only on the science of reading but also on how to implement that specific curriculum. Delaware’s legislation stands out for acknowledging the need to align teacher training with the reading curriculum they will teach. Similarly, if we hope to engage principals as instructional leaders to support these new efforts, they will need far more than a generalized familiarity with the science of reading. Only about a third of states (17) enacted legislation containing a more substantive discussion about principals’ role in reading improvement. These states require principals to participate in professional development programs with teachers, which is an important provision to promote more knowledgeable and coherent leadership around reading. Without this sort of interconnected, coherent infrastructure, teachers will be in the hot seat, potentially made to feel solely responsible for this whole improvement process.

Other issues need to be addressed as well. Much of the legislation relies on the five pillars from the National Reading Panel report—which is now over 20 years old. Since then, a substantial amount of evidence has accumulated to suggest that additional skills are critically important to improve reading proficiency. As mentioned earlier, there is now an established causal linkage between oral vocabulary and word reading: children who are taught the spoken form of novel words before encountering them in print can read these words more easily when first seeing them in print.[4] There is also a substantial body of evidence to suggest how instruction in writing impacts reading fluency and comprehension.[5] Recognizing that literacy is a social process, studies have shown that culturally and linguistically responsive interventions contribute to substantial gains for children who speak a language other than General American English[6] and/or whose families identify with a minoritized ethnic or cultural heritage.[7] Moreover, recent studies[8] have reported on the importance of developing background knowledge for improving vocabulary, concepts, and comprehension. Nevertheless, responsiveness to cultural and linguistic variations, oral language, and writing development are given less attention than foundational skills throughout this legislation—and background knowledge is essentially ignored.

These concerns are not meant to diminish or derail the substantial efforts that states are currently undertaking to ensure that all students become confident readers. To the contrary, we recognize that there may be nothing more anti-scientific than to consider the science of reading “settled,” static, and impervious to further development. Instead, these concerns are meant to encourage the educational community to contribute to an ongoing collaboration among all interested citizens using their knowledge of how schools work to ensure a broader and deeper understanding of literacy. No matter how well-intentioned, carefully planned, or research-based these initiatives are, they will not succeed if not grounded in practice.

Recommendations and Exemplars

As states continue their own reading policy journeys, we offer extensive policy recommendations that follow from our analysis at go.aft.org/qy6. Our full report features numerous illustrative examples for each of these key takeaways, and it shines a spotlight on 9 states that stand out for their excellence in one or more domains:

  • Alaska is giving families a voice in their children’s literacy education.
  • Arizona’s legislation exemplifies a holistic approach to defining reading.
  • California is considering the needs of English learners and emergent bilinguals.
  • Colorado demonstrates a commitment to community engagement in literacy efforts.
  • Delaware provides an example of curriculum aligned with professional development.
  • Kentucky’s legislation recognizes writing instruction as a key component of literacy.
  • Michigan offers a comprehensive set of supports for students’ literacy development.
  • Texas has legislation that outlines professional development across grade levels.
  • Utah’s legislation focuses on developing capacity-building leadership.

While our review identifies gaps and opportunities for growth, taken together this wave of legislation reflects a profound aspiration to enhance all levels of the system. Our hope in producing this report is to help change the tenor of our national dialogue on reading from confrontation to collaboration, recognizing that our shared goal of ensuring that all children have the greatest opportunity to learn how to read will need our best collective effort.

About the Authors

Susan B. Neuman is a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University and the author of numerous articles and books on early childhood policy, curriculum, and early reading instruction. Esther Quintero is a senior fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute and is the editor of Teaching in Context: The Social Side of Education Reform. Kayla Reist is a doctoral student at the University of Virginia and taught high school English for nine years. This article was adapted from Reading Reform Across America: A Survey of State Legislation with permission from the Albert Shanker Institute.

* For practical purposes, we count the District of Columbia as a state when we describe our results. (return to article)

† Bills enacted after December 2022 will be analyzed and added to our database in our next update. (return to article)

Endnotes

[1] T. White, J. Sabatini, and S. White, “What Does ‘Below Basic’ Mean on NAEP Reading?,” Educational Researcher 50, no. 8 (2021): 570–73.

[2] National Reading Panel, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction (Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).

[3] D. Topor et al., “Parent Involvement and Student Academic Performance: A Multiple Mediational Analysis,” Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community 38 (2010): 183–97.

[4] S. Wegener et al., “Oral Vocabulary Knowledge and Learning to Read New Words: A Theoretical Review,” Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties 27, no. 2 (2022): 253–78.

[5] S. Graham, “Changing How Writing Is Taught,” Review of Research in Education 43, no. 1 (2019): 277–303.

[6] J. Washington and M. Seidenberg, “Teaching Reading to African American Children: When Home and School Language Differ,” American Educator 45, no. 2 (Summer 2021): 26–33, 40.

[7] L. Cycyk and C. Hammer, “Beliefs, Values, and Practices of Mexican Immigrant Families Towards Language and Learning in Toddlerhood: Setting the Foundation for Early Childhood Education,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 52, Part A (2020): 25–37; and A. Larson et al., “A Systematic Review of Language-Focused Interventions for Young Children from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Backgrounds,” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 50, Part 1 (2020): 157–78.

[8] S. Neuman, P. Samudra, and K. Danielson, “Effectiveness of Scaling Up a Vocabulary Intervention for Low-Income Children, Pre-K Through First Grade,” Elementary School Journal 121, publication forthcoming.

American Educator, Fall 2023. Republished with permission from ASI.

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Albert Shanker Institute
The Albert Shanker Institute is a nonprofit organization established in 1998 to honor the life and legacy of the late president of the American Federation of Teachers. The organization’s by-laws commit it to four fundamental principles—vibrant democracy, quality public education, a voice for... See More
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