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How to Make the Science of Reading Work for Teachers (Opinion)

by Staff

States are making important moves to improve the way reading is taught in their schools, but the choices leaders face aren’t easy. Many are wrestling with new literacy legislation that responds to stagnant national reading scores and teachers’ reports that they did not adequately learn to teach children to read in their teacher-preparation programs.

To date, 32 states have implemented mandatory training in science-based reading instruction; more are likely to. It wasn’t long ago that as the chief academic officer for Tennessee’s public schools, I was seeking a program that would ensure that every teacher is equipped with evidence-based knowledge that they could easily translate into classroom practice. My team and I wanted effective training that was also affordable, both in terms of financial outlay and teacher time. We chose to develop our own, homegrown training. Many states have selected packaged options like the popular Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (or LETRS) program, but several are now shopping for a more sustainable model—fewer teacher hours required and lower cost. I’ve talked recently with some leaders in the throes of deciding what program they will adopt and want to offer up Tennessee’s experience as possible inspiration.

Our program, Reading 360, pairs research and theory with a strong emphasis on classroom application. We believe it offers a compelling—and streamlined—model for supporting all teachers as they make the transition to practice based on the science of reading.

Since 2021, over 30,000 Tennessee educators have participated in Reading 360 training, and the feedback has been striking: 97 percent of teachers said they felt equipped to apply what they learned in the training in their classrooms. Teachers report stronger outcomes and earlier reading success in early grades.

Our Reading 360 training has two components: a 30-hour, online course that focuses on theory of action, followed by a week of in-person, cohort-based training that focuses on instructional materials and teaching techniques. During the 30-hour, in-person component, teachers have their curriculum in hand; by the end of the training, they have practiced lessons and they are assessed on how they applied their knowledge to their materials. We know that teacher time is precious, so we designed focused, instructionally grounded training, 60 hours in total.

By comparison, many packaged training programs require 150 hours of independent study of theory and fundamentals, without any connection to teachers’ adopted materials nor opportunity to practice the lesson approaches with their peers. We know that teachers need the opportunity to apply theory to their practice and we know that lesson materials make the expected shifts tangible. Studies have shown that this curriculum-based approach improves teacher practice, and we have seen this firsthand in Tennessee. The education department has made over 200 classroom visits, and we have seen teachers delivering science-of-reading-based instruction through their lessons. In addition, early student progress data show student improvement in developmental reading scores and in statewide reading assessments.

Teachers felt confident not only in their learning but how to apply that learning and saw swift results.

Our Reading 360 training launched following a statewide adoption of high-quality English/language arts/literacy curriculum, along with grants for implementation, so districts had already begun to use district-adopted materials in the classroom. This timing allowed us to connect the training directly to the instructional materials in each district. If districts did not have a current science-based curriculum for reading, they could use the free Tennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum we developed. Our teachers have told us over and over that they were able to apply this training to their classroom because the training showed them how the materials could be used to better teach their students. They felt confident not only in their learning but how to apply that learning and saw swift results.

Finally, our training wasn’t transported in. In early 2021, we hired teacher professional-development expert TNTP and, together, we designed the program. TNTP has deep experience with curriculum-aligned professional learning, so we shared a vision for a focused, curriculum- and instruction-centered learning experience that quickly moved from theory into classroom practice.

Designing time-efficient training left us with enough funding to compensate teachers for their time and to include building and district leaders in the training; stipends were paid to all teachers. Our teachers work tirelessly throughout the year, and it was important to us to acknowledge that we were asking them to go beyond their regular classroom responsibilities. These stipends surely helped to foster the widespread uptake of the training.

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The widespread embrace of the new materials was evident in a 2022 survey: Only 4 percent of Tennessee teachers reported that they were using or developing supplements to their materials. This is striking given our history of expecting teachers to develop their own materials and all that we know about the field’s reliance on resources like websites Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers.

Many states with a strong tradition of local decisionmaking around curriculum have seemed hesitant to push districts on curriculum change, yet our experience suggests that this hesitation is misplaced. With the right materials and the right support, high-quality curriculum work flourishes in classrooms, and teachers are happy for it.

Our Reading 360 approach is different from what many states have chosen, but its efficiency, popularity, and early signs of success in 2022 testing results make us hopeful that we can help every child in Tennessee learn to read.

In education, we tend to do what we have always done—only now we know to do better. Research pushes us to ensure that teacher training is closely tied to classroom practice, and we have seen the inclusion of instructional materials in the training is key. I hope the Tennessee model provides one option for states to consider as they work to improve their own reading instruction.

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