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What Reporters Need to Know About the Science of Reading

Fresh insights, tips on building trust with teachers on a sensitive subject

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Are elementary school teachers teaching reading with research-approved methods? Or are they sticking with practices that studies indicate are less than ideal?

In a recent EWA webinar, two reporters joined a school leader to discuss what reporters need to know about the science of reading, and how to report on these issues in any community.

The panelists discussed how emerging research is impacting the work — and hearts — of educators. “It’s a paradigmatic shift for many folks. It goes to, in many cases, a teacher’s core,” said panelist Anders Rasmussen, principal of Wood Road Elementary in Ballston Spa, NY.

Panelists offered hands-on, actionable ideas for reporting on reading instruction, including tips on:

  • Fostering trust with educators
  • Cutting through ed-literacy jargon
  • Locating parent advocates using social media

[For a high-level overview of the science of reading research, tune in to minutes 3:45-13:50 of the webinar recording.]

Empathize, Don’t Accuse

Before reporters jump into a story, they should carefully plan their approaches to sources such as teachers. Using language that suggests they are ignoring research may alienate sources, or create an impression that reporters are accusing them of wrongdoing.

Before becoming a reporter, panelist Liana Loewus of Education Week spent several years working as an elementary school special education teacher and reading specialist. Rasmussen began his career over 15 years ago as a high school English teacher before he entered into administration.

Their experiences as educators working with struggling readers in the classroom — and now, as professionals working with teachers struggling to teach students how to read — offers them perspective into how these questions around reading pedagogy can quickly strike a nerve with teachers. Both warned journalists to take caution when reporting on this emotionally fraught topic.

“There’s an internal fear they’ve done harm. And like with doctors, that’s the one goal, is do no harm,” said Rasmussen, describing the pained feelings that teachers can feel after learning about research on effective reading instruction.

Rasmussen and Loewus each observed that teachers feeling under attack is a huge challenge they confront in their work.

“This is incredibly emotional work. We are getting to the core of why teachers do their jobs. They do their jobs because they want to help kids, right? And to then go to a teacher and accuse them of having harmed kids for many, many years — it’s really painful,” Loewus said.

When asked how Rasmussen has worked with teachers who feel blamed for wrongdoing, he explained the importance of framing the conversation within the context of developing supportive learning environments — for students and teachers alike.

“We expect our kids to be learners, and as adults, we have to be learners. And that’s the type of environment that it’s my job to cultivate among my staff and among my community,” Rasmussen said.

“What it means to be a learner is that it’s okay to not have it right, and that no one is doing anything purposefully to cause harm. We were doing what we were trained in to do best. We now know better. So now, we just do better,” he added.

Loewus emphasized that she was clear with teachers that her reporting was not about assigning blame to them. She did this by communicating her belief that teachers are doing the best they can do, given the knowledge they are prepared with, working in the system they work, with the materials they have been given.

While Loewus and Rasmussen do worry about defensiveness, they also pointed out that this is not the only emotion they’ve had to confront. Loewus found through her reporting that, mainly, teachers are mad.

“‘Why didn’t I learn this? I want to know more. I want to do better.’ [I’ve] seen a lot of that,” said Loewus.

Reporting Locally on Reading Instruction

Want to report a story on the science of reading in your community? Panelists offered a few pieces of advice:

  1. Define jargon
  2. Ask how schools are teaching phonics rather than if they teach phonics

The swirl of ed-literacy jargon can be head-spinning for reporters. For example, the term “balanced literacy” has become commonplace in schools. Loewus discovered through her own reporting that it is important to be diligent about pinning down how the term is being used by educators, because understandings and definitions around terms like balanced literacy can vary from setting to setting.

Loewus advised that reporters should also make an effort to dig into the types of instructional strategies children are being taught to use when learning to read.

Loewus explained, “It’s important to remember that very few people are going to deny the importance of phonics. Almost every school that you walk into will say, ‘We are doing phonics.’ But the question is how.”

For example, Loewus found that many schools teach students to use “cueing strategies.” Cueing strategies encourage students to look for context clues on the page, such as pictures, when they come to a word they cannot read. While such cueing models may technically incorporate elements of phonics, research shows that using these cueing strategies can actually hinder their ability to read.

Rasmussen offered a simple piece of advice for reporters trying to figure out whether schools and districts are following phonics science. “Don’t ask. Watch a kid read. Because it’s very clear to see a reader that’s been trained in a cueing model.”

Finding Sources

When you are reporting on this topic, outspoken parent advocates can be a great resource. And, as panelists noted, they are not hard to find. Many parent advocacy groups have a strong presence on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

For reporters wanting to get in touch with parent advocates, Loewus, Long, and Rasmussen offered a few tips:

  • Check out the conversations being held under the #ELAChat hashtag, which is regularly used as a virtual gathering-space for parent organizers and other outspoken reading instruction boosters.
  • Decoding Dyslexia, a parent advocacy group, has active chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Find a chapter near you.
  • The Reading League, an organization dedicated to disseminating the latest science of reading research, has a collection of resources accessible on its website.

Reporters can re-watch the full conversation on the science of reading here.