Teachers in training need mentorship and instruction in the science of reading

The band played “Pomp and Circumstance” while the soon-to-be graduates filed in, all smiling and waving. The education majors were easy to spot, with caps adorned with glittery apples and neatly lettered phrases, such as “My turn to teach,” “Class dismissed,” and “Future teacher.”

The sight of a college graduation creates such a mix of feelings of accomplishment and relief for students, families, and professors. But oh, how differently I saw things that day. For eight years, prior to coming to NWEA in January 2022, I was the elementary education department chair at North Greenville University, a small private college in South Carolina. That day, I carried with me a deep hope for all those young people and the even younger people they, in turn, would influence as their teachers. I also carried with me the knowledge that my career was taking me away from future cohorts, from the opportunity to shape new teachers.

In that previous life, I poured my heart and soul into the preparation of future elementary teachers. It was an all-consuming job. I worked long hours after class with junior elementary education majors writing lesson plans for first-time teaching experiences in real classrooms. There were many late-night phone calls with sensitive-hearted pre-service teacher candidates crying when the lessons they put so many hours into failed, or when feedback given by professors or supervising teachers was hard to take.

Now, those same students had persevered, and degrees were being conferred. After the graduation ceremony, I sighed at the sight of a black cap trimmed in colorful crayon shapes. “She taught happily ever after,” it read. I wanted to call this freshly graduated, ready-to-be-hired teacher back and say, “You misunderstood, my dear! A teacher’s life isn’t a children’s book.” However, I smiled quietly and gave her a hug and decided not to spoil her big day.

The stakes are high in reading

As experienced educators, we know the reality of teaching is nowhere near the fairy-tale world many graduates may envision after sailing through highly supportive student teaching experiences. In fact, there is research to prove that new graduates may struggle particularly with teaching children to read. Data from the National Council of Teacher Quality shows an alarming lack of effective teacher preparation for teaching elementary reading.

The most current NAEP scores show that fourth graders have lower average reading scores than in 2017 and that scores only increased from 29% to 35% between 1992 and 2019.

The precursor to successful reading—phonemic awareness—is not covered adequately in almost half of teacher preparation programs, the report explains, and only 53% of programs cover fluency. Preparation to teach comprehension is better, with 77% of programs addressing it (though, let me point out that 77% is still a C+). Phonics and vocabulary are taught in only 70% of programs.

Even more concerning is the fact that new elementary teachers are headed into classrooms where, nationally, we continue to be in a literacy crisis. The most current NAEP scores show that fourth graders have lower average reading scores than in 2017 and that scores only increased from 29% to 35% between 1992 and 2019. This crisis predates COVID-19, and the pandemic has only made things worse (see our research on the effects of interrupted learning).

Mentorship is critical for teachers

Despite the depressing numbers, many elementary education graduates are undeterred. That’s certainly true for one of my former students, Rebecca Holmes.

“Hey, Dr. Schaich!” she blurted out when she called me recently. “I was just nominated by my principal to be Induction Teacher of the Year!” (The nomination is for South Carolina’s program for supporting beginning teachers.) She went on to tell me the words her principal, Glenda Bigby, said about her in the nomination letter: “Miss Rebecca Holmes has provided her students with the gift of confidence and determination as they improve their reading and math daily. Her own personal ‘I can…’ positive attitude has transferred to each one of her students. These efforts are also evident in her data from formal and informal assessments.”

Rebecca’s “I can” attitude aligns with my research on pre-service teacher preparation and self-efficacy for teaching reading. She had gained this attitude, at least in part, because someone had believed in her. A strong mentor makes a huge impact on the success of teacher candidates in student teaching, as well as new teachers in the induction years. Mentorship in Rebecca’s program involved strong pre-service teacher and professor relationships. By the time the elementary education majors began student teaching, they had experienced 250 field placement hours and taught at least 16 lessons. They were given feedback on every lesson.

Also critical: Explicit instruction in the science of reading

After our talk, I recalled that the semester I had with Rebecca was the last time I taught my course on assessment in reading. In it, I led the students through a challenging student impact project using an assessment-intervention cycle with struggling readers. I was in the habit of teaching these pre-service teachers as I had been taught in graduate school: we covered how to conduct running records and do miscue analysis. I also taught these students how to use leveled readers in small group instruction. We now know that such efforts do not align with research and create inequitable reading practices.

Luckily, research confirms that more and more teacher preparation programs are beginning to embrace reading science.

I had been learning about the science of reading, and I knew in my heart that I couldn’t teach the reading assessment course again until I resolved the cognitive dissonance I was feeling. A paradigm shift was in order. Although it may appear to be new, the science of reading is anything but. Paying attention to what research says works best in early literacy and putting it into our instructional practices is the science of reading, and we’ve been doing this for a long time. You can read more about it in my colleague Cindy Jiban’s post “The science of reading explained.”

The ongoing shift in my understanding of literacy instruction comes from reading research from scholars such as Timothy Shanahan, Jan Burkins and Kari Yates, Timothy Rasinski, and Nell Duke. Learning so much about the science of reading so many years into my career made it clear to me that educators simply cannot set out to change the world without staying current with research. We must teach teachers that their learning never stops.

Luckily, research suggests that more and more teacher preparation programs are beginning to embrace reading science. In fact, the number of programs in the nation to align with the science of reading has grown to 51%, up from 35% in 2013. I saw this when I returned to my former university as a guest professor. I walked by one of the classrooms and a life-size Scarborough Reading Rope caught my eye.

A colorful representation of Scarborough’s Reading Rope shows the eight components of reading—decoding, phonological awareness, sight recognition, verbal reasoning, background knowledge, vocabulary knowledge, language structure, and literacy knowledge—and how they come together to achieve skilled reading.The Scarborough Reading Rope was developed by Dr. Hollis Scarborough in 2001. It depicts the reading process as eight strands, including decoding and vocabulary knowledge, that are woven together to create a rope. The eight strands are subdivided into two categories: word recognition and language comprehension. The idea is that all the components work in concert to produce skilled, fluent reading.

I had to know more, so I tracked down the professor of the reading methods course, Dr. Sarah Little. I spent some time talking with her and learned her philosophy of teaching pre-service teachers.

“As a university professor, my goal is to provide the most current and relevant information to my students, so they have the knowledge to be the most effective teachers when they step into their own classrooms,” she explained. “I follow many pages on social media and blogs to keep a pulse on current trends, ideas, and feelings of teachers, so I can best reflect on and address those in my teaching. This also allows me to see current and upcoming state and national legislation regarding educational practices.”

This dedication to staying informed is what helped her better understand more about the science of reading. “It is more than a trend,” she said. “It’s brain research that has its basis in decades of research, and it’s only growing stronger. Having only stepped out of public education two years ago, I see the need for explicit and systematic phonics and phonemic awareness instruction, because I saw students struggling who shouldn’t have, if they’d only had proper instruction. These students led me to begin further diving into the science of reading, researching effective strategies.”

A commitment to success

Back at that graduation, it had been over an hour since the ceremony ended, but graduates still lingered on the expansive lawn outside the football stadium. My heart swelled with pride as the ready-to-be-hired teachers hugged me and we posed for selfies.

We all were moving on to exciting chapters in our education careers: they were about to move into classrooms of their own, and I would soon begin my new role as an NWEA early reading specialist. The last former student walked away with a promise to stay in touch. I watched her go with a lump in my throat. All of these young people are capable of so much. It’s our duty to ensure they have everything they need to be successful.

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