Breakthrough Moments: You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Know
By: Dr. Liz Brooke, CCC-SLP
I know I’m not the only educator who is frustrated by the gap between the 95% of all children that can be taught to read when using a program based in the science of reading and the 66% of fourth grade students that are not performing at proficient reading levels.
I was a first grade teacher many years ago, before I became a speech pathologist and then made my career as a proponent of Structured Literacy instruction. Through my time at The Florida Center for Reading Research and now with Lexia® Learning, I’ve become a passionate advocate for Structured Literacy and the science of reading, and helping educators understand what is meant by both of those terms.
Looking back, I realized I didn’t even know what I didn’t know when I was teaching. It wasn’t for lack of passion or dedication on my part. Like most teachers, I was in my classroom until 6 p.m. most nights, until the custodians told me it was time to go home. But I think about how many more students I could have reached if I had the knowledge and training. I’ve since received in the science of reading and Structured Literacy.
Between my teaching years and now, the focus on the science of reading has had a positive influence on literacy instruction.
The science of reading and its application in classroom instruction, Structured Literacy, creates a proven pathway that gives all teachers the knowledge and skills they need to create successful readers.
Teaching reading is rocket science
It’s time to retire the myth that learning to read comes naturally. We don’t learn to read like we learn to speak. Teaching literacy isn’t an innate skill either.
Decades of multidisciplinary research has gone into understanding how children learn to read— a collection of gold-standard studies now referred to as the science of reading. To be effective teachers of literacy for all students, teachers must be knowledgeable about the structure of oral and written language, language and literacy skill development, and related pedagogy.
This is precisely why professional learning is so important for literacy instruction.
Students need explicit instruction in foundational reading skills, and educators can’t teach what they don’t know is missing. Most teachers don’t receive the academic preparation necessary to support every students’ language and literacy development. When teachers don’t have the support and resources they need, that can contribute to professional burnout.
Schools and districts considering how to better support their educators should prioritize treating literacy instruction as the rigorous discipline that it is. That includes acknowledging the indispensable role that teachers play in reading proficiency.
The power of teachers
John Hattie’s Visible Learning research concluded that collective teacher efficacy (educators’ confidence in their ability to positively affect students) is the number one factor affecting student achievement. Yet only 51% of teaching institutions provide adequate instruction in the science of reading, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. When students struggle, teachers without this knowledge can lose confidence in their ability to help.
The right professional learning can fill gaps in teacher preparation and translate the extensive body of research about language and literacy knowledge into effective classroom practice. As a former teacher who wishes she had this support when she was in the classroom, I am excited that high-quality professional learning courses covering the science of reading now exist.
Filling the gaps for teachers
Just as an asset-based model focuses on the strengths that diverse students bring to the classroom, the right professional learning in literacy allows teachers to expand on their current expertise and learn best practices to take their instruction to the next level.
What does high-quality professional learning in literacy look like?
- It has practical application opportunities so teachers can apply their newly acquired knowledge into the classroom.
- Educators are prepared to teach the skills needed to master the foundational skills of reading and writing instruction—phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and written language.
- Phonological awareness and phonics (two areas where most teachers need more training) are treated with clarity, depth, and practical guidance, helping teachers value and understand the impact of these basic foundational skills as a bridge to more complex literacy skills.
- It addresses the structures of English, the cognitive processes of learning to read, and the teaching practices proven to be effective in preventing and remediating reading difficulties, including dyslexia.
- Teachers learn the how, what, and why of literacy acquisition to improve instructional practice and impact long-term systemic change in literacy instruction.
- It provides shared learning opportunities and a venue for authentic collaboration, camaraderie, and a collective sense of purpose in achieving success with a district’s literacy initiative.
Creating breakthrough moments
Professional learning that arms teachers with expert science of reading knowledge gives them the tools to become more effective, and more effective teachers can better accelerate student literacy learning…goals I know are top of the list for all educators today based on a 2021 survey of over 1000 teachers across the nation.
Teachers matter more to student success than any other aspect of schooling. When teachers better understand their students' strengths and opportunities for growth, and understand the what and how to meet those needs, they can better connect with and engage them in instruction designed specifically for their needs.
Given access to high-quality professional learning in literacy, teachers can experience breakthrough moments for themselves and create them for their students. Learn what to look for when evaluating a professional learning program with this education insight.