What every parent should know about what works in reading instruction

Essay By
Learn more about Amanda Wirtz.
Amanda Wirtz
Advisor, Education and Opportunity
George W. Bush Institute

It wasn’t until my own child started studying reading at school that I realized that even the highest-performing schools haven’t fully embraced research-based reading instruction and are promoting ineffective approaches. 

We chose my child’s elementary school because of its academic reputation, but, at the beginning of our first year, the school sent home a well-intentioned tip sheet on how to help my child learn to read that left me scratching my head. The tips were inconsistent with good reading practices. They included things like looking at the pictures in the book to help guess a word that’s unfamiliar or guessing a word from the context of the rest of the sentence. These are all practices that struggling readers use, unsuccessfully, to overcome their inability to read unfamiliar words.   

Reading is not a hardwired ability. The best way to teach reading is to help students learn how letters and sounds work together to create words.  Comprehension and fluency skills build from that baseline.    These approaches–referred to as the Science of Reading– help early readers, English language learners, and struggling readers alike.  

It is not always easy for parents to know how a school approaches reading instruction.  Even if you do have that information, how do you know it’s being used correctly? How can you tell if it’s research-based and if not, how do parents advocate for the best reading instruction for their children? In our case, most of my parent friends and I had been excited when we learned the school was adopting the evidence-based Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Sight Words (SIPPS) program. But unless you were a teacher, you would scarcely notice the difference between the old and the new or even understand what that mouthful of a name means.  

When applied correctly, programs like SIPPS, Lindamood-Bell, or Orton Gillingham align with the Science of Reading. Even if you don’t know the name of the program your school is using, you can look for some of the signs that your child’s early grades reading instruction is evidence based including:  

  • Direct, explicit instruction for individual sounds and spelling patterns instead of using pictures or the first letter of words to guess. 
  • Building phonemic awareness, or the ability to identify and manipulate individual sounds using skills like rhyming, blending, substituting or isolating sounds. For example, students might be asked to identify the sounds in “can,” /k/,/a/,/n/, or put the sounds /b/, /i/,/g/ together and say “big”.  
  • Using level appropriate decodable text based on the patterns students have already learned.  
  • Spelling lists consisting of words with the same apparent patterns like “un- “or “in-” prefixes.  Memorization of random spelling words does not align to research. 

But what can parents do to help? 

Read to and with your child. Watch how your child approaches unfamiliar words. Ask your teacher or principal which approach teachers are trained to use and what reading strategies are being taught. Advocate through parent associations and school and district leadership to adopt teacher development programs that use evidence-based approaches.  

A friend of mine recommended I listen to Emily Hanford’s Sold A Story podcast to learn about the ineffective teaching methods used to teach children how to read and the history behind the Science of Reading, the critical bedrock of all learning. I emerged both discouraged and hopeful.  

I was discouraged that it has taken our educational system so long to break the political polarization that stunted the Reading First program – part of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act – and use effective ways of teaching reading to help improve literacy skills in elementary schools. 

But I was also hopeful that the increased awareness of this issue that emerged from this podcast would help to mainstream evidence-based instruction across our country. 

Early in my professional career in education, I saw firsthand the positive impact and effectiveness of research-based reading instruction, including fundamental phonics and decoding. When I approached teaching my own child how to read, I focused on helping her learn the correct sounds for each letter and how to blend sounds together to build words using the best practices I researched over a decade before in graduate school.  

There has never been a more important time to advocate for our children and ensure their future success. Nationally, just over a third of fourth graders are reading at grade level, according to the Nation’s Report Card. 

Our children’s ability to read will impact their science, math, and social studies skills and is a strong predictor of whether they will graduate from high school and be able to hold a job. As my child’s teacher prominently posted on her bulletin board last year: “Readers are leaders!”   

Amanda Wirtz is Senior Program Manager of Education and Opportunity at the George W. Bush Institute.