Could the Science of Reading be the Renaissance of Education we’ve all been hoping for? 

UDL specialist Joni Degner talks about the many ways the Science of Reading could make a positive impact on our learners.

The Science of Reading is a trending topic in education, for good reason. In 2022, reading scores across the US dropped to the lowest they’ve been since the 1990s. 

Google searches for “the Science of Reading” have grown by 300% since 2021. And over 15 states have passed laws requiring schools to teach the Science of Reading. 

According to The Reading League, the Science of Reading is “a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.” In an education, this means teaching reading to students in ways that the research has shown to work.

In this interview, Customer Accounts Manager, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) specialist, and former secondary language arts educator Joni Degner talks to Content Specialist Mary Pembleton about:

  • Why Science of Reading legislation is so encouraging
  • How the Science of Reading could be protected from politics
  • How Texthelp’s literacy tools fit into the Science of Reading 
  • How the Science of Reading could change everything, and not just for education

I’ve seen Science of Reading legislation make a lot of headlines lately. How do you feel about so many states passing these laws about requiring schools to teach the Science of Reading?

It's encouraging to see people really putting their teeth in it, and states passing legislation. To me it’s saying that everybody recognizes that when 40-50% of kids reading at grade level is good, and 60% is really great, we have in some way failed at teaching reading. 

It feels so hopeful that as an institution, we’re maybe understanding that it’s time to look at something that is evidence based, that's research based, and grounded in neuroscience. It's a complete restructuring of how we teach reading.

It's really exciting. It's a huge movement in education. 

I’m curious, where do you think the momentum around Science of Reading came from? 

Even though there's this whole thing with the reading wars around the right way to teach reading, I do in some ways feel like the importance of reading itself is one thing everybody can agree on. 

Reading is critical, and it is something that can either propel a learner and really help provide them with opportunities and understanding, or it can absolutely deprive them and potentially make life very difficult. 

There's no political motivation behind it. 

I think that that's one of the things that Science of Reading might have this little bit of protection around. It’s easy to agree that reading is important and kids need to know how to read, so we're going to have to be able to go back to something that's research based, science based, and teach it in that way. 

It at least feels like right now there's nothing political that can turn those efforts. I hope I'm right. These are red and blue states that are adopting this and moving forward with it. 

I feel hopeful about that, that this is something that will be protected from the political and social climate that I think has undone some of the other efforts in education recently.

It's also really exciting that the Science of Reading is going to task every teacher throughout middle school and high school with teaching reading fluency. 

In some ways, as a former high school English teacher, it would have terrified me because I've never done that. But I also know I would have been trained and gotten professional learning around how to do it. To me that's really exciting. 

In the past, we've always looked at the third grade as this critical point where you must know how to read, because after that, you won't have the same intensive reading instruction that you have in 2nd and 3rd grade. You're going to be expected to be able to learn from text in order to be able to learn. 

In my background as a secondary language arts teacher, I had plenty of kids who came to me as freshmen who most certainly did not know how to read well enough to consume high school level literature and texts.

When I went through my teacher education program years ago, I didn’t receive any training in how to teach learners to read. The assumption was that because I was going into secondary education, they'd know how to read when they get to me. But that was only true maybe 65% of the time. 

And that always struck me because I didn't have a background as a reading specialist, but so many times as a secondary language arts teacher, I really needed those skills. I knew how to teach kids to think critically, to analyze, to compare, to identify literary techniques; but, I didn’t know how to teach them to read. 

I always had this feeling that it's not okay for a kid to be in eighth, ninth, tenth grade and to know, “I’ll just always struggle and never be at the same place where my peers are. Reading will always be awful for me.” 

Some kids might just need a little more instruction through fifth, sixth, and seventh grade, and maybe that changes everything for them. But for some kids, maybe they need instruction throughout their entire K-12 schooling. 

The science of reading says that everybody is responsible for literacy now, and I love that. I really love it. I'm sure that people in K-3 are like, Finally, it's not all on me anymore.

I’d like to ask you a little bit more about that, because I was not aware this was a part of the Science of Reading- that everybody held the responsibility for teaching reading fluency across grade levels. 

The Science of Reading is intended to provide a framework for support for all learners across the entire continuum of their literacy development.

That is very cool.

I really love it. 

One of the things that I used to tell my kids is that you will always still be learning to read. I am still learning to read. To me, coming from the world of UDL, it really is that idea of, you're always a learner. And as an expert learner, you learn how you best learn, right? 

So as you move forward in life, you understand what works best for you. I think that the Science of Reading opens that up, that you will always still be learning to read. You will come across words that you've never seen before. You'll come across different kinds of documents, different structures. 

I feel like maybe the Science of Reading can help shrug off that stigma for people still learning to read. Hopefully they will feel like it's okay to still be learning how to read. 

Everything else in education says that a growth mindset is okay: “I don't know how to do that yet. I'm still learning how to do that.” Except for this third grade benchmarking where you must know how to read by this point. 

And if you don't, there's all this research that says you might just fail for the rest of your life, fail at school, not go to college, maybe go to prison, not get a good job. There's all of these terrible statistics out there.

Teaching literacy in this way feels in line with some of the other pieces that people seem to value a lot in education, like growth mindset, like UDL. Maybe this all sort of starts to feather in together to align us in terms of our value systems. 

Yes, we want people to understand how to read. But we also understand that folks are going to be reading on different timelines. 

We want to continue to support their reading throughout all of their schooling, and not have this precipitous drop in the support when kids are still learning how to read.

I think about kids all the time. Kids that I was not able to reach when I was teaching, kids who spend their whole life going through remediation so that they can get a waiver from a standardized test.

I just think this could be a turning of the tide, especially if folks that are enacting this legislation and the schools that are implementing it understand what Mississippi seems to understand, which is that this is a long game. That it's not like we'll see a big turnaround next year. 

When you're trying to turn the tide on literacy, we spent a long time not doing it the way that we probably should have been doing it. It's going to take a long time of doing it the right way that's really backed by research and neuroscience to see the kind of miracle that they've seen in Mississippi

That's more than a decade of dedicated implementation and measuring the data.

Thank goodness for Mississippi. And I love to hear that literacy instruction will continue throughout K-12. I also love that educators are going to have the evidence-based curriculum and the training and tools they need to do that. 

How do Texthelp’s literacy tools fit in here? 

No matter what we're teaching, scaffolding and options will always be part of the way that we're going to teach, whether we're teaching reading or something else altogether. 

And even though you're going to implement the Science of Reading, you're still facing a staffing shortage, for instance. 

One of the aspects of teaching explicitly, which is one of the things Science of Reading talks about, is modeling fluent reading. And text-to-speech might actually have to provide that model of fluent reading for some kiddos. 

It also gives them a chance to customize the voice, to customize the pacing, to what sounds fluent to them. Or I might prefer to listen to a male voice instead of a female voice. 

For my English language learners, who may still be a level one or level two speaker and my teacher might not speak my language, if I have the article or the story I'm reading in my home language, my assistive technology tools can read that aloud to me. 

Assistive technology is a way that we can put learners in charge of their scaffolding and put learners in charge of their own options. And to give them those options when they're not in the traditional classroom, like when they're learning at home or when they're learning somewhere else.

That's brilliant. It’s like a beautiful merging of UDL and Science of Reading. 

What about Multi Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)? Where does the Science of Reading fit into the tiers?

I think it's a natural fit because if we're saying that literacy is now everyone's job, if I’m in leadership, I'm going to make sure that none of my tiers are under-resourced.

Whether that is curriculum, whether that is professional learning for my staff, or whether that is assistive technology. If I'm really serious about the Science of Reading, then I'm also going to look at that in terms of tiers if I really start thinking about literacy. 

I mean, kids are probably already getting some of those interventions, school districts probably have those things in place. But it really prompts you to think about is everybody really getting high quality, universally designed, research-based literacy instruction? 

Having the Ohio Department of Ed saying, hey, look, MTSS is a key driver for Science of Reading, it feels exciting to have people articulate that we should be providing literacy instruction that is quality enough to reach 85-90% of our learners, and that tiered literacy interventions aren’t going to stop after a certain grade level.

It's really exciting to think about high quality literacy instruction that might reach 85-90% of our learners. That statement alone is something that has not rung true for a long time in a lot of schools, and not for lack of trying.

Maybe this is kind of the Renaissance of Education that we're coming into. 

There is a part of me that is always and will always be optimistic about education. I always will be, because I just think that we have the expertise, and teachers are certainly the people who put in the work. 

They are not people who sign up for the job because of the paycheck or because of the schedule, because there's nothing desirable about either one. So to me, I think they're certainly the ones that will carry out the work. 

And if our legislature and administrative leadership starts bringing in all the right pieces, maybe we'll see a real resurgence of literacy. The day that everybody in a school district sees literacy as part of their job, that is the day that our students will all find a lot more success in school.

Then I start thinking about all of the things that could potentially be impacted by that. I get hopeful that if literacy starts improving, imagine all of the other things down the line that also start improving. Like drug abuse and violence and poverty and homelessness.

I think sometimes people don't understand how important that work is. Education is an institution that defines so much of what life is like in our country for lots of people. It's such big work and it has such huge implications. 

Having this many people in education turn their face in the direction of the Science of Reading is pretty exciting. And when that many people are doing it at the same time, maybe, maybe, we're really doing something right here.

Explore Texthelp's literacy tools to discover how different features can support your Science of Reading instruction.