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Teachers: The Key to Helping America Read

By: Louisa Moats (1997)

Chairman Goodling and members of the Education and the Workforce Committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today about the preparation of teachers of reading. I am the DC Director of the Early Interventions Project in the District of Columbia Public Schools and the Houston Independent School District, a five-year study of early reading instruction conducted by the University of Texas-Houston Health Science Center and funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health. In addition, I am the Director of Teacher Training at the Greenwood School in Putney, Vermont, and am serving as a member of the Board of Directors of the International Dyslexia Association. I was a credentialed teacher in three states before earning a doctorate in language, reading and learning disorders. For thirty years, I have specialized in the identification, understanding, and treatment of reading development and reading difficulty. I have worked with teachers all over the country, most recently for a year in California before coming to Washington. Unfortunately, Mr. Chairman, I can say without reservation that things are bad all over when it comes to the preparation of teachers of reading.

Teacher preparation in reading will require a systemic overhaul to reach every part of the problem: preservice and inservice training; teacher textbooks and state credentialing standards; instructional materials; the design and operation of departments of education; and the ways in which information is disseminated into the field. Only systemic rebuilding is likely to establish a profession that is informed by science, a profession that will meet every child's need for reading success.

By what is reading education now informed?

I am often asked by reporters, students, and parents why there is such a gap between reading practice and the knowledge emanating from reading research. One answer is that reading education is currently informed by textbooks that lack content, scope, or grounding in linguistics, reading psychology, or reading pedagogy; by publishers who sell slogans instead of substance; and by college and inservice instructors who are accountable to no standard whatsoever.

Prior to this hearing, I reviewed four of the most popular texts being used in reading education courses. At an earlier hearing you heard from Dr. Reid Lyon of the NICHD regarding the scientific findings on the nature of reading development, reading difficulty, and reading instruction. These significant findings have been being reported for a number of years, so you might expect that the information contained in Dr. Lyon's testimony would be reflected in these texts in use today. Unfortunately, none of the popular texts contained accurate information about phonology and its role in reading development, and none of them explained with depth or clarity why many children have trouble learning to read or what to do about it. Evidently, the scientific information that has been presented to you by Dr. Lyon has not yet made its way into mainstream reading texts or even mainstream reading journals.

Last year, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing attempted to gather the syllabi of reading courses in the California State University system to determine what was being taught in reading education and what texts were being used. About 20 percent of instructors responded to the request for their syllabi. (I learned the first week I was in California at a meeting of California State University deans and faculty that many faculty members withheld their syllabi from the survey because they viewed the Commission's request as an infringement on academic freedom.) On the basis of the syllabi that were obtained, the Commission determined that the components of reading development and instruction named in the laws of the California Reading Initiative were not adequately addressed in the courses' content or readings. Subsequently, this finding led the Commission to develop explicit standards for course content in reading preparation programs which are tied to program accreditation and a Reading Instruction Competency Test (RICA) for teachers, standards that have met with much resistance from reading faculty.

Instructional materials used by teachers do not compensate for what they were not taught in school. The most popular instructional materials in our classrooms are strong on literature, pictures, and motivational strategies for children, but very weak or simply misinformed on the structure of our language and how children actually learn to read the words on the page. As Dr. Lyon testified to this Committee, learning to read the words on the page is necessary if one is to gain meaning from text, and learning to read the words on the page is no easy matter for a significant number of our children. Many of our popular materials encourage guessing at words from pictures and context rather that knowing what a printed word actually says. This popular practice has led to the omission of basic information about language structure from instructional materials. Teachers who are poorly prepared in preservice courses are not likely to learn what they need to know about reading from the types of instructional materials now in use in most classrooms.

As the Committee is aware, schools of education have been low on the academic totem pole in our universities. In the schools of education themselves, professors are not rewarded for expert work in teaching itself or even for spending time in schools. In California, there was no partnership between school districts and universities prior to the Reading Initiative, so that students would take courses that had no relevance to the classroom settings they were to manage. The Harvard Graduate School of Education, which is ranked by some as the nation's top school of education, for many years has had no credentialing program and does not view itself as an institution that trains teachers. The Dartmouth College administration recently tried to abolish its education department altogether, stating that a department of education had no place in a school of academic rigor. Fortunately, the outcry of support from students saved the department. We hold teaching in low regard, but all our research data indicate that reading is one of the most complex mental abilities learned by humans. To teach it well, one must have extensive knowledge and skill that require coursework linked to supervised practice and ongoing mentorship from experts.

Are professors of education currently able to provide the knowledge and skill that teachers need? Although individual professors may be doing a commendable job within the constraints of their programs, my experience has been that the majority of reading faculty need much more grounding in the science and pedagogy of their discipline to be effective. Many departments of reading are staffed by adjunct faculty who are accountable to no one and who often have no knowledge of current research or its informed application. Last year I surveyed the 55 participants of the California Reading Academy, who were hand-picked leaders in language arts from the 11 county regions in California, on what they believed should change about teacher preparation. I gave the survey after teaching them about language structure and its relevance to learning to read and write. Many of these leaders commented that the information about language, reading, and spelling offered in the course was totally new to them but critical for informed practice. They lamented the years they spent teaching without this essential foundation. Although generally loyal to the institutions that prepared them, these leaders were totally supportive of more rigorous professional standards, a research-based curriculum for teachers, and the requirement that professors be scholars capable of modeling and supervising instruction.

Here in the District of Columbia, I have just finished my first week of work with the kindergarten and first grade teachers in our project. We spent three days on the components of balanced reading, the identification and production of speech sounds, the teaching of phoneme awareness, and how children learn to read and spell. At the conclusion of this session, one young teacher expressed outrage that he had never been taught these things; I know, he remarked with regret, that I could have taught so many more of my children how to read. Another teacher reported with dismay that she was just finishing a masters degree in reading at a local university and none of the essential information communicated in our session had been taught to her. Teachers are not our problem; we are losing good teachers because their training is inadequate for achieving success in their classrooms with diverse learners.

Establishing a profession

Professions such as plumbing, hairdressing, auto mechanics, medicine, speech/language pathology, and psychology regulate themselves through governing boards, accreditation standards for training programs, national examinations, and continuing education requirements. They also reward professional growth and excellence. Reading education in America, indeed all of education, can learn something from other professions and from our counterparts in Europe and Asia. In Poland, for example, teachers must take five years of linguistics, child development, educational psychology and pedagogy before they sit for the first round of licensing exams. Scholarship is combined with supervised teaching practice. In the U.S., it is a rare teacher who knows the difference between a speech sound and that of a letter, or who can frame instructional choices according to a credible theory of reading development and reading difficulty.

The superficiality of teacher training drives teachers toward a "method" or "program" orientation. Those who are loyal to methods tend to be ideological and rigid. Out of the hundreds of teachers I have surveyed about their theoretical orientation towards reading, five to ten percent, at the most, are able to name any of the theorists or researchers who, in fact, have made the major contributions to our understanding of reading development, individual differences in reading proficiency, or the components of effective instruction. When teachers are wedded to philosophies, programs, or methodologies such as Whole Language or Reading Recovery, they tend to be less open to the findings of objective studies that could improve their practice; less interested in questioning the assumptions of their favored method; and less effective at problem solving when the approach they use is unsuccessful with a given reader, which, I will add, is inevitable -- no one program or approach is equally effective with all learners. The question we must all keep in mind is which children need what type of teaching, at what point in their development, in what type of setting, with what type of teacher, and for how long in order to become literate adults who love to read and write.

To establish a profession of teaching reading, we must delineate what all teachers of reading should know and be able to do, require and enforce accreditation for preparation programs, evaluate teachers based on performance as well as content knowledge, encourage partnerships between colleges and school districts, and build incentives for teachers to demonstrate expertise as they gain experience.

The science of reading

Given the degree of controversy and argument that has characterized the reading field in the last century, the Committee might question whether the field is mature enough to agree on standards for professors and teachers. My response is yes it can, although the history of this field certainly attests to the challenge of the enterprise. The effective prevention of reading failure is certainly not something that is obvious, or we would be doing it. If teaching children to read was as simple as providing the attention of an enthusiastic but untrained tutor, we would have discovered that and been doing it. Learning to read is difficult for many people, and science -- especially cognitive science, neuroscience, and applied linguistics -- is helping us understand why and what can be done about it. We do know the major components of effective instruction; the course of reading development; the differences between good and poor readers; the linguistic nature of reading and writing; the special role of phonology in learning to read; the way in which words in print are processed; why some people comprehend better than others; and how writing and reading are linked. There are many questions to be answered by continuing research, but we are ready now to act on what we know. Teacher preparation can, and must, rest on a scientific foundation.

Thank you for your commitment to the improvement of reading education in our country. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.

About the speaker:

Dr. Louisa C. Moats is currently the DC Director for a five-year study of early reading instruction being conducted in Houston, Texas, and Washington, DC, public schools, under the direction of Dr. Barbara Foorman of the University of Texas Houston Health Science Center, with funding by the National Institute Of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. She received her doctorate in Reading and Human Development from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She worked as a teacher, neuropsychology technician, and specialist in learning disorders prior to her doctoral training in reading. She was a licensed psychologist in private practice for 15 years in Vermont, as well as a graduate instructor at Harvard University and St. Michael's College. Specializing in reading development, reading disorders, spelling, and related language concerns, she has written and lectured widely throughout the United States and abroad. She spent the 199697 school year as the Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Sacramento County Office of Education, where she authored leadership training materials on early reading for the California State Board of Education and conducted numerous symposia and workshops for professionals in education. Dr. Moats also designed and teaches innovative courses for teachers on language structure and its role in learning to read and write through the Greenwood Institute in Putney, Vermont.

Hearing before the Committee on Education and the Workforce, United States House of Representatives, Washington, DC September 3, 1997, at 10:30 am Statement of Louisa C. Moats, Ed. D.