To Teach Reading Right, Understand the Science of Reading

by | October 15, 2019

By Margaret High, October 17, 2019 

Public Impact® held its Opportunity Culture® Fellows Convening in September; this series highlights some of the convening topics and sessions.

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Kelly Butler, CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, speaks to the Opportunity Culture® Fellows Convening.

Resources for Teaching Reading

Public Impact® has published concise resources based on Barksdale’s work and other hard research to help teachers learn the basics of reading research and turn them into simple, actionable steps to boost standard curricula. Check out:

See more resources here.

As CEO of the Mississippi-based Barksdale Reading Institute, Kelly Butler doesn’t mind saying schools teach literacy all wrong. Condensing the science of reading into a one-hour overview presentation for the Opportunity Culture® Fellows Convening, Butler issued a clarion call for educators to follow the science of reading, focusing on phonics, brain development, the five components of reading, and the simple view of reading. Butler’s efforts to spread the word have helped move Mississippi’s reading growth to the top of state rankings.

A nationally recognized voice, Butler has been featured in Emily Hanford’s American Public Media reporting. Hear Butler in “At a Loss for Words,” released in August, and listen to Hanford’s award-winning “Hard Words” report from 2018.

“Scientific evidence must become a fundamental part of teaching, including areas that aren’t necessarily connected, such as reading,” Butler said. “To provide reading instruction that will enable all students to succeed, educators must also have basic information about scientific knowledge: how it is developed and how it should guide the selection and implementation of instructional programs, strategies, and approaches.”

Despite a clear, well-defined and well-researched scope and sequence on how to teach reading, Butler said, most educators can’t even name the five components of reading: phonological awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Educators should turn to “structured literacy,” not balanced literacy, she said. In balanced literacy, phonics instruction often gets confined to whole-group instruction or mini-lessons during guided reading. In structured literacy, teachers introduce phonics through whole-group instruction, but students then master phonics through explicit instruction in small, differentiated groups.

What about guided reading? It’s not the format for teaching foundational skills, Butler believes. Students benefit from guided reading to build vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension even before they are good decoders, but only if it is used very effectively in the classroom, which requires much scaffolding by the teacher.

Educators should understand “the simple view of reading”—the formula in which:

Decoding X Language Comprehension = Reading Comprehension.

Students need both strong decoding and strong language comprehension skills, she said.

In response to the lack of a big-picture guide to reading instruction, Barksdale Reading Institute created The website illustrates how the various skills needed for proficient reading fit within a larger picture. It shows how to teach each skill in a systematic, explicit, and sequential way.

The website includes skills sheets that explain why a certain component is important, an example lesson plan and sample videos, and assessment tools.

Butler also recommends reading:

We extend thanks to the Barksdale Reading Institute’s Kelly Butler for presenting this session at the convening.

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