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Schools should be able to verify the literacy programs they choose is grounded in the science of reading and has proven itself in classrooms.

How to evaluate literacy programs that pledge to accelerate learning

Schools and districts should be able to verify that the literacy program they choose is firmly grounded in the science of reading and has proven itself in real classrooms

The NAEP results in late 2022 revealed that reading scores fell for both fourth and eighth grade readers as a result of the pandemic. Only 33 percent of fourth graders are reading proficiently, which means that two-thirds read below grade level. For eighth graders, the scores are even lower with only 31 percent reading proficiently, and more than two-thirds reading below grade level.

While instruction informed by reading science is necessary for all students, it is essential for students who are at risk for reading challenges due to dyslexia, developmental language disorder, or other factors. Teachers need real-time progress monitoring data, data-driven action plans, and instructional tools that allow them to deliver the right instruction either inside or outside the classroom.

Schools and districts want to know the literacy program they choose is firmly grounded in the science of reading (i.e., more than 50 years of research) and has proven itself in real classrooms. Whether a literacy company has been in the market for 60 years or 60 days, there are ways to fact-check its solutions to determine if its research is valid, there is proven efficacy, and it can fulfill the promises they make to teachers and students. For district leaders, it is critical to understand the importance of the science of reading and the role of Structured Literacy as they review available literacy solutions.

The Science of Reading and Structured Literacy

Teaching reading is a complex process that incorporates decades of research into how students learn and how reading should be taught. Educators understand that teaching students to read fluently is the key to their overall academic success.

Almost every literacy program claims its solution is based on the science of reading, and some also claim its program follows a Structured Literacy instructional model. What does that mean, exactly? These terms are not synonymous. The science of reading is the evidence. It is 50+ years of gold-standard research about what works in reading instruction and the skills necessary to read proficiently.

Science of reading research shows the five critical skills required to learn how to read:

  1. Phonology: the sound system
  2. Orthography: the writing system
  3. Morphology: the meaningful part of words
  4. Semantics: relationships among words
  5. Syntax: the structure of sentences

The science of reading is the evidence and Structured Literacy is the application of that evidence in the classroom.

Structured Literacy was named by the Dyslexia Association as a way for educators to identify research-based reading instruction programs. As the science of reading research identifies that decoding and language comprehension skills are critical skills to teach students, Structured Literacy recognizes that those skills must be taught explicitly, systematically, cumulatively, and diagnostically. The science of reading is the only proven way to ensure that students become proficient readers and confident learners across the curriculum.

 A Checklist for Schools and Districts Choosing a Literacy Program

Here is a checklist to guide decision-making for school and district administrators as they evaluate literacy solutions to support their own literacy learning goals.

Does the program contain the five critical skills of the science of reading: phonology, morphology, orthography, semantics, and syntax?
Does it use the principles of Structured Literacy to teach reading skills: explicitly, systematically, cumulatively, and diagnostically?
What kind of evidence does the vendor provide? Independent third-party evaluations, peer-review research, and ESSA evaluations are what to look for.
Is there evidence that it works with designated grade levels?
Is there evidence that it works with the same student populations (e.g., Emergent Bilinguals, etc.) you plan to use it for?
Is the support for professional learning and implementation sufficient for your teachers to feel confident in their ability to accelerate learning?
Does it include an easy-to-deploy assessment? And can it be done in a remote environment?
What type of data reports are included? It should contain reports at the student, classroom, school, and district level.
Is the data actionable for teachers? Does the program help them interpret the data to personalize instruction for each student?
Is the program easy to implement for educators, students, and families? Or does it feel like another add-on to an already full plate?
If you are using ESSER funds for this purchase, have you identified funding sources to carry on the program after ESSER funds are spent?

What’s Next for Schools and Districts

Schools and districts recognize the urgency of accelerating student learning. Using research-proven literacy programs that assess where students are and provide instructional support to move them to grade-level proficiency as quickly as possible is the remedy. To be successful, literacy programs need to be grounded in the science of reading, feature Structured Literacy principles, provide scaffolding and support for both students and teachers, and generate actionable data to personalize instruction. Choosing a blended learning literacy program with the features discussed above is a good investment and if implemented with fidelity, will successfully accelerate students’ literacy learning.

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