Supporting research-based reading instruction

Learning Differences

30 March 2022

Photo by twinsterphoto / Adobe Stock

Reading is one of the most important skills a person can learn. Reading opens up new worlds of possibility for learning and exploration. And, research has shown that proficient readers are more likely to graduate from high school, find success in college, and experience greater economic mobility and opportunity in adulthood.

Unlike learning how to walk or talk, learning how to read is not a natural stage of a child’s life – it is a skill that must be developed. Scientific research has helped us understand how children build reading skills, and the most effective ways to help them learn. With this type of evidence-based instruction (known as the ‘science of reading’), more than 95 per cent of children can be successful readers by the end of first grade – including the great majority of students with learning differences, such as dyslexia. [1]

Schools do not always follow the science

Despite the research about the most effective way to teach reading to students with learning differences, schools in the United States and around the world do not follow a consistent approach to help all children learn to read successfully. Today, two thirds of fourth-grade students in the US read below grade-level standards, with 88 per cent of children with disabilities still struggling to read at eight or nine years old. More than 80 per cent of Black students, students from low-income backgrounds, and English-language learners are reading below grade level at the end of fourth grade. [2]

A big part of the challenge is that fewer than one in ten teachers in the US report that they feel prepared to teach reading effectively. Most teachers did not learn about the science of reading in their teachertraining programmes and have had to learn about successful approaches to reading instruction on their own.

As a result of this disconnect between research and practice, many classrooms in the US reinforce strategies used by struggling readers, rather than successful approaches backed by research. This has the most severe impact on children with learning differences, who need reading instruction that follows the science the most.

Local and national work helps turn the tide

In 2021, the Learning Differences Programme launched several new partnerships to help shine a light on and strengthen reading instruction, especially for students furthest from opportunity. Our grantee partners’ work spans a range of approaches from communications and advocacy, to school- and system-level support, to closer school-family partnerships.

Increasing awareness

Emily Hanford is a senior correspondent for the documentary and investigative reporting team at American Public Media (APM), a producer and distributor of public radio programming in the US. A few years ago, Emily became interested in dyslexia after meeting college students who had not received effective help for their reading struggles in elementary school. Emily knew little about dyslexia or reading instruction, but soon realised this was an important story with critical implications for the life chances of millions of children. “Dyslexia opened up this Pandora’s box for me about reading instruction that’s driven our focus now for several years,” says Emily.

APM has since produced a series of investigations and podcasts. Subjects include: What is the vast body of scientific research on reading? Why do many schools not follow the science? How does misguided instruction create and widen inequality for students with learning differences, students of colour, and students from low-income backgrounds?

Emily’s reporting has reached living rooms, board rooms, and legislative chambers across the US and beyond. This has ignited conversations about the science of reading and provoked a reassessment of instruction – with significant implications for teachers’ preparation, instruction, professional learning, and state and local policy.

Supporting educators

How can teachers use research based methods of teaching reading if they never learned it themselves? Instruction Partners, a not-for-profit organisation based in Nashville, Tennessee, works ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with schools, systems, and states across the US to help teachers implement research-based practices that provide all students with excellent instruction.

With Oak support, Instruction Partners is working alongside teachers and principals in several local communities to help educators implement the science of reading. It hopes to enable all students to read proficiently, with a focus on students with learning differences and other marginalised groups.

“We know more than ever before about how to help children become strong readers,” says Malika Anderson, chief program officer at Instruction Partners. “However, teachers often receive conflicting information about how to leverage the science of reading. If we can help align the structures that support early literacy, we can help teachers centre instruction that accelerates all students’ foundational reading skills.” As schools across the US have sought to address learning challenges due the Covid-19 pandemic, the work of Instruction Partners is a crucial part of preparing more teachers with the skills, knowledge, and tools they need to help more students become strong readers.

Engaging families

“While teachers are experts in instruction, families are the experts on their children,” says Alejandro Gibes de Gac, founder and CEO of Springboard Collaborative, a national not-for-profit organisation dedicated to closing the literacy gap by bridging the gap between home and school. “We believe parents’ love for their children is the single greatest – and most underutilised – natural resource in education.”

Long before the pandemic magnified the importance of parents’ engagement in students’ learning, Springboard Collaborative was dedicated to harnessing the power of parents and caregivers to support children’s reading success in school. Through its programmes, Springboard coaches educators and supports families to work together to help children meet reading goals, with an emphasis on students who are most impacted by opportunity gaps.

This year, Springboard has expanded its work to help even more families and educators collaborate to support children’s reading success. With the majority of participating students coming from low-income backgrounds, and 98 per cent identifying as students of colour, Springboard is working with nearly 17,000 families to build lifelong habits for strong readers.

Oak Foundation’s Learning Differences Programme (LDP) seeks to build a world in which schools unlock the creativity and power of every young person and equip them to shape more just and equitable communities. By shining a light on the challenges and empowering educators and families with better knowledge and tools grounded in the science of reading, together we can ensure that all students, especially students with learning differences who are furthest from opportunity, will become successful readers. To this end, we are proud to support APM Reports, Instruction Partners, Springboard Collaborative and our other partners in the early reading movement across the US. You can find more about the work they do on their websites: instructionpartners.org, springboardcollaborative.org and apmreports.org


[1] Seidenberg, Mark (2017) Language at The Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Cannot, and What Can be Done About It. Basic Books: New York.

[2] National Center for Education Statistics (2019). National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, D.C: National Center for Education Statistics

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