Back in September 2018 I was starting my second year as the principal of McDonald Elementary School, a K-5 elementary school in southeast Pennsylvania. At the same time, Emily Hanford released an article titled Hard Words: Why Aren’t Kids being taught to read? which turned out to be an “Aha!” moment for me in my career. After reading Emily’s article, I felt like Neo in The Matrix. I had a decision to make: take the blue pill or the red pill. I could simply take the blue pill and return to my life as an educator who believed in 3-cueing, MSV analysis, and leveled readers. I could take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole went in terms of the science of reading. I took the red pill and embraced the science of reading—and you should too.
Like Neo in The Matrix, I took the red pill when deciding
to learn about the science of reading.
After taking the red pill I spent an entire year immersing myself in the science of reading, and I have to admit, I was overwhelmed! Topics such as the simple view of reading, Scarborough’s reading rope, Seidenberg’s four-part processing system, Ehri and orthographic mapping, the phonological core deficit, Kilpatrick and word level reading, Share’s self-teaching hypothesis…it was a lot to take in! Luckily, I found my affinity space on Twitter with the science of reading community to help navigate through the research and evidence base. I learned (and am still learning) the truth about what real reading instruction SHOULD look like.
Why am I sharing this with you?
As building leaders, we ARE the instructional leaders of our schools. We are tasked with this huge responsibility; however, this is what we signed up for, right? With that being said, I feel compelled to share my story and journey learning about the science of reading from the lens of a building leader. The majority of stories I see are from the teachers’ lenses. This is not to say teachers are not leaders, because they absolutely are. However, as building leaders we are the people who decide where and how to dedicate resources, how money is allocated and spent, and we set the tone for the instructional direction of our buildings. I have heard stories of teachers who bring up the science of reading to their building principal only to be told “yes” to death and dismissed. Trust me, I get. As a building principal we have a lot going on. I have shared with people that being a building principal is like always having a low grade fever. We deal with so much. However, the importance of understanding how reading works, especially as an elementary principal, should not—and cannot—be dismissed.
Why should you embrace the science of reading?
1. Improved Teacher Knowledge in Reading Instruction
By building the capacity of our teachers in the science of reading with frameworks like the simple view of reading, we would ensure that tier 1 instruction covers each of the key components involved in learning to read (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 77). Once teachers gain a level of understanding with a framework like the simple view of reading (and other aspects of the science of reading such as Scarborough’s reading rope and orthographic mapping), they will have the knowledge base and understanding of how they can effectively teach ALL students to read. Collective teacher efficacy is what John Hattie identifies as the number one factor influencing student achievement (Donohoo, Hattie, & Eells, 2018). When we know better, we do better—and it is up to building leadership to help make this happen.
2. Understanding How Skilled Readers Read
Did you know 50% of English words are fully decodable? Another 37% of words are mostly decodable with one irregular grapheme-sound connection (EAB, 2019). It is uncommon for an irregular word to have more than one irregular grapheme-sound connection (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 105). When considering other information such as the morphology and etymology of words, only 4 percent of English words are truly irregular (Joshi et al., 2009). The English language is mostly regular and can be sounded out. Skilled readers understand this and rely on their letter-sound knowledge to phonically decode unfamiliar words. Skilled readers also have the ability to remember the words they read through the process of orthographic mapping. To support skilled reading, we must do two things:
- Provide effective direct instruction in word decoding
- Support orthographic connections between spelling patterns and sounds in the word
With this knowledge, we can also pinpoint which skill we need to focus on during tier 2 and/or tier 3 intervention. This allows us to approach and address reading difficulties with confidence.
3. Current Reading Practices are an Equity Issue
As building leaders, we are mindful of equity issues pertaining to access to technology, discipline, and even finances. However, what about learning how to read? One in six children who are not reading proficiently in third grade do not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers (Hernandez, 2012, p. 4). Graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students who were not proficient readers in third grade lag far behind those for White students with the same reading skills (Hernandez, 2012, p. 4). Being able to read is the equity issue of our time! However, the dominant approach to teaching reading in most schools relies on a model (three cueing) which provides no avenue for weak readers to close the gap with their same age peers (Kilpatrick, 2015, p. 41).
The three cueing systems model (also known as MSV or multicueing) encourages students to use meaning, structure, and/or visual cues to identify unfamiliar words. However, skilled readers do not rely on cues to identify unfamiliar words, they rely on sounding out the word. Their phoneme & grapheme knowledge is what helps them read unfamiliar words. As building leaders, it is imperative we support this understanding (and more) when it comes to reading instruction in order to help support ALL students to become skilled readers.
Immerse Yourself in the Science of Reading
It is time building leaders became as active as our teachers in embracing the science of reading. The simple view of reading is an excellent place to start. My friend, Tiffany Peltier, has an excellent blog detailing the simple view of reading which you can visit here. As building leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure the reading instruction happening in our buildings is effective and aligns with the reading research. Embracing the science of reading will allow us to truly impact systematic change with reading instruction.
Donohoo, J., Hattie, J., and Eells, R. (2018, March). The Power of Collective
Efficacy. Educational Leadership, 75(6), 40–44. Retrieved from
EAB (2019). Narrowing the Third-Grade Reading Gap. (2019). Retrieved from
Hernandez, D. J. (2011). Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty
InfluenceHigh School Graduation.
Joshi, R. M., Treiman, R., Carreker, S., & Moats, L. C. (2009). How Words Cast Their
Spell. American Educator. Retrieved from
Kilpatrick, D. A. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading
Difficulties. John Wiley & Sons.