December 31, 2013

Misconceptions About Phonics Instruction - #4 - College Prepares Teachers to Teach Reading

how to teach phonicsIt is probably bad form to start a blog post with a disclaimer but I feel that it is necessary. Let me go on record saying that collectively, teachers are not to blame for the current literacy rates in our country. Let me also say that I love, adore, and admire every single college professor (some more than others, of course) that I had as a pre-service teacher. 

My first teaching job was in a first-grade classroom. Before school started, I remember asking one teacher, beginning her second year of teaching first grade, how she taught reading. Incredulously, this was her reply, “I don’t really know. I just read them a lot of stories, do a lot of fun activities and somehow, they just get it. It’s like watching the magic happen. It’s really fun.” Since I had graduated with a reading endorsement, I knew enough to know that there was more to it than that. I learned a lot in college about teaching children to love and comprehend reading and how to manage reading time in the classroom but I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t taught how to teach children to actually decode the words on the page. During that first year of teaching, I started to see my students’ excitement for reading decrease as they began to realize their struggles to read independently. I guess you could say the “reading magic” in my classroom became a disappearing act (go ahead, roll your eyes). 

I will forever be grateful to the researchers who dedicated such large amounts of time analyzing the multitude of research studies that resulted in the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (NICHD, 2000). More than anything else, that report helped me solve the problem I was having teaching my students to decode. By reading the research report I learned what explicit, sequential, systematic phonics instruction was and effective ways to deliver the instruction. Most importantly, the “magic” and excitement my students had previously associated with reading returned as they became proficient decoders. As a side note, up to that point I had been using a phonics program that claimed to be systematic, sequential, and explicit but when I read the NRP report, I realized that it wasn’t adequate (even though the front of the teacher’s manual made the claim that it was aligned with NRP findings). The NRP report supplied the knowledge that I needed to modify what I was doing in the classroom until I found an elementary reading program that was aligned with the findings. 

It is interesting that, as a teacher, when I encountered a problem as basic as teaching students to decode I turned to sources outside of what I learned in college. It is also significant to note that I graduated in the spring of 2001. A full year after the report had been published. I wasn’t taught anything about the report in my reading endorsement classes. The sad truth seems to be that many of us are not taught in college what we need to know to teach reading. 

Misconception #4: Most Teachers Know What They Need to Know to Effectively Teach Phonics (in other words; All I Needed to Know about Teaching Reading, I Learned in College)

After years of associating with teachers in my own school district as well as teachers from across the country, I know that my story is not unique. I can tell you that without fail, at some point during every Reading Horizons training I conduct at least one teacher asks, “Why didn’t we learn this in college?” Let’s explore two possible answers to that question.  

Too Many Teachers Are Admitted into Programs with Low (or No) Academic Requirements

Acceptance rates into teacher preparation programs are unusually high (Lavine, 2006). Because of this phenomenon, colleges of education can become somewhat of a cash cow for universities. Once lower-achieving students are admitted, however, grade point averages have to be in a certain range for the school to be considered successful so course work is simplified ensuring that most, if not all students will have good grades and remain in the program (i.e. keep paying tuition). 

Here are a few “fast facts”:

  • More than half of teachers are educated in programs with the lowest admission standards (often accepting 100% of applicants) and with the least accomplished professors. (Lavine, 2006) 
  • In the U.S. only 23% of new teachers come from the top third of academic cohorts based on ACT/SAT and GPA scores. According to results from a study conducted in Alabama (Ferguson & Ladd, 1996), this is significant as researchers found a correlation between a teacher’s higher ACT scores and higher reading scores for her students.  
  • Bottom quartile students in the U.S. remain in teaching jobs longer than top quartile students do (Cataldi, et. al. 2011).

In contrast to; 

  • fifty-seven percent of lawyers and 44% of engineers in the U.S. come from the top fourth of student scores on the ACT/SAT (Auguste, Kihn, & Miller, 2010). 
  • other countries like Singapore, Finland, and South Korea from which 100% of teachers are recruited (recruited?! Are they offered “signing bonuses”?) from the top third of academic groups (Auguste, Kihn, & Miller, 2010).

The consequences of this phenomenon are far-reaching and adversely affect all teacher candidates no matter what their academic abilities are. What Elementary Education major hasn’t heard the “cut, color, and paste” jokes about course content? Even after trying to defend such condescending sentiments, I changed my major to Sociology because I craved the academic focus that I had hoped teaching would have. By the way, I don’t regret it (even if I was in school “long enough to become a doctor”) since my Sociology coursework provided me with significant and valuable experience designing and conducting research and analyzing data; content that my years as an Elementary Education major did not provide.

On the other hand, I know of two people who are valiantly living with marked mental and physical limitations who were accepted into teaching programs at two different universities, both graduating with teaching degrees. After exceeding the number of allowed attempts, one student was unable (even with accommodations) to pass state-required licensure tests. After graduation, she had to settle for part-time work in daycare and preschool settings (as an assistant, not a teacher) while trying to pay off the thousands of dollars in student loan debt she accrued while obtaining a teaching degree. The other student took a job in an extremely small town far away from her family because it was the only job she could get. After one year, her contract was not renewed and she is now unemployed. For many reasons, low admission standards for teacher education programs are not the answer to generating effective teachers and successful students. 

Colleges of Education Could Do a Better Job Preparing Teachers to Teach Reading

How do we know that teachers coming right out of college are not prepared to teach reading? Simply put, the students of new teachers do not perform nearly as well as students who have teachers who have been in the profession for five or more years. One researcher (Darling-Hammond, 1999) found a significant positive association between student achievement and teacher certification. She also found a negative association between student achievement and the presence of a high proportion of new teachers in the school. 

In many cases, new teachers lack the knowledge of a seasoned teacher because they had meager or inadequate practicum experiences as an undergraduate. Personally speaking, the semester I spent student teaching was not remotely similar to the responsibility of managing and teaching a whole classroom of students without the support of a supervising teacher. As a teacher, I never felt confident enough to turn my structured literacy instruction over to a student-teacher. I might have felt differently if pre-service teachers had more robust practicum experiences under the supervision of effective teachers. 

If you consider the total number of students one teacher teaches in the five years that it takes to become experienced, even with conservative estimates, we can assume that there are at least 125 students who are not getting as high quality of an education as their peers in classes with more experienced teachers. Multiply that by all of the new teachers in a school and there could be exponentially more students included in that number. This is especially concerning since roughly half of the current teacher corps will retire or exit by 2015; meaning all of the experience goes with it and will be replaced with inexperienced teachers (Hussar & Bailey, 2009). Granted, no one can be 100% effective their first year in the classroom but if teachers had more of an apprentice-like situation as an undergraduate, and the necessary content knowledge, the number of students who struggle could significantly decrease. 

The fact is, many teachers are left to learn the content necessary for teaching beginning reading on their own. This is often accomplished through teaching experience, reading programs, or individual academic endeavors. This could be a result of the fact that professors cannot be expected to teach what they do not know. Binks (2008) administered a basic language constructs survey measuring self-perception, knowledge, and ability to 114 teacher education professors and 173 of their students. Overall, professors scored the lowest in the areas of phonics and morphology. Unsurprisingly, their students also scored poorly in the same areas. However, students who were taught by teachers who scored higher on the survey in the same areas also scored higher than their peers whose teachers did not score as well. This study alone explains the question we phonics trainers often hear, “Why didn’t we learn these things in college?” Well, because your professors didn’t know it either. 

What Happens When Teachers Aren’t Prepared to Teach Reading?

  • Students continue to struggle with reading (no brainer) resulting in too many students who can’t read proficiently graduating high school. 
  • Students with less-experienced teachers will not receive the same quality of education as their peers who are in classes where the teacher has been teaching for 5 or more years.
  • Teachers will continue to be left on their own to learn content that will improve their ability to teach students to read. 
  • Highly qualified people will continue to choose, or be recruited to, other careers.  
  • The profession will continue to attract unnecessary amounts of people who are choosing to teach because of the low entrance requirements and easy course work rather than out of a desire and determination to elevate the teaching profession to higher levels of recognition and student achievement. 
  • Dumbed-down, ineffective, “teacher-proof” reading programs will continue to be created, assuming that teachers don’t know any better. Administrators will continue to purchase these programs and require their use because they are not confident in their ability to recognize programs that will raise teacher knowledge and student proficiency in reading. 
  • Teachers will continue to assume that the phonics content of most basal programs is adequate.  
  • Less instructional time will be spent on the most effective types of instruction. 
  • Teachers will lack content knowledge necessary to make instructional decisions in order to differentiate for each student. 

To emphasize the last two points using one study, Piasta (2009) reported a significant correlation between teacher knowledge and the amount of classroom time spent in decoding instruction. Her study found that high teacher knowledge and explicit decoding instruction both are essential for producing gains in word reading. In the study low knowledge teachers who provided large amounts of explicit decoding instruction actually created weaker word reading gains with their students than the teachers who did not provide explicit decoding instruction at all, perhaps because their instruction was unintentionally confusing. 

What Can Be Done?

  • Support higher admission standards. It seems that Governor Cuomo of New York agrees. Here is a letter announcing higher admission standards for SUNY teacher preparation programs.
  • Insist on apprenticeship-type models of practicum experience with highly effective teachers as mentors. 
  • Advocate for common standards for teacher prep programs across the country.
  • Create opportunities for ongoing gold-standard professional development experiences for teachers once they are hired. 
  • Pay teachers more in the currencies of money, respect, and professional status. 
  • Require instruction and experience in conducting and analyzing research, and collecting and analyzing data in order to guide instruction and increase student learning. 
  • Fuel the passion for teaching (it truly is one of the most intrinsically rewarding professions that there is).
  • Explicitly model what goes into teaching for your own students and their parents to reduce the belief that just because they have had a number of teachers in their life, they know what teaching involves. 
  • We need to attract, develop, reward, and retain high-quality teacher-candidates not low performing college students. (Signing bonuses? Heck, yes!)
  • Encourage pre-service teachers to choose reading as a minor (ESPECIALLY if they want to teach in grades K-3). Besides the indisputable fact that reading is the gateway to infinite amounts of knowledge in any content area (including STEM) reading is content that every elementary teacher will be teaching. Researcher Darling-Hammond (1999) found that the presence of a teacher who did not have at least a minor in the subject matter that she taught accounted for about 20 percent of the variation in NAEP scores. Sadly, many universities (including my alma mater) have replaced reading minors with more “marketable” minors.

I am not saying that all of our literacy problems can be reduced to these two factors but I’m certain that they contribute to the current state of affairs. Teaching as a profession has come a long way since the early days of our country when my ancestors who were farmers taught school in the off-season with little or no training. Even so, few people will argue with the fact that we can still do better. Demands on teachers should not increase without first supplying them with content knowledge and pedagogical experience necessary to support highly qualified pre-service as well as in-service teachers. There is no mystery about it; when we can ensure that every teacher will be well prepared to teach reading, THAT’S when we will begin to see all kinds of reading “magic”.  

Learn how Reading Horizons helps teachers master explicit phonics instruction for elementary students and reading intervention students in the upper grades. 


Auguste, B., Kihn, P., & Miller, M. (2010). Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top-third graduates to careers in teaching. London: McKinsey & Company. 

Auguste, B., Kihn, P., & Miller, M., (2010). Closing the talent gap: The appendix. London: McKinsey & Company. 

Binks, E. (2008). An assessment of university instructors and their pre-service teachers’ knowledge of basic language constructs before and after university instructor professional development. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas A&M University, College Station.  

Cataldi, E.F., Green, C., Henke, R., Lew, T., Woo, J., Shepherd, B., and Siegel, P. (2011). 2008–09 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study (B&B:08/09): First Look (NCES 2011-236). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Darling-Hammond, L., (1999). Teacher quality and student achievement: A review of state policy evidence. Seattle: Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington.  

Ferguson, R. F., & Ladd, H. F. (1996). How and why money matters: An analysis of Alabama schools. In H.F. Ladd. (Ed.), Holding schools accountable: Performance-based reform in education (pp. 265–298). Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Hussar, W.J., and Bailey, T.M. (2009). Projections of Education Statistics to 2018 (NCES 2009-062). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC.

Levine, A. (2006). Educating school teachers. Washington, DC: Education Schools Project. Available at www.edschools .org/teacher_report.htm

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups (NIH Publication No. 00-4754). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Piasta, S.B., Connor, C.M., Fishman, B.J., and Morrison, F.J. (2009). Teachers‘ Knowledge of Literacy Concepts, Classroom Practices, and Student Reading Growth. Scientific Studies of Reading, 13(3): 224-248. 


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Byron Harrison said

Thanks Della...that was possibly the most cogent article on teacher training that I have read. I will distruibute it far and wide.
I am chairman of one of the few truly independent literacy research groups in Australia.
I have taken a month off work to try to edit a new book, a novel based on twenty years of experience trying to convince academics, bureaucrats and politicians of why reading failure happens. Nothing has changed in any fundamental way despite our providing evidence of the failkure, the type of error patterns found in most children, the theoretic explanations as to why they occur, how they can be prevented, we can now also identify which children are at risk.
After 20 years I have no experience that suggests those in charge of teacher training know how to teach systematic phonics; quite the contrary, I have no expectation that they will even try, in fact they will do whatever it takes to block and distort the necessary reforms.
We therefore are redesigning our research software to go on-line to reach teachers and parents directly. If we can't convince teacher-trainers and policy makers to self-reform, we will simply bypass them.
The website is still undergoing Beta testing trials but you can have a look at the videos and some theory and stats right now at congratulations.

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Linda Winters said

When I student taught, i was given phonic sheets to teach with and nothing else. As a new teacher, I befriended our Remedial Reading Specialist, and she helped me out tremendously. I strongly feel, along with the author, that every teacher should minor in the teaching of reading like I did in order to graduate. Good readers become life long learners. Remember---for every student we encounter and teach them to achieve their fullest potential---1,000"s of other individuals benefit in an ever rising spiral of knowledge.

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Joyce Caldwell said

Della, you are right on the mark with your article. I want to add one more thing. I went on to learn more about teaching reading because both my husband and daughter are dyslexic, and I wanted to know more about it and how to help. Attendance at a Dyslexia conference got me thinking about getting a masters in Reading Leadership that was offered at St. Mary's College in Moraga. I received it in 1993. When circumstances necessitated a move from California to Tennessee, I was confident that I would be able to get a teaching job given my 30 years of classroom experience and the Reading Specialist Credential. No, that was not the case and the reason, while never voiced by the administration, was that I was too expensive. That is another reason why students do not get what they need, an experienced teacher who knows how to teach reading. I blame the school boards and school administrators who are more concerned with the bottom line of costs, than giving their students the best that is available in teachers.

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Madeline Sanders said

Stacy: Thank you enormously for presenting this very thoughtful and factual article on the problem of teaching reading in America's schools. I am indeed embarrassed to acknowledge that in many of the urban schools (Note: That's where the focus of some of my research has been concentrated), phonics has been removed from the curriculum! Further, it is equally sad to acknowledge that, in too many instances, college students majoring in education have indeed been at the lower rung of the academic preparedness although I would argue that performance on a standardized test is not a predictor of how well a student performs in class work. We certainly recognize the merit of hard work and persistence to excel, and I would add that the ranking of the school has to be a factor.

Since state boards of education provide guidelines for what students should be learning, teachers working along with their administration should be allowed to teach subjects per demonstrated competencies which could be evidence by certification and/or masters level work. Concomitantly, a great teacher would assume responsibility for ensuring that his/her pedagogy style must encourage, inspire and motivate youngsters to learn which is where high expectations, no tracking are critical. Additionally, teachers should be required to embed critical thinking concepts with reading topics, something that we would routinely expect, but such activity is usually absent from classroom instruction which I find incredulous. I remain hopeful that the problems of which we speak will one day be resolved, and the ongoing dialogue elevated to a national level to achieve Best Practices is key.

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