America’s Schools Get a Failing Grade Teaching Reading: How to Improve Literacy Nationwide

If our nation’s schools got a report card right now, the teacher's notes would say “needs improvement.” And, soon. 

A 2019 study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that of nearly 294,000 4th & 8th grade students across the nation, only 35% of 4th graders were considered proficient in reading. The average scores among 8th graders in 31 states also dropped significantly in just the last two years. Those numbers fall even further in failing, disadvantaged schools. Yet, despite decades of inquiry into better ways for improving literacy, the downward trend continues.



What’s really needed to help students read more fluently? Research-based instructional methods and teachers effectively prepared to use them. An extensive special report by Education Week titled “Getting Reading Right” found that 75% of teachers working with early readers use an approach asking students “to take a guess when they come to a word they don't know by using context, picture, and other clues.” More than a quarter said they tell emerging readers “to look at the pictures—even before they try to sound it out.”

Unfortunately, those techniques aren't backed by science. The report cites “a multitude of studies over many decades have shown that systematic, explicit phonics is the most effective method for teaching early readers.” Although it notes a willingness among teachers to spend time on phonics, the majority devote just 20 to 30 minutes a day. And coupling phonics with practices such as visual cueing can actually “counteract good phonics instruction by encouraging students to look away from the letters on the page.”

So, what does science say? The growing conversation around the Science of Reading notes five key components for effective instruction: 

  1. Phonetic awareness
  2. Phonics 
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

Sifting through curriculum and tying it back to science can be overwhelming. One systematic, science-based reading program that employs all five components and has seen remarkable student outcomes is the Bookworms K–5 Reading and Writing curriculum offered through Open Up Resources (OUR). 

A case study at Seaford School District in Seaford, DE yielded noted improvement in academic achievement, including literacy. As reported by the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy at the University of Delaware, “Where Seaford students were once underperforming the state average, these same students are now outperforming the state average three years later.” The Education Trust also notes that in a diverse district serving African American and white students and children of relatively new immigrants from Haiti and Central America, Seaford’s use of the Bookworms curriculum is “forging a path to excellence in literacy.”



And where are teachers learning what they know about the foundations of reading? 

A recent report released by the National Council on Teacher Quality noted that more undergraduate programs are teaching the science of reading. In fact, this report included a differentiated instruction book by Bookworms K-5 Reading & Writing author, Dr. Sharon Walpole, on a short list of exemplary texts covering all five elements of effective reading instruction. 

Even though undergraduate programs are adopting the science of reading more and more, the EdWeek report cites that most training happens on the job. “A culture of reading instruction is often passed from classroom to classroom. Teachers learn what to do from trusted colleagues and cherished mentors.” They are also often relying on outdated, costly textbooks and teaching materials. Yet comprehensive, consistent Professional Learning is the most essential element of teaching any curriculum. Teaching reading properly takes time, and OUR resources enable teachers to focus on teaching and learning supported by research-backed, freely accessible materials.

Open Up Resources offers ongoing, high-quality professional learning opportunities to school systems implementing its OER curricula. Our continuum of services meets teachers where they are in the development of their professional practice, using a scaffolded approach to establish and build on educators’ prior knowledge, particularly when it comes to teaching literacy. By building their capacity while ensuring their success leveraging the Bookworms K–5 curriculum, we support teachers making important instructional shifts. 

In fact, Walpole is offering a free, 8-week webinar series in partnership with Open Up Resources that will outline the foundational skills that make high-quality K-3 literacy instruction easier for teachers. January 29 - March 18, 2020. Sign up here.



Rising budget costs should never limit a school district’s ability to provide the best possible education, which is why Open Up Resources partners with leading curriculum writing experts and technologists to offer the most scientifically proven curricula and make them open to all. Designed around excellence, whole texts are built with active support for diverse classrooms, our core curricula are available as OER to provide equal access to high-quality content for all schools. We also incorporate advanced tools for English Language Learners and students with disabilities. 

Available in digital and print, and suitable for both 1:1 and non-digital classrooms, districts using our freely-licensed curriculum can channel their savings towards investments in professional learning as well as other teaching and learning supports. A recently released report by EdWeek surfaces teachers’ needs for preparation—especially when it comes to reading. Nearly all (95%) of teachers who implemented OUR curriculum found in-person, professional learning helpful, with nearly one quarter stating that it is an “absolute necessity.” 

There are many other “areas of improvement” needed to make our schools deliver the promise of a quality education – particularly when it comes to literacy. Open Up Resources continues to raise the bar for curricula developed by experts and refined through classroom experience. Classroom materials exceed rigorous requirements for Science of Reading/Scientifically-Based Research programs and evidence-based interventions, among other standards. Independent reviews by respected third-party curriculum organizations confirm that our materials are best in class. And best of all, they’re freely available for all school systems seeking to get a better report card.