Early Childhood

The Starting Line: Teachers weigh in on reading instruction

Happy New Year, Starting Line readers!

Most of the nearly 70 teachers who responded to our recent survey on reading instruction had strong opinions. Many said they learned little in their teacher preparation programs about teaching kids to read. One respondent put it this way: “ZERO, ZERO, ZERO preparation.”

A number of educators said they learned a lot more later — sometimes through trial and error and other times through school district training, master’s degree programs, or their own research.  

One respondent, Emily Christensen, an English teacher in New York City, said, “I often wonder if by accepting the fact that the bottom third of our students will always struggle, educators are contributing to the cycle of poverty.”

Scroll to the end of this newsletter to hear more from teachers who responded to our survey. And if you’re coming late to this debate, here’s a link to reporter Emily Hanford’s break-out story “Hard Words,” which explores why so many American students struggle with reading.

Let us know what you think of today’s newsletter and what you’d like to see in future editions — just reply to this email.

See you next month!

— Ann Schimke


Photo credit: Boulder Journey School

FROM ITALY, WITH LOVE The Reggio Emilia approach to early learning is often confined to pricey private programs, but soon up to four public preschools in Denver will adopt the approach.

ONE YEAR LATER In 2017, an ambitious grant-funded effort in Detroit set out to expand preschool programming and early childhood screening in the city. Now, a year in, much of the money spent so far has gone to boost quality in existing programs.

OVERSIGHT SWITCH As New York City’s education department gears up for a takeover of publicly funded early childhood programs, providers and advocates are grappling with the implications.

TALK TO ME A free 13-week program coaches Detroit parents to talk and read more with their babies with the help of a language recording device. But program leaders don’t frame it as filling the “word gap.”

VICTORY IN SKI COUNTRY Voters in a Colorado county known for skiing approved a property tax that will offer preschool tuition help to families of all 4-year-olds, in what some observers say could be a precursor to a statewide universal preschool effort.


‘IT COSTS ZERO’ A Quebec program that helps parents pay for child care has increased the percentage of working parents in the province so much that the additional income taxes collected more than cover the cost of the child care subsidies, according to CityLab. For a different take, check out this Education Week piece on the program’s child outcomes.

FAKE MONTESSORI? Some preschools that claim to use the popular Montessori approach have few elements of an authentic Montessori school, leading some experts to worry that liberal use of the name hurts the Montessori reputation. Hechinger Report

CAPITOL KIDS A new state-of-the-art daycare center will provide below-market-price child care to employees of the U.S. House of Representatives, which until now had a three-year waitlist for its child care program. NPR

ALABAMA SURPRISE It’s one of the poorest, sickest states in the country, but an expanding public preschool program has produced significant results for kids as well as support from many conservative lawmakers and business leaders. Mother Jones

LESSONS FOR CALIFORNIA Here’s a look at what California might learn from other states and cities that offer universal preschool as its new governor prepares to tackle an ambitious early childhood agenda. EdSource

POWER NAP New research shows that reserving time for afternoon naps in preschool and kindergarten can help students remember what they learn. Education Week

… on teachers’ perspectives on reading instruction

We recently invited teachers to respond to a survey on reading instruction and received nearly 70 responses. We asked them what they learned about teaching reading in their preparation programs and whether they agreed with recent critiques that many American schools pay little attention to the science behind reading instruction. Here’s a sampling of responses.

“I began teaching when whole language was the buzzword in education. I was convinced that it was the latest and greatest thing … It did not take me long to realize that it was not. I was fortunate enough to have mentors who still taught phonics.”  
— Sandra Sanchez, 4th grade teacher, Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District, Texas

“I don’t agree that there is little attention to the science behind reading instruction … My graduate program at the University of Colorado Denver has covered reading instruction in-depth. I have had classes focusing on whole language, phonics, balanced literacy, theory of reading and assessment, etc. The classes were very effective in teaching me how to identify and instruct readers of all abilities.”
— Laura Miller, secondary language arts teacher, EdAdvance regional educational service center, Connecticut

“My students are unable to sound out names and multisyllabic words. They need phonics instruction … I have a master’s of education degree in reading, so I got ample instruction on teaching young children to read, but not much on teaching middle and high school students who can’t read well.”
— Susan Norwood, high school English language arts intervention teacher, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee

“I was a classroom teacher for many years and followed the “hierarchy” of prompts, which had teachers starting with highest level prompt of “What do you think?” “What would make sense there?” If students couldn’t figure out the word, they were prompted to use the picture, think about the story. Then to get their mouth ready for the beginning sound, and to look for chunks they might know, and then, finally, to try to sound out the word. I was teaching my students to guess instead of to read.”
— Deborah Blake, elementary special education teacher, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, Colorado

“After 28 years of kids coming into my class who couldn’t read and then leaving my class and they STILL couldn’t read because I didn’t know how to teach them, I found the Orton-Gillingham [approach to reading instruction] on my own. I took an 80-hour class that changed my teaching and changed the lives of countless students.”
— Mary Binnion, former Indianapolis teacher, now a private reading tutor

“My general teaching degree didn’t teach me enough, but it wasn’t a top university.  My second master’s degree was in literacy so I feel more than prepared.”
— Lindsay Rollin, elementary English language learner teacher, Palm Beach County school district, Florida

“I think I knew precious little when I started out as a teacher. It took many classes after becoming a teacher. Reading Recovery is your answer, and when I took the training I had been a teacher for 23 years and my learning curve was quite steep. It was the best.”
— Louise Sherrill, retired Denver teacher