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6.2 The Research: Effective Teachers and the Science of Reading

“Research begins in wonder and curiosity but ends in teaching.”

 - Lee Shulman, professor emeritus at Stanford University and president emeritus at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 2005.

Underlying the science of effective instruction is the much studied role of teachers in the delivery of high-quality instruction. Many successful adults with dyslexia, in describing their early school struggles, recall the positive effects of having parents and teachers who believed in them. Many attributes the turning point in their educational careers — after years of learning failure — to a single teacher, one who saw beyond their dyslexia and encouraged their creativity, divergent thinking, and capacity to learn, although not always in the typical manner.

Such stories should not be surprising, given what we know about effective teachers and their crucial role in academic success of their students. According to the Education Trust (2011):

Every child, no matter where they come from, deserves great teachers. Passionate, motivating, effective teachers are the foundation of a quality education; and a quality education opens the doors to a lifetime of opportunity.​

A landmark study released more than two decades ago on the cumulative and residual effects of teachers on future student achievement found that teacher quality impacts student achievement more than class size, per-pupil spending, and student demographics and background (Sanders and Rivers, 1996). The study summary highlighted four significant findings:

  • Differences in student achievement of 50 percentile points were observed as a result of teacher sequence after only three years.
  • The effects of teachers on student achievement are both additive and cumulative with little evidence of compensatory effect. (The residual effects of both effective and ineffective teachers were measurable two years later, regardless of the effectiveness of teachers in later grades.)
  • As teacher effectiveness increases, lower-achieving students are the first to benefit. The top quintile of teachers facilitate appropriate to excellent gains for students of all achievement levels.
  • Students of different ethnicities respond equivalently within the same quintile of teacher effectiveness.

This study and other research (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Rivkin, Hanushek & Kain, 2005) have repeatedly demonstrated that, within grade levels, the most dominant factor affecting student academic gain is teacher effectiveness. In her analysis of teacher preparation and student achievement across states, Linda Darling-Hammond reports that “measures of teacher preparation and certification are by far the strongest correlates of student achievement in reading and math, both before and after controlling for student poverty and language status.” She, too, contends that measures of teacher quality are more strongly related to student achievement than are other kinds of educational investments such as reduced class size and overall spending on education.

 In Teacher Quality: Understanding the Effectiveness of Teacher Attributes (Rice, 2003), a review of research in the area of teacher effectiveness resulted in the author stating the following:

  • Teacher coursework in both the subject area taught and pedagogy contributes to positive education outcomes.
  • Pedagogical coursework seems to contribute to teacher effectiveness at all grade levels, particularly when coupled with content knowledge [emphasis added].

Teachers engaged in working with young students learning to read, or with students of all ages struggling to learn to read and write accurately and fluently, must be masters in the content of reading and the pedagogy of reading instruction. They must be experts in using direct and explicit instruction, must understand how mastery is the product of frequent and distributed practice of the right skills at the right time (Systematic, Cumulative and Sequential), and must effectively adjust instruction based on daily formative assessment and more-formal measures of reading risk and achievement (Diagnostic Teaching). These are the essential instructional components of Structured Literacy. This is the pedagogy that is necessary. (See Chapter 4: School-Based Supports for Students with Dyslexia for a more detailed explanation of Structured Literacy.) But pedagogy must be combined with content knowledge of reading and literacy for highly effective teaching to occur.

There is a prerequisite knowledge base for the delivery of high-quality early reading instruction and later intervention that must include a thorough understanding of reading development, linguistic concepts, and features of the English language and its spelling. This type of specialized disciplinary knowledge, referred to as “pedagogical content knowledge” by Shulman (1987), captures the combination of content knowledge and pedagogy needed to effectively teach the complex and interwoven skills of literacy. No one would argue that a secondary physics teacher doesn’t need deep content knowledge of physics to be able to guide students in the creation of detailed conceptual frameworks, respond to students’ inquiries, and provide nuanced clarifications – tasks that would be impossible without a deep understanding of the field of physics.

In reading, while it may be easy to assume that being a skilled reader creates sufficient knowledge for providing reading instruction, content-specific knowledge is equally essential when teaching the fundamental academic skills of reading, spelling and writing (Brady & Moats, 1997; Wong-Fillmore & Snow, 2003). There is a convincing  body of empirical research demonstrating strong evidence that successful reading teachers, whether in the general education classroom or in the more specialized settings of intervention, need to have highly specialized knowledge — skills akin to those required of a physics teacher, but specific to literacy.

This research indicates that teachers of reading require domain-specific knowledge, including an understanding of the relationship between oral language and reading, knowledge of reading development, and a thorough understanding of all of the essential components of reading instruction, as well as the ability to use this knowledge in all types of educational setting with children of varying ages (Connor et al., 2005; Cunningham & Zibulsky, 2009; Foorman & Moats, 2004).

A number of research centers across the United States (Tufts University, Florida State University, Haskins Laboratories at Yale University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Wisconsin, University of Colorado, and University of Denver, just to name a few) have been studying reading intensely, including typical and atypical development. Early studies have been augmented by the use of newer technology, including PET scans and functional MRIs. As Mark Seidenberg states in Language at the Speed of Sight:

Reading is an area in which there is a large body of modern research relevant to teaching. … (The) research shows that there are better and worse theories of reading and learning, and methods that have better or worse effects on children’s progress. … Practitioners have been misled about what is known and missed out on research relevant to achieving the goals they value. Their students bear the effects.​

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To learn more about the science of reading the following resources are recommended:

  • Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print (1994), Marilyn Adams
  • Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties (2015), David Kilpatrick.
  • Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (2010), Stanislas Dehaene.
  • Watch presentations by Jack Fletcher, David Kilpatrick and Margie Gillis by following the link to the CDE dyslexia webpage
  • Children of the Code offers a series of video interviews with a range of experts in the areas of learning and reading.

Research and the subsequent “science of reading” tell us that the brains of students with dyslexia work differently from those of readers who don’t have dyslexia, specifically in areas of the brain that process language (Fletcher). Research has shown that the neuropathways needed for learning to read and reading can be created and/or strengthened through appropriate instruction (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012). It tells us that addressing advanced phonemic awareness skills is often the key to remediating the reading skills of students with dyslexia (Kilpatrick, 2015).

So, what content knowledge about dyslexia and reading do teachers need? Depending on the teacher’s role and responsibilities for literacy development, he or she may need a solid awareness of dyslexia and other language-based learning disabilities and how these learning differences can be best handled in content area classes. The next section of this chapter is titled “An Awareness of Dyslexia.” In contrast, teachers responsible for early reading and writing instruction and those charged with providing intervention for students struggling with reading will need a much deeper understanding of reading and will demonstrate expertise in the content knowledge of reading. What these teachers must know to deliver highly effective literacy instruction is discussed in Section 6.4: Content Knowledge: The Structure of the English Language.