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6.4 Content Knowledge: The Structure of the English Language

“Those who can, do; those who understand, teach.”

-Lee Shulman, Professor Emeritus, Stanford University; President Emeritus,The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1986)

High-quality reading instruction is partially defined by the knowledge that teachers of reading must possess to provide effective instruction for their students (Snow, Burns, &Griffin, 1998; National Early Reading Panel, 2008; National Reading Panel, 2000).  Writing in The Oxford Handbook of Reading (2015), Anne Cunningham and Colleen Ryan O’Donnell offered this insight into what teachers of reading need to know:

The content knowledge required for effective instruction and intervention in the United States includes knowledge of the American English spelling system. English is a morphophonemic or deep alphabetic orthography (Venezky, 1999), which means that spelling is bound by meaning as well as sound. Although its spellings map onto speech sounds quite predictably, especially for words encountered during the earliest years of reading instruction, the correspondences can be complex and variable. In order to provide explicit and complete explanations of both predictable and less predictable relationships (only some of which is caused by meaning overriding predictable sound-symbol correspondences), we argue that teachers must be knowledgeable about the complex English spelling system (Moats, 1994; Wong-Fillmore and Snow, 2003). Because decoding problems underlie the difficulties of most primary-grade students who struggle with reading (Catts, Hogan and Adlof, 2005), explicit and accurate word recognition is necessary. Instruction of sound-symbol correspondences is particularly important, as well as instruction about less predictable words that are of high frequency. Knowledge of the spelling system, along with facility in methods known to be effective in teaching it, is fundamental background knowledge for teachers.

Teaching reading is a job for an expert. Contrary to the popular belief that learning to read is natural and easy, learning to read is a complex linguistic achievement. In 1994, Louisa Moats wrote for the Annals of Dyslexia an article titled The Missing Foundation in Teacher Education: Knowledge of the Structure of Spoken and Written Language. The article recalled the then twenty years of research supporting the finding that many beginning readers, and nearly all students with dyslexia, have difficulty with phonological awareness tasks (Adams, 1990). To be a skilled reader, one needs to appreciate that words consist of individual speech sounds that are represented by one or more letters. Today, twenty-five years after this article was published, many teachers continue to lack knowledge of English speech sounds (phonemes) or insight into how individual speech sounds are mapped onto print and how to effectively organize and teach this concept, known as the alphabetic principle, to young students.


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 The National Center on Improving Literacy has an infographic and literacy brief titled The Alphabetic Principle: From Phonological Awareness to Reading Words.


Research has included numerous studies that have involved teacher surveys of basic knowledge of phonemic awareness and English orthographic patterns. In multiple studies and surveys, teachers’ lack of preservice preparation in learning and mastering these early essential instructional concepts has been demonstrated (Moats, 1994; Cunningham, Zibulsky, Stanovich et al., 2009).


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The National Center on Improving Literacy has an infographic and literacy brief titled How We Learn to Read: The Critical Role of Phonological Awareness.


A second area of limited structural awareness for beginning and struggling readers is the awareness and understanding of the morphemic structure of words. Numerous teacher surveys of linguistic knowledge have shown this to be an area of weak conceptual understanding for teachers. In addition, studies have pointed to ineffective or weak knowledge in vocabulary development, the role of automaticity in building reading fluency, and the effective use of comprehension strategies. In her article, Moats argued that “teachers’ content knowledge is critical to successful instruction because they can choose what to teach, when, how and to whom.” She listed some of the advantages of teachers having a good knowledge base of reading to include:

  • Being able to interpret and respond to student errors;
  • Being able to pick the best examples for teaching decoding and spelling;
  • Being able to organize and sequence information for instruction;
  • Being able to use morphology to explain spelling; and
  • Being able to integrate the components of language arts instruction

 In 1999, as a follow-up to her earlier work related to teacher knowledge, Moats wrote Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, published by the American Federation of Teachers. This document remains thorough and helpful in explaining the need for better teacher training in reading.

As a result of continuing research into the correlation between effective reading instruction and teachers’ content knowledge, the International Dyslexia Association convened a panel of reading experts and researchers and established Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading in 2010 with the intent to concretely establish the specifics that comprise the necessary content knowledge for teachers of reading. The Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading were revised in 2018 as a result of the continuing evidence that “the majority of practitioners at all levels have not been prepared in sufficient depth to prevent reading problems, to recognize the early signs of risk, or to teach students with dyslexia and related learning disabilities successfully” (IDA, 2018).


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The IDA’s 2010 set of Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading was used to inform the updates to the Colorado Elementary Education Teacher Endorsement in 2016 to ensure alignment with both the Colorado Academic Standards and the Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act (READ Act)View the CDE’s Elementary Teacher Literacy Standards document for more information.\