TO LITERACY and BEYOND: The need for science-based instruction

Caroline Rose

Anthony walks into my 8th grade ELA class each day like he owns the place, as if he is the mayor of the class. When he enters the room, everyone lights up in laughter. In contrast, Liam comes in more like a storm. Sometimes he is fun and playful, but more often he is teasing and taunting. These two boys couldn’t be more different, yet they have something in common: they both struggle with reading.  

For Anthony and Liam, school is an uphill battle. In math class, they struggle to understand the syntax and structure of a word problem, ultimately missing the problem they are intended to solve. In science, background knowledge and metacognition elude them when they are reading about a new concept. In civics, the vocabulary is so complex that their energy goes toward understanding each word, rather than the meaning of the text as a whole. By the time they arrive in my class, English language arts (ELA), they are exhausted. 

Throughout the day, this fundamental struggle looks and feels different. Anthony sits in my class trying to pronounce words and understand them. He works hard, yet he takes twice as long as his peers to do the same task. Liam often puts his head down when he is overwhelmed or confused. Since he is reading so far behind grade level, school has been a struggle for him for a long time, and some days, it seems like he has given up. Both of them are nearing the end of 8th grade and preparing for high school, but, academically, both are woefully unprepared. 

Anthony and Liam are more representative than not. According to the results from 2023 ELA MCAS, the statewide assessment of students’ reading and writing, one in every five 8th graders is below or “not meeting” expectations; in other words, not demonstrating knowledge, skills, and understanding that are expected for an 8th grader.

In 2022, even more students in Massachusetts were below so-called “NAEP Basic,” the National Assessment of Educational Progress term for results showing partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills fundamental for proficient work at each grade level. This data poses the question: Why are so many 8th graders in Massachusetts struggling to read and write? 

Whether Liam and Anthony are reading at grade-level (or higher) by 8th grade matters. Numerous studies link reading level and long-term success, especially for students living in poverty. Reading correlates with college attendance and completion rates, incarceration and recidivism rates, as well as financial security. Without the ability to read, these students are going to struggle to graduate from high school, go on to college or careers, and participate in the workforce and civic society.

It is not for lack of trying. Liam and Anthony both receive interventions to help them move toward grade level. Liam is working on decoding through a program intended to help him build accuracy, fluency, and automaticity in his reading. Anthony is working on building his reading skills, too, through targeted work at breaking down text structures and building his vocabulary. The interventions are not nearly enough. Despite our best efforts, the gap between where they are and where they need to be is still wide. 

There is a way to break through: Implementing the science of reading-based literacy instruction as early as possible. It is the best set of tools to teach kids how to read. For my 8th graders, I explicitly teach grammar, syntax, and text structure. We work not just on text comprehension, but language comprehension, to ensure that they are building a larger schema of knowledge to apply to all texts they read. 

A stronger start to a student’s reading education could make all the difference in the upcoming years. Typically, 3rd grade status is considered the most meaningful benchmark for literacy and students’ ability to read in elementary school. It determines how they will perform in middle school, high school, and beyond. Two bills currently under consideration in the Massachusetts House (H.4423) and Senate (S.2653) would mandate that districts implement a science-based reading curricula and interventions, as well as literacy-related professional development.

By passing this legislation, Massachusetts would join the 37 other states and Washington D.C. with laws and policies related to science-based reading instruction.  

Caroline Rose is an 8th grade English language arts (ELA) teacher at Boston Collegiate Charter School in Dorchester. She is a 2023-2024 Teach Plus Massachusetts Policy Fellow.

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