There Is a Right Way to Teach Reading, and Mississippi Knows It

(New York Times) “Thank God for Mississippi.”

That’s a phrase people would use when national education rankings came out because no matter how poorly your state performed, you could be sure things were worse in Mississippi.

Not anymore. New results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to measure fourth- and eighth-grade achievement in reading and math, show that Mississippi made more progress than any other state.

The state’s performance in reading was especially notable. Mississippi was the only state in the nation to post significant gains on the fourth-grade reading test. Fourth graders in Mississippi are now on par with the national average, reading as well or better than pupils in California, Texas, Michigan and 18 other states.

What’s up in Mississippi? There’s no way to know for sure what causes increases in test scores, but Mississippi has been doing something notable: making sure all of its teachers understand the science of reading.

Yes, there is a science to how people read. For the past several decades, in labs and classrooms all over the world, scientists have been studying how skilled reading works, what children need to learn to become skilled readers, and what’s going on when students struggle. Reading is probably the most studied aspect of human learning.

But a lot of teachers don’t know this science. In 2013, legislators in Mississippi provided funding to start training the state’s teachers in the science of reading.

To understand what the science says, a good place to start is with something called the “simple view of reading.” It’s a model that was first proposed by researchers in 1986 to clarify the role of decoding in reading comprehension. Everyone agrees the goal of reading is to comprehend text, but back in the 1980s there was a big fight going on over whether children should be taught how to decode words — in other words, phonics.

The simple view says that reading comprehension is the product of two things. One is your ability to decode words: Can you identify the word a string of letters represents? For example, you see the letter string “l-a-s-s” and you are able to sound it out and say the word.

You may have no idea what “lass” means. This is where language comprehension comes in. Language comprehension is your ability to understand spoken language. So, when someone says to you, “Let’s have all the lads and lasses line up at the door,” you know that’s what all the boys and girls are supposed to do.

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Publication:      The New York Times
Author:            Emily Hanford
Publish Date:   12.5.2019