“The greatest enemy of progress is the illusion of knowledge.” John Young, Astronaut
Several years ago, I was working as a contractor in the educational publishing industry. The scope of one of our contracts was to build curricula for a few disciplines so the publisher could assess whether to pursue publishing in those particular academic areas and, if so, determine their strategy. We listed the required and elective courses for the discipline, specific areas of study, course objectives, and major textbooks and course materials used for each class. We commented accordingly on enrollments, trends, and areas for improvement.
One of the disciplines we worked on was education. While we were putting together courses and books for the certification and degree programs in special education, reading, and literacy, it never occurred to me to hunt for the few textbooks that include a science-based approach to reading, or to recommend that graduates need at least a basic understanding of the foundations of reading. I didn’t know then about the five pillars of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. How would I have known?
We Can’t Change What We Don’t Know Is Broken
That phrase is repeated regularly in connection with teacher training in the science of reading, and it applies to publishers as well. Publishers can’t change what they don’t know is missing or incorrect in the textbooks or resources. Educators who write and review the textbooks, and faculty who adopt the textbooks and resources, need to indicate where content is missing or incorrect. The good news is that the publishers are listening.
Educational publishers have the distinct advantage of serving the education industry from a high vantage point. While that perspective offers a broad knowledge base in many academic disciplines, teaching faculty whom we rely on are the experts in the specific subjects they teach. This presents a challenge to the publishers in this divided field of literacy education, where factions staunchly support different approaches about how children should learn to read. In some cases, faculty themselves haven’t been taught what many of us consider the science-based approach to reading, so they simply don’t have the knowledge to pass on the information to their students.
Even with controversy, faculty should be open to presenting multiple approaches thoroughly and accurately. A core component of higher education is learning to think critically, so even those faculty who oppose a phonics-based approach to reading should be open to providing resources on all of the major approaches to learning to read.
Publishers are also experts at delivering content in different media, but faculty are generally regarded as the subject matter experts. However, because some faculty may not be experts in all approaches to reading, the onus is on the publishers to create more comprehensive and thoroughly scripted solutions. (Limited scope and resources are factors in some K-12 reading programs, but that subject is beyond the focus of this discussion of higher-education materials.)
Are Publishers Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution?
No single industry is to blame for this systems-level breakdown in teacher education, and publishers offer more solutions than barriers. The educational publishing industry can sometimes be vilified or misunderstood, but I would argue that publishers generally strive to provide a balanced approach in delivering content to their markets, and if there is enough pushback they respond.
In September 2018, American Public Media (APM) released an excellent report on why our kids aren’t being taught to read. For many of us in the literacy/dyslexia community, otherwise known as “the choir,” the report confirms everything we have been saying about how our kids are being taught to read versus how science supports teaching reading.
This report illuminates the gap in teacher education, and how this gap persists as new teachers graduate from higher-education institutions with minimal knowledge of the science of reading. Higher education is where training begins, and higher education must accept accountability for teaching and delivering content that prepares future teachers to teach all kids to read. Higher-education publishers also stand ready to help close this gap.
Teach My Kid to Read is a new organization and our goal is to assist the many other organizations and individuals in the field of literacy by supporting and educating anyone who can help our kids to read. As publishers we are focusing on textbooks and instructional materials in higher education for educators in general and early-childhood educators in particular. There is a lot we can accomplish by creating basic criteria, looking at the gaps, and creating materials that work for today’s students and tomorrow’s future teachers. Please let us know your thoughts and join us in our endeavors. Publishers and educators together will positively change education.