Where We Stand: For the Love of Reading

I love to read, although these days I do much of it on a computer screen. As a child I remember my mother, who was a second-grade teacher, always making sure we had books at home—books like The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, The Jazz Man by Mary Hays Weik, and The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. Books I read as a teenager shaped my quest for justice and the fight against discrimination—books like Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And I will always be mesmerized by Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem, “The New Colossus” with such lyrical language as “The wretched refuse of your teeming shore…. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Even as much of my time, before and during the pandemic, is devoted to fighting for our members, our students, and our communities, I try to make time for reading. Whether it’s for work or for pleasure, I read to stay informed, to spark new ideas, to renew my spirit, and to better understand others’ perspectives. I can’t imagine my life without the written word—and I’m grateful to the teachers, including my mother, who gave me the gift of reading when I was young.

Reading is not simply a desire; it is a fundamental skill necessary for virtually everything we do. And we need to ensure all of us, particularly our children, learn to read and read to learn so they too can do everything. That’s why the AFT is pleased to update and republish Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, 2020: What Expert Teachers of Reading Should Know and Be Able to Do. This report, written by Louisa C. Moats (a teacher, psychologist, researcher, and professor who has been at the forefront of science-based reading instruction for five decades) translates the latest reading research into accessible language so that those of us who are not steeped in the pedagogy of reading can apply it to our own teaching and learning.

Let me tell you what the report does and doesn’t do. It doesn’t get us back into the reading wars, and it doesn’t advocate for what we have found so disrespectful: scripted curricula or “teacher proof” programs. It does detail the expert-level knowledge of language necessary to teach reading, and it does support teachers in building that knowledge.

In disseminating effective practices grounded in research, everyone has a role to play. From teacher-preparation programs to school systems, from state officials to curriculum developers, we must move quickly to revamp the guidance and resources provided to educators. But I’m betting on our nation’s teachers. This pandemic has shown everyone what any of us who have spent five minutes with teachers know: as a profession we have the drive and the passion to do the hard work of understanding and using the science of reading. And it is hard work, much harder than it should be since so few of the education publishers and professional development providers have cast aside their profitable-but-outdated materials and programs to create new resources that reflect the latest research.

The current state of reading research understands the importance of teacher professionalism and autonomy. Embracing the science is, fundamentally, about giving teachers the freedom to teach. Teachers’ hearts break when students struggle to decipher words on a page and explain what they mean. Desperate to support those students, teachers spend countless hours searching online to supplement the inadequate materials and training they have been given. So much of what sounds persuasive on paper just doesn’t work well in the classroom—or works well only for students who most easily master the art and science of reading. This report tries to fill that void.

Moats, who has dedicated her career to struggling readers, wrote the first version of Teaching Reading Is Rocket Science, which the AFT published, in 1999. In it, she explained how children learn to read, the essential components of reading instruction, what causes reading difficulties and how to prevent or reduce them. In this new edition, she adds depth to the science and provides clarity on the challenge before us: taking action.

Teaching reading really is rocket science. Academic English is complex. Given this complexity, children need carefully planned instruction to become fluent readers, spellers, and writers. And, because of the enormous inequities in our society, providing each child an equitable opportunity to revel in an abundance of books in which they both see themselves and are introduced to the world is no small task.

Still, there is joy in this work—whether reading aloud stories and poems that delight young and old, or introducing the wonder of new words and ideas to children. Ultimately, the science of reading is inextricably linked to the love of reading. To teach and inspire the next generation, we simply can’t have one without the other.

American Educator, Summer 2020