So, what do we know about reading?

by Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education


Over a year and a half ago, Tennessee launched the Read to be Ready campaign focusing in on strategies that increase the number of students reading proficiently by the end of third grade.  As I travel the state talking about this work, I often get asked questions about reading. These are great questions, and I wanted to share them here, too.

What do we know about how children learn to read?

Actually, we know a lot. We know that early experiences being read to and engaging with books matter.

How much does it matter?

A whole lot. In fact, we know that babies benefit significantly from being read to from birth and even more so throughout their toddler years. We also know that rich, interesting books and reading materials help kids build knowledge about their world that increases their vocabulary and comprehension, which in turn helps them continuously make meaning out of increasingly complex content as they progress in school. It is also abundantly clear that a child’s early years with reading and language impact later academic growth.

So, what should we do with this knowledge?

Again, a whole lot. Parents and family members have a unique opportunity and an acute responsibility to create an environment where reading is valued and expected. Families should seek time to read together and talk about what they are reading—both collectively and individually—from picture books to biographies to the newspaper. Talking about what you’re reading (or what you are listening to on a CD or online) or writing about what you are reading can serve as a valuable addition to singular engagement with high-quality text.  These collective engagements support knowledge building and language development that will last a lifetime.

What does effective reading instruction look like when kids are in elementary school?

Interestingly enough, it looks very similar to what families should do. In addition to engaging more in what you are reading, teachers should build some intentional skill-building into these authentic reading and writing experiences. Kids should be exposed daily to interesting and engaging reading materials—from the classics to modern favorites that span both fiction and nonfiction. Books should support students in building knowledge about themselves, others, and their world and should get them excited about turning each page and reading more. These texts should serve as anchors for strong lessons with robust content where teachers ask kids to authentically engage in responding to what they have read.

Assignments that are authentic mean kids are talking and writing about they have read and getting feedback from others. Strong early reading instruction also includes attention to systematic and explicit phonics instruction in the earliest years of school that is paired with verbal and written connections back to real books and vocabulary instruction. Effective reading instruction does not include fill-in-the blank worksheets, word searches, coloring sheets, low-level and uninteresting texts, or simplistic assignments that do not engage students as readers and writers.

Most importantly, how do we ensure every student gets effective reading instruction?

We ensure every teacher has the ability to teach reading with the resources they need every day. We must hyper-focus on this as a state department, in every school district, in every teacher education program, and in every community. This is the ongoing work of the Read to be Ready campaign and various, connected strategies.

In addition, school principals and classroom teachers must also protect time for students to read and write—because time is one of few variables they can control. While a principal or a teacher can’t control many factors in a child’s life, they can protect time dedicated to quality instruction. The most coveted time in schools should be the time designated for reading—our kids who are most behind need every minute of engagement with great books and effective literacy instruction we can provide. And, our kids who are proficient readers need to be pushed to grow in their abilities to access new vocabulary and knowledge. Everyone benefits from focused and protected time reading.

Many other strategies can be found in work we have created to date. This past spring, the department shared a Teaching Literacy in Tennessee framework and guidance manual developed as part of the state’s focus on improving early literacy as part of Read to be Ready. This seminal work represents Tennessee’s leadership in ensuring we are all focused on evidence-based practices for teaching reading. The document draws on international and national research as well as the work from our early literacy council, our Read to be Ready consultants, coaches and staff, our dyslexia council, and from strong reading educators from across the state. It has also spurred additional reading guidance from the state, including a new supplement for teaching English learners.

Tennessee has now set the foundation, built the framework, and begun creating a strong future for the state by ensuring that we are building thinkers in Tennessee through reading. While there is still much work to do, we are asking the right questions, finding the answers, and creating a collective movement to ensure all students are reading so they can truly be ready.