Letters And Testimony


Promoting Effective Literacy Methods

letters and testimony

Promoting Effective Literacy Methods

March 22, 2024

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Today, I submitted a letter to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, responding to the Committee's recent report on children's literacy and offering recommendations for how the government can support effective methods for teaching literacy. Click here to download a pdf of the letter.

Dear Ranking Member Cassidy:

Thank you for the opportunity to offer input regarding America’s childhood literacy crisis. My name is Robert Bellafiore, and I am Research Manager at the Foundation for American Innovation, a think tank dedicated to keeping the U.S. at the forefront of technological innovation—a goal closely tied to the quality of our education system. My feedback is based on my research on the implementation of the science of reading and on the federal government’s role in education R&D.

In short, there is much that can be done at the state level to ensure that effective, research-based methods for teaching literacy become the norm. And although this matter is largely a state issue, there are useful steps the federal government can take as well, especially to improve the value of federal education R&D and statistical collection activities. Here, I respond to select questions posed in your report.

1. What are some of the other risks to our society, in the short- and long-term, of inaction to address an entire generation of students not being proficient in reading?

The harm done by inadequate literacy instruction could not be greater. Because literacy is the foundation of all education, failures in literacy impede all other educational efforts. And because having an educated citizenry is essential to keeping the nation safe and prosperous, a poor education system can become a genuine national security risk. The connection between education and America’s status as an economic and innovation superpower is most obvious in the case of STEM disciplines, but because adequate literacy underlies STEM (and other all other disciplines), literacy should be recognized as even more critical to the continued prosperity of the nation.

2. What existing programs or funding streams are accessible from a federal and/or state perspective that would support implementation of evidence-based best practices? How can these programs be improved?

The federal government’s education R&D efforts have played an important role in establishing the conclusion, which has been clear for decades, that the “science of reading” offers the best method for teaching literacy. In 1997, Congress assigned the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Department of Education the task of comprehensively studying the many competing approaches to children’s literacy. The resulting National Reading Panel, which reviewed roughly 100,000 studies on the topic, provided overwhelming evidence for the merits of the “science of reading,” which focuses on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. The Panel is a powerful example of the potential value of federal education R&D. A related example is the What Works Clearinghouse, run by the Institute of Education Sciences, which offers useful reviews of educational studies and methods and summarizes the research to recommend best practices.

However, as the Senate HELP Committee’s report notes, the science of literacy has continued to struggle against the misguided “balanced literacy” method, showing the practical limits of even a definitive study. Even the most rigorous education research on its own does nothing; to be useful, it must be carried into the classroom. And in the case of children’s literacy, the problem has been implementing the best method, not determining what the best method is.

Despite the great research value of the National Reading Panel in identifying a best practice, both aspects of education R&D—conducting important research, and then implementing its findings—have been long-term challenges for the federal government. The federal government, and especially the Department of Education, have been investing in education R&D projects for decades, with little to show for it; many R&D efforts simply have not accomplished anything and have not generated any important findings. The fact that even valuable research efforts are not actually implemented in the classroom only compounds the problem.

This phenomenon extends far beyond literacy. For example, Project Follow Through, a huge national evaluation of various education methods among lower-class children, stretching from 1967 to 1976, found that Direct Instruction—a structured, scripted method—was the most effective instructional method. But this finding was widely ignored by teachers and education officials.

There is ample room for greater congressional oversight of these government R&D activities. An important step that Congress could take would be pushing the federal government’s education R&D efforts to prove their value, and eliminating those efforts which cannot justify themselves. Congress should ask the Government Accountability Office to audit these programs, and then end the ones shown to be ineffective. To further improve the transparency and accountability of these programs, Congress should require the Department of Education to annually report on these R&D activities, as well as identify and share best practices based on R&D findings, for the benefit of both policymakers and the general public.

An opportunity for Congress to pursue this task recently presented itself in the form of the Advancing Research in Education Act, which the Senate HELP Committee passed in December 2023. The legislation would reauthorize and reform the Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002 (ESRA), which reformed and authorized the federal government’s approach to education research. ESRA’s reauthorization has been due since 2008, but since then the activities authorized by the law have instead received funding through the appropriations process.

The Advancing Research in Education Act offers an opportunity to improve the federal government’s involvement in education R&D. In December, as Congress was considering this legislation, my colleague Dan Lips and I released a report on ESRA, offering several recommendations for the bill. Here, I quote four top recommendations from the report:

  • Increase the transparency of federal education R&D activities: At a minimum, Congress should require the outcomes of federal education R&D activities to be made transparent to Congress, other federal agencies, and the public.
  • Improve the timeliness of NCES [National Center for Education Statistics] statistical collection and public reporting: IES [the Institute of Education Sciences], and specifically NCES, should be required to improve the timeliness of statistical collection and reporting activities to make information more quickly available, and therefore more useful, to policymakers and the public.
  • Leverage NCES for other Department of Education data collection and reporting activities and codify the School Pulse Panel: Congress could require IES and NCES to undertake additional data collection and reporting activities, including codifying the School Pulse Panel. The School Pulse Panel that IES started during the pandemic provided timely and useful information. … Congress could authorize the School Pulse Panel to require IES to continuously conduct timely surveying, data collection, and reporting to inform policymakers and the public about the state of K-12 education.
  • Reform or eliminate ineffective education R&D programs: Congress should review and identify ineffective R&D programs and terminate them or put the funding to better use.

As an example of the last recommendation (reforming or eliminating poor R&D programs), Congress should assess the value of the Education Innovation and Research Program within the Department of Education. The program, which has received $1.2 billion in funding since 2017, is a successor to the older Investing in Innovation (i3) program, which the National Center for Education Evaluation recently found to have accomplished very little. The Education Innovation and Research Program is likely to have similarly negligible achievements, and its funds could therefore be put to better use elsewhere.

These recommendations do not address literacy specifically, but rather would improve the federal government’s relationship to education more generally. Given literacy’s fundamental role in all childhood education, however, strengthening childhood literacy and strengthening schools overall are projects with significant overlap.

3. What other ways can federal and state government support the implementation process?

Beyond improving the return on investment of education R&D, there is little that the federal government can do to improve children’s literacy, as this effort belongs properly to the states. The federal government has attempted to be heavily involved in this effort in the past, with poor results: the Reading First program, as part of No Child Left Behind, allocated funding to schools that followed the science of reading, but was beset with problems, including significant mismanagement and conflicts of interest, according to an audit by the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General.

It’s possible that a differently designed federal program might have avoided some of the drawbacks of Reading First, which, despite its problems, was a well-intended effort to promote sound education principles. Nevertheless, the broader lesson from this experiment should be that the federal government is simply too distant from schools to be the proper agent allocating education funding, establishing curricula, and so on. The task of guiding schools toward the adoption of the science of reading belongs to the states.

However, one option that Congress could consider is amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to allow state and local education agencies to provide grants directly to at-risk students to obtain tutoring in reading. Several states have established such grant programs, which offer students additional support in reading instruction.

16. How are educator prep programs an essential component of successful implementation of evidence-based literacy instruction and curriculum? What actions can be taken to ensure these programs are teaching evidence-based methods?

At the state level, there is much that can be done to support the implementation of evidence-based literacy instruction and curricula. Educator prep programs are an essential first stage for reform.

States, whether through state boards or through state education agencies, should establish clear and detailed standards for how teachers are trained to teach children to read. Many future teachers continue to be taught debunked methods: only 28 percent of teacher preparation programs fully incorporate all five parts of the science of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), and 22 percent of programs do not incorporate any of those five parts. Then, when they enter the classroom, teachers naturally apply those debunked methods they have been trained to use: according to a survey released in 2020, 72 percent of elementary special education and K-2 teachers said that their schools use balanced literacy. Preparation programs that train would-be teachers in harmful methods are worse than useless. Clearer, better standards are needed; states should set standards that include all five parts of the science of reading, not only phonics.

In the second stage, teacher licensure tests, states should mandate that tests require would-be teachers to prove their understanding of the science of reading and of how to apply it in the classroom. Every state has some sort of licensure test for teachers already, so it is reasonable to require this test to be in line with the science of reading. After all, the ability to read is perhaps the single most important thing a teacher can impart; if someone cannot competently teach this, any other capabilities are irrelevant.

States should also follow the lead of the 11 states that publish, for every teacher preparation program, the rates at which people pass the licensure test on the first attempt. This information would allow the public to understand which programs are adequately training future teachers, and which are not.

But just as many teacher preparation programs promote poor literacy pedagogical practices, so many licensure tests fail to test whether people have adequately learned how to teach reading in line with the science of reading. States should allow only licensure tests proving mastery of the science of reading, such as the popular Foundations of Reading, used in many states.

Finally, in the third stage, curricula, states should offer school districts a single high-quality curriculum, or a selection of curricula for school districts or individual schools to choose from. In recent years, some states have even taken the step of banning literacy curricula that apply the debunked “three-cueing system.” This might seem too stringent, but the very principle behind training and licensing teachers is that there are certain standards teachers must meet. If schools or teachers are using mediocre literacy curricula, there is no reason for the public to be funding them, so it is reasonable to prohibit them; as the last few decades have shown, best practices do not naturally get adopted simply by virtue of their high quality.

At the very least, states should offer a range of recommended curricula for school districts to consider. Organizations such as EdReports conduct independent analyses of different literacy curricula; states can then use these reviews to identify curricula worth supporting. Going a step further, states such as Rhode Island and Arkansas have partnered with EdReports to develop websites showing what curricula are used in different districts, allowing parents to understand the likely quality of their children’s literacy instruction.

Promoting the science of reading at each stage of teachers’ training and work would help ensure that teachers clearly understand what the best practices are, and, more to the point, that teachers apply those best practices. Still, these reforms would apply only to new or future teachers. In the meantime, many current teachers have been miseducated about how to promote literacy. At the same time that states improve future teachers, they must also improve the current ones. To counteract potentially decades of poor teaching, all current elementary teachers should be required to receive training in the science of reading.

Though there may not be a single best strategy for (re)training teachers, two states worth studying in this regard are Tennessee and Mississippi, which have developed comprehensive strategies to instruct current teachers over a number of years in the science of reading. Mississippi contracted with the company Voyager Sopris to provide LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) training, initially training literacy coaches and school principals and then extending LETRS training to all K-3 teachers. Tennessee required elementary school teachers to receive 60 hours of professional development on the subject of literacy instruction, contracting with the nonprofit TNTP to develop a course for teachers on the science of reading. These efforts have greatly improved children’s literacy rates in both states.

Efforts at each stage—teacher preparation programs, licensure tests, and curricula—should be understood as, not redundant, but complementary, ensuring that teachers receive consistent guidance and allowing each improvement to compound upon the other ones. Reforms at any individual stage will be helpful, but states should target all three.

States will need to be forceful in promoting the science of reading and limiting the ability of teachers or school districts to continue to use faulty methods. As the decades since the National Reading Panel have illustrated, producing compelling research on literacy is not enough, and teachers will not automatically adopt the best methods. It is therefore reasonable, and indeed imperative, that states step in to promote the best methods.


Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback as the Committee studies this issue. Improving children’s literacy will be essential for the continued thriving and security of the nation.


Robert Bellafiore
Research Manager
Foundation for American Innovation

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