Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have interviewed a number of brilliant reading researchers, teachers, and literacy advocates across the country as a part of A Novel Idea, our new podcast series about the science of reading. This is one in a series of Q&A blog posts containing exclusive thoughts that did not make it into the podcast from some of the literacy education field’s most impactful and insightful people. 

A Novel Idea is out now. For announcements, trailers, and an email in your inbox each time an episode is released, please subscribe to our email list.

Melissa Loftus and Lori Sappington began their science of reading journeys as educators in the Baltimore area. Both served as curriculum experts for their school districts, supporting the implementation of evidence-based English language arts programs in Grade 8 classrooms. You may know them better as the hosts of Melissa & Lori Love Literacy, a hit weekly podcast in which they interview educators, literacy experts, and others. Their podcast has thousands of listeners nationwide and has covered a range of topics related to the science of reading. Melissa and Lori can be reached on Twitter, and their show can be streamed on all major podcasting platforms.

Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): What Was Your First Introduction to the Science of Reading? Why Is It Important to You?

Melissa Loftus: I worked as a teacher in Baltimore, and that was when I think reading science kind of hit me. We were implementing Fundations (a particular literacy curriculum), and that's when I think it hit me that [teaching reading] is a science, and it’s tough, and teachers should have a lot of training. I always see the argument of, “Do we need a good curriculum, or do we need to just train teachers?” And I always think, it’s not one or the other of those things, it’s both. It is really important to have both. And to add to that, for a while, I worked with secondary teachers, and we did an entire improvement science project around [improving] reading scores for students who are coming into middle school and high school reading below grade level. We did all this work to get back to the root cause of the issue, and honestly, what we realized was that we had to go back to the strands of the Reading Rope that students missed in elementary school. So then we had to go back and see, how do we give them those skills when we're still moving them forward? How do we stay on grade level and still make sure they get those basic reading skills, too?

Lori Sappington: When we implemented Fundations for our K–3 classrooms, it never once crossed my mind that it was science of reading. And that was, oh my gosh, 10 years ago now. When I was working at the [Maryland State Department of Education], I saw a presentation from Baltimore City and they were light years ahead of all of the other places in Maryland because they were pulling out research and citing it and saying, “This is where we need to go, this is what's happening in terms of research.

IRRC: In the Past, a Lot of Unresearched Reading Methods Have Taken Root Through Word of Mouth or a Bandwagon Effect. Do You Ever Worry That This Same Effect Could Damage the Work Being Done in Literacy Education Right Now?

Melissa Loftus: Yeah, there are things that are catching on because they’re on social media…they’re what everyone's talking about. Like heart words and sound walls, right? Those things are not research based. Yes, they are based on things that seem like they could work in the classroom because of what the research says about how we learn how to read. However, there is no actual research on sound walls or if they make any difference. But that's what everyone's talking about on social media. So people are thinking, “Oh, we have to implement this now,” and saying it is science of reading based, which is technically not true. 

Lori Sappington: That said, I do understand why teachers would say it's science of reading based, because to me it’s like a symbol of the movement. It’s like, “I’m going to try something new because I’m learning this thing, and I think it might be better than what I had before. I don’t want a word wall, so I’m going to try a sound wall.” But actually, you could not have any wall and still be teaching reading science in your classroom, right?

Melissa Loftus: Yeah, and as we've said, researchers have said that it's not a bad practice. It’s not that you can't do it. But there’s not research behind it, so you can't just label it “science of reading.”

Lori Sappington: I think that's my general anxiety about things like Teachers Pay Teachers, you know? I kind of put some social media stuff and TPT in the same bucket. It’s just completely unvetted. So you have to be really skeptical. 

Melissa Loftus: Right. There's some good stuff in there, but you have to really sift through it and know what you're looking for.

IRRC: Do You Have Any Fun Stories of Feedback You’ve Received From Listeners of Your Podcast?

Lori Sappington: Our number-one episode last year was with a group of teachers that are making big changes in their school. They don't have high-quality materials, and they are working to learn more for themselves. They did a book study where every time they would read a chapter, they'd go try it in their classroom and then they would say like well, this is really working for me, and this is really working for me, and here’s what I did to add to that, and so on. They created a resource called a rhyme mat, and we can't even keep up with the amount of social media requests and emails about this resource. Every single person who listens to this podcast wants to know where the rhyme mats are. 

Melissa Loftus: They want to know what they look like. 

Lori Sappington: Yes, I'll ping Melissa like, “Did you see? We got another rhyme mat request!” Finally, we were able to make the rhyme mat accessible, but it’s just really funny. It just screams to me that teachers want real, tangible resources. That’s why sound walls are a thing. Teachers want things they can do that are representative of this movement. I think the rhyme mat spoke to them because it was probably representative of what they were doing to make this great change toward reading science. 

IRRC: I've Listened to That Episode. It's Very Fun. So I Understand the Urge to See the Rhyme Mat.

Lori Sappington: Do you want to hear something fun about that episode? So they were all on our screen, and we were recording on this podcasting platform. And they kept going dark because they were all in their classrooms, so, you know, the lights go out if you don't move every 10 or 15 minutes. So, it'd be like whack a mole. Like, this person would go dark, and they’d mute while the other person was talking and go like, wave their arms around. It was just so comical.

IRRC: Do You Remember Learning How to Read?

Lori Sappington: That's funny. I remember having—and I would crack up if somebody could figure out which book this was—but I remember having a plaid-covered phonics book, and they were in full color. In hindsight, they probably were very expensive. I remember learning phonics very, very explicitly. And once you finished the red and black covered book, you got the blue and black one.

Melissa Loftus: I do remember doing some phonics instruction in first grade, but I don't know that it was what taught me how to read. I remember my parents reading to me, my mom and my grandma, really. I think I was one of those handful of kids who sort of pick it up that way. So I had it easy.

Lori Sappington: Yeah, you know, like you Melissa, I picked up reading quickly. I loved reading. But one thing that really struck me from Emily Hanford’s Sold a Story podcast was when [President and CEO of UnboundEd] Lacey Robinson said we don't actually need kids to love to read. I was talking with a colleague about it the other day, and she said there's like, three categories of kids, right? Kids who love to read, kids who don't read, and kids who can't read. And I think if we use the body of research that is reading science, we meet the needs of all of those kids. But if we if we don't, then we really only meet one-third of that, which is exactly what our national data is showing, right? We're only meeting the needs of those kids who love to read, because they can usually pick it up pretty quickly? I think about that a lot as I reflect on my own reading journey.

Melissa Loftus: That actually reminds me of something in older grades—probably 3rd grade through high school. I vividly remember reading aloud in class, like us students reading aloud. And as I just said I was a good reader. I loved reading. But the anxiety I had about reading out loud in front of my class was tremendous.

Lori Sappington: Oh my gosh, yes. Did you count the paragraphs to find which one you would have to read? I definitely did that. 

Melissa Loftus: One hundred percent. One hundred percent I counted the paragraphs, and I read mine as many times as I could to myself before I had to do it out loud, and I wasn't listening to anything anybody else was saying. As a good reader, I didn’t have the confidence to read out loud in front of the class. And looking back, I think, can you imagine what it felt like for those kids who were really struggling to read?

IRRC: What Are Your Hopes For the Future of the Science of Reading Movement?

Lori Sappington: I'm hopeful moving forward that there's national legislation. I just think this is too important of an issue to leave up to each state to address. Some states are doing amazing work, you know, some are light years ahead, but then others still have three-cueing, and I just feel like we are so past that. We know it doesn't work. So I'm hopeful that there is national legislation, and that each state can then take it and make it what they need it to be for their students. This is something that I have lots of questions about, and I’m still pressing my learning about, but I do think some legislation needs to happen on a more national scale. We cannot be doing these outdated practices anymore.

Melissa Loftus: Yes, and you know, so many people went down the science of reading road only looking at phonics, phonemic awareness, only those foundational skills. And I think people are starting to say, “That is not everything you need to learn how to read.” I think in education we are often black-and-white thinkers, all or nothing. So when people hear “science of reading” now, I think so many are just like, “Oh, that just means I need phonics and phonemic awareness. So that's all we'll do in K-2. That's all we need to do.” But there is a whole other side of reading, you know? What is the science for comprehension? It's not as clean and easy to say what the science says or to implement it, but there is science around how students learn how to comprehend, and the role of background knowledge, and we need to keep that as part of the discussion. It will break my heart if we start seeing phonics instruction in isolation, and kids are not having that time of hearing great literature and having conversations about it.

Lori Sappington: Yes, but also—and I'm so passionate about this—when we talk about phonics, we are talking about a 30-minute block out of your day in kindergarten through Grade 2, maybe 3. This is 30 minutes of your whole day. You likely have 90 other minutes to make some magic happen, right? Every day.

Melissa Loftus: Yeah, and that's just for ELA or literacy, or whatever we call that block.

Lori Sappington: Yeah, I mean, science and social studies are great times too, to make some magic happen. And math. That’s not my magic time, personally, but that’s interesting too.

Melissa Loftus: Exactly.

Lori Sappington: Also, thinking about the energy of this movement, I really do think it drives me every single day to think about and ask questions about how we can affect change in the entire literacy block. And maybe it's not even literacy alone. Maybe it's all of the content areas, right? How do we use research-based practices to affect big change in our schools? I'm so hopeful. I feel like this is such a different place than we've been before. This big movement forward, and I just don't want to lose steam. I want to make sure that this stays a big movement, and that we create the change that we need across the entire school day.