Mississippi Shows How The Science of Reading Can Get Students Back On Track

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“At least we’re not Mississippi.”

It’s a response you’ve probably heard a time or two if you grew up in the South, but when it comes to literacy, it’s completely misguided. Believe it or not, Mississippi is something of an unsung hero when it comes to teaching children how to read. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, Mississippi made a significant achievement that no other state can claim: it was the only state where 4th grade students showed meaningful growth in reading. 

If that doesn’t seem like a lofty achievement, think about it this way: if students don’t read well by the time they hit 4th grade, there’s a strong chance that they will struggle down the road. Shaping students to be successful readers by the time they leave elementary school is a foundational battle that can greatly impact their academic careers later, so the fact that Mississippi is making gains in reading should be drawing more attention. In fact, as political and education leaders are reflecting on the pandemic’s impact on student learning, Mississippi’s efforts may highlight an important path forward.

Following the Science of Reading

Mississippi’s success with literacy arguably began in 2013 with a major overhaul in reading instruction. Since then, the state’s blueprint for improving student literacy has been based on the cognitive science of reading, which goes something like this

decoding ability x language comprehension = reading comprehension

Put simply, decoding is the act of sounding out a word when reading, and language comprehension is the capacity to understand what the word actually means. Reading comprehension is the product of both.

Thanks to constant exposure to language from family and friends, television, and video games, children enter school knowing the meanings of lots of words. It’s decoding that can prove to be a larger challenge for students.

It’s one reason why critics have called out teacher preparation programs for spurning the value of phonics instruction in early grades. When students aren’t explicitly taught how to break down parts of words and sound them out, teachers are only getting half of the equation right.

When Mississippi decided to overhaul its literacy approach in 2013, a major part of its initiative was training teachers to better follow the science of reading. Correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but since then, fourth-grade reading scores have grown by a double-digit margin.

Other States Are Following Mississippi’s Lead

Since Mississippi’s “science of reading” initiative began in 2013, a handful of other states have looked to the Magnolia State as a model for improving students’ reading performance. 

Nearly 20 states have indicated that they will use part of their emergency COVID-19 funding for teacher training in literacy, and states like Delaware, Connecticut, North Carolina, and Tennessee are even writing the science of reading into law this year. Policymakers are hoping that doing so will lead to the same kinds of reading gains that Mississippi has seen over the last decade.

The push to overhaul reading instruction around the country is powerful social proof that “following the science” is more than advice from wary epidemiologists navigating a pandemic. If the data behind these states’ efforts prove compelling, the science of reading may end up being the shot of hope we need to tackle COVID-related learning loss and get more students back on track to reading proficiency.

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