Rebecca Kockler, former Assistant Superintendent of Academic Content for the Louisiana Department of Education, spoke to Emily Freitag about the importance of systematic reading foundations in early literacy instruction. 

Watch the full conversation or read the abridged Q&A below.

EF: I would love to hear a story from your journey as a learner and what that has taught you about learning.

RK: I’ve been thinking so much about early reading and writing lately, especially as we head back to school in this particular environment. I have a very distinct memory from kindergarten when I was learning to read with Sister Bennett at my small Catholic school in rural Minnesota. And I remember sitting on the rug with John, a friend of mine. We were in kindergarten, and we were learning to read. It was a reading block and we’re doing independent reading. I tell this story because it’s one of my most distinctive memories from being a child and it actually explains so much about how early readers learn to read and the strengths of different early readers. And it’s so weirdly profound to me in my work, given my focus on early reading and my obsession with the science of reading.

John and I were sitting on the floor mat, and we were arguing about a word we were trying to read together. We were co-reading a book together and John was saying that the word was “the” I was like, “That is absolutely not the word. The word is not ‘the.’ The word is ‘ta-ha.’” And he’s like, “No, it’s not.” I said,  ” Pronounce it, look at it, it’s ta-ha.” He responds, “Well, what does ta-ha mean?” I’m said, “I don’t know, I have no idea what it means.” We had this debate on the floor. And I actually remember a few days later, learning the TH blend. It’s such a fascinating story because what it shows is that a reader like John, he learned in a particular way. He probably memorized words very well, which is what some of early readers can do. John read a lot with his family, and I read a ton with my family too, but I don’t memorize things well, and John does. I memorize skills well, I can practice skills and do skills over, and then I succeed. John memorized the word “the.” When he looked at it, he knew what it was. Once I was taught the skill of the TH blend, I actually went back and was like, “Oh my god, I was wrong.”

It’s fascinating to me that I remember learning to read and I remember that argument with John on the floor so many years ago. I think about that memory all the time these days as I’m thinking about our early readers and our debates about how kids learn to read. The reality is that different learners are different. t’s been a profound memory for me lately in particular, as I’ve been deep in the thinking about what most matters and this instinct to be like, “Let’s just read a lot to kids while we’re virtual.” And I believe that we should obviously do that, but I believe so deeply in having to figure out how we help kids learn the skills and the science of learning to read. The deliberateness of how we teach matters because some kids are more like John and some kids, like me, need the skills to be able to succeed. 

EF: In the series, we’re exploring how we make sure that educators’ response to inequity doesn’t actually exacerbate it even more. And so to do that, we’re exploring questions about what we actually know works, and then what are the things that we try that we actually know don’t work? Take us into what you are thinking a lot about these days, in particular with early reading.

RK: I’m going to talk about a few specific things that contribute to inequity in early reading, and I don’t say these things because I think they’re the only things that contribute to inequities in our schools. There’s a lot of complexities in our systems that are very layered and deeper than just instructional priorities. But, let’s talk a little bit about early reading and why we have so many kids in America who show up to third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, or seventh grade not reading. It still astounds me that that’s true in our country, because we actually know how to teach reading, we know the science, and so the fact that we have not yet figured out how to get every kid to read by third grade, when other countries have is astounding to me. 

I think there’s a couple of different things happening. First of all, in early literacy in particular, the instinct to teach how you learned something has profound consequences on kids. The math folks would probably argue that’s true as much in math too, but it is certainly true in early reading. I think we had some data that led us a little bit askew. It’s not that the data itself was bad, but I think the Harvard study that showed that if kids come into Pre-K who are poor and haven’t been read to as frequently, then you only have X number of words in your vocabulary and that leads to long term effects in reading. That data is true, and that data is helpful and informative, but that data is not instructive in a way about what you do in a classroom with Pre-K students or with kindergarteners or with first graders. Unfortunately, some of those stats have led us to feel like the problem is poverty or the problem is parents not reading to their kids, or the problem is access to books. Those things have influence, absolutely, no question. But we have so many examples of kids who have learned to read in a whole bunch of different settings, including that setting where kids may come in with less vocabulary and come in with less access to texts. So the question is, Why don’t we implement the science of what we know is necessary to how kids learn to read? There are really three components of it. There’s the reading foundations element, which is very well researched and well established. There’s reading comprehension, which is how you make sense of the things you read, once you have the skills to actually read them. And there’s writing, which is how you talk about and communicate your responses to what you’ve just read. What makes teaching in elementary school so hard is that the way you do those three things, which are often seen as the same, is actually really different. The way you teach reading foundations is really different from how you teach reading comprehension, and it’s pretty different from how you teach writing. That makes teachers’ jobs complex because that’s also in the same grades where teachers are teaching math and science and social. Reading is really three subjects: foundations, reading comprehension, and writing. Those things overlap and they interconnect and there’s so much interplay, but we haven’t done a good job to separate them or train teachers on those different elements. We could get into the details of a whole bunch of those elements, but I do just think the lack of systematic reading foundations and reading comprehension instruction in Pre-K–2 has exacerbated inequity in our country. Where you see teachers, schools, and school systems getting very clear and aggressive on those three things, you see reading results grow and improve. We just aren’t requiring that our systems do at scale the things we know scientifically matter and work.

The lack of systematic reading foundations and reading comprehension instruction in Pre-K–2 has exacerbated inequity in our country. . .We just aren't requiring that our systems do at scale the things we know scientifically matter and work.

EF: Just to make this so real, let’s pick one of the three to focus on. Let’s go for foundations, given that your story started there. Recognizing the complexity of the system and the incoherence of it,  if you’re a teacher, and you’re starting this school year, in whatever format, worried about the unfinished learning during a disrupted spring, what do you know works?

RK: We do know that there are some core elements of reading foundations and they do happen when we’re within the K–2 band. We know less about how to teach an eighth grader who’s missing reading foundations—we actually have some research to do there. But we know if you just teach them in sequence, an eighth grader will learn it too, but we think probably they could do it faster. 

But, in PreK–2, we definitely know that there is an order of teaching reading foundations that is systematic. Tim Shanahan writes about this a lot and has provided so much of the summarized research around this.

We know that when every single student in a class is taught foundations in a very deliberate sequence that is well researched, more students are likely to end that year reading on grade level. I think that is a hard for people to grasp because, especially in early reading, they are obsessed with this idea of meeting every kid where they’re at. What that tends to lead to, because we’re not as clear on that exact scope and sequence of reading foundations, is that we default to Lexile level. And so what “meeting students where they’re at” tends to mean in early grades is to find their Lexile level and practice skills with them in any order on that reading level. All of the research shows us that actually doesn’t work—that isn’t the thing we need to meet at their level. It’s not the Lexile level, it’s figuring out where they are at in the scope and sequence of skills and reading foundations. 

EF: Just to make that concrete, can you give us a couple examples of that? What would come first, next, last?

RK: Some of the blending sounds, for example, are really early—being able to just make the sounds of words and actually say the words, to decode them. For example, in the “the” example that I gave earlier, I knew what “the” was, I knew what it meant in a sentence. If I could have decoded it and said “the,” I would have been able to read the sentence. Instead, I read it as “ta-ha” because I did not have the skill to blend the T and the H together. I had learned first, appropriately, each individual sound. So I said, “ta-ha,” and that’s totally logical. So once you get through individual sounds, then you start getting to blends in the English language so that you can start blending the letters. So once I was taught the next thing after each individual sound, I was taught to blend, which is part of decoding, I could then read the sentence and say “the.” That was an appropriate progression. It wasn’t just the practice of reading over and over and over again. It wasn’t, in this case,  background knowledge that I was missing. That matters, but first, you just have to literally be able to read the words on the page and see how much meaning you can make out of the words on the page and breaking apart the reading foundations into things like knowing the letter sounds and then knowing the blending sounds, then practicing fluency over time, so you can do that faster. Those reading foundations position you for more complex reading comprehension. And when they’re not taught, like, if someone had just jumped in and taught me “the” like TH-blending without teaching me the individual letter sounds first, I would also be a very confused kid. Every time I would see a T, I might wonder, Where’s the H and what is the T sound like without the H? You have to learn them in a particular order, and those reading foundations are often not taught explicitly. In this case, you can see how the Lexile level of the book doesn’t matter. What mattered was was I able to practice the next skill I needed. And that is the sort of differentiation we need to be doing with reading foundations is saying, “Where in the skill progression are our students?” That’s a really important question for us right now with students having missed the spring and not knowing what students are going to get this fall. In this case with reading foundations, you do need to check with an assessment and say, In this scope and sequence to reading foundations over the course of about three grade levels, where does the student fall? Start there, even if it is some from a previous grade level, you have to do that part of reading foundations. That’s a totally different approach than reading comprehension, where we don’t need to be as linear, and we don’t need to do as much diagnosing. Again, that’s what makes teaching reading complex because you’re dealing with two different pedagogical approaches.

EF: We had a good conversation with Don Hirsch that delves deeply into knowledge and the role that plays in comprehension as well, for anyone who wants to hear more about that.

What do we see people try, with good intentions, that we actually know doesn’t work? You’ve talked about leveled readers and placing based on that, what else do we know doesn’t work?

RK: Trying to do too much. I think the balanced literacy approach was an approach at the policy level to say, “Let’s just stop the arguments between the whole language people and between the reading foundations people, and we’ll just do balanced literacy, we’ll do a little bit of all of it.” That is part of what is really confusing teachers right now in our system and taking away from the time necessary to teach the elements really well. It’s very confusing to say everything matters in teaching reading, because then when anyone’s prioritizing, which happens all the time in schools, people prioritize the thing they like, or the thing that worked for them, based on some gut instinct, and not on research and science. We need to stop doing that to our teachers, and we need to be explicit with our teachers about what matters most. Reading comprehension is essential, and if you don’t have reading foundations, reading comprehension can’t happen. Reading foundations is like the ballgame in early elementary, and reading comprehension matters and starting to build background knowledge early matters, too, so I don’t want to undervalue that but you won’t go anywhere as a reader without reading foundations. 


Reading comprehension is essential, and if you don't have reading foundations, reading comprehension can’t happen.

An example is my brother who runs a Pre-K–6 school. He just purchased a brand new curriculum, a really great curriculum that has integrated reading foundations with reading comprehension and writing in it. He trained his teachers and they’re super excited and ready to roll. And I walk into the school and he’s like, “Oh, come down to the basement. I’ll show you these amazing things I just got in.” We walked down, and literally it’s an entire basement full of leveled readers. My heart was breaking. And he’s like, “Wait, what? I’m not supposed to do this?” And I say, “This goes against everything you’re teaching in this other curriculum you’re using.” He didn’t totally understand that and the confusion that teachers would feel from that and what would be taken away if he had teachers trying to teach leveled readers in this very explicit reading foundations progression, and the fact that what would likely happen is teachers would abandon the reading progression because they would think that teaching all kids on this reading foundations progression isn’t differentiated enough. So, we send mixed messages to teachers, and then we get frustrated that teachers aren’t teaching reading foundations when we’ve been sending so many complicated mixed messages like, “Differentiate on Lexile, use these, but teach reading progression that’s the same for every kid.” Those things don’t reconcile. 

At system levels, that’s one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made and why it makes the job of teachers in early elementary school so difficult.  That then leads to a whole bunch of little things, such as classroom libraries that are leveled and telling kids they can focus on their grade level, which is a practice that actually harms and gets in the way of kids’ natural instincts to pick books to read books on topics that they like and to actually progress up grade level bands on their own. We have all of these little things that come from the confusion of balanced literacy that play out in really complicated ways, and I would say harmful and damaging ways for kids in our classrooms.

EF: I talk to so many leaders that come from such a place of good intentions, they just want their kids to learn how to read and yet they throw all the ideas at it without really ever feeling very confident in any of them. 

RK: And my brother’s the best, he’s an incredible principal. He’s so passionate. He reads a million things and even he was legitimately confused,

EF: Just google “reading frameworks” and you’ll understand the confusion, right? But, the science of reading foundations is  actually more conclusive than it is on so many of the other topics we’ve been exploring. And the answer is, get a good, systematic curriculum, train your teachers in it, and stick to it and avoid anything else that pulls you out of it.

RK:  I think what I’m about to say feels little bit like heresy in our world these days. You will do better to not differentiate reading foundations in Pre-K–2 than you will to differentiate, and that feels so antithetical to what the whole world tells us right now in education, which is to meet every kid where they are, and it’s all about differentiation, and it’s all about using the data. Our schools and our teachers hear this all the time, and yet the data shows us over and over in reading foundations in early elementary grades, you will do much better by more of your kids if all of them follow the same reading progression. Think about my friend John. John could read “the,” John has an incredible memory, he could memorize that vocabulary word. He’s not harmed by the lesson on the TH blend. John is just fine. 

EF: Because when he gets to “think” he may need it, right? 

RK: Exactly, because maybe he didn’t memorize “think.” It’s not going to set John back because John could read “the” and I couldn’t read “the” and I needed more help on the TH blend. I think this idea of differentiation has been overdone and misguided. The folks at Student Achievement Partners say all the time that,
“leveled books lead to leveled lives.” I do think this obsession to differentiate in the early grades is one of the absolute contributors to the ongoing gap between reading levels in kids. All of the research tells us that we will do better, even if it means teaching every kid the same thing, to teach a systematic reading foundations program to every child in America. Way more kids would read if we never differentiated. Now, if you can differentiate them within that reading foundations progression, great, but let’s just start by teaching everyone to do that first and then let’s iterate from there. We have a deep desire to over remediate, and we do this in math too. And it’s not from ill-will, it’s from a desire to do what the system is saying: Meet kids where they are and give every kid what they uniquely need. And we system leaders and policy people send more unhelpful messages than helpful ones on these points, and in reading foundations that is dramatically influencing the success of our kids.