On May 23, the Luminos Fund convened leading education experts to discuss the U.S. reading wars and refocus attention on the crucial task of teaching children how to read. This was the second webinar in the Luminos Method series, which also marked the launch of our latest Luminos Method element: Phonics for First-Generation Readers. This Method element is a user-friendly resource designed for governments and education organizations, combining the latest research on effective phonics instruction with our best practices developed through years of experience in some of the world’s most challenging contexts.
Emily Hanford, Senior Producer and Correspondent, American Public Media
Dr. Benjamin Piper, Director, Global Education Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Caitlin Baron, CEO, Luminos Fund
Watch the webinar below:
Journalist Emily Hanford, celebrated for her in-depth, investigative podcast, Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong, set the scene by providing an overview of the current state of reading instruction in American schools. Dr. Benjamin Piper of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation drew on his extensive experience working in low-income countries, and shed light on the journey of learning to read in such contexts. Of the many valuable lessons they shared, here are five that stood out:
1) We are facing a global learning crisis.
The global learning crisis transcends national boundaries, and the consequences of this crisis are far-reaching, hindering social and economic progress and perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. In the U.S. and around the world, far too many children are not learning to read.
“7 in 10 kids worldwide can’t read at the age of grade three, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, that’s 9 in 10 children. 90% of kids can’t read by the end of their third-grade year, age 10… Learning levels in these foundational years have lasting impacts on children’s low learning trajectories and future life prospects overall.”
Dr. Benjamin Piper
2) All children can benefit from a phonics-based approach to reading instruction, especially those in low-income countries.
Research consistently shows that explicit and systematic phonics instruction is an essential part of a comprehensive approach to foundational literacy. This approach promotes inclusivity and equips children with the tools they need to become successful readers. This is especially important for first-generation readers who are growing up in homes without books or parents who can read to them — phonics-based instruction equips them with the tools they need to become independent, confident readers.
“We work with students who are often the first in their family to learn to read, coming from homes that may not have a single book and coming from environments where the printed word is not a familiar thing. Most importantly, many of the students we teach are actually learning to read in the language they don’t speak at home. When you think through all of these extraordinary barriers to learning to read, it starts to become clear why a systematic step-by-step approach to teaching kids to learn to read is all the more essential.”
Luminos students in Ethiopia practice their reading skills using readers with local stories and illustrations. (Photo: Mekbib Tadesse for the Luminos Fund)
3) Partisan political and ideological concerns have highjacked the debate on reading instruction.
The U.S. debate surrounding reading instruction has unfortunately become mired in partisan political and ideological concerns, diverting attention from evidence-based practices. It is crucial to refocus the conversation on research and best practices, ensuring that decisions about reading instruction prioritize the needs of children above all else.
“If you’re a mom of a kid who’s struggling to read, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, or a Democrat or Republican, you still care about this issue… And I’m hoping that means we will start to get the politics out and just do what we know is best from a lot of scientific research about how to teach kids to read.”
4) The key to academic success and social-emotional well-being is grounded in foundational literacy skills.
Foundational literacy skills serve as the cornerstone of academic success and social-emotional well-being for children. These skills not only establish one’s reading abilities but also contribute to broader cognitive development, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Moreover, mastering foundational literacy skills empowers children, instilling confidence and a sense of accomplishment which positively impacts their overall well-being and engagement in the classroom. By prioritizing and strengthening foundational literacy skills, educators can set children on a path toward lifelong learning.
“If we put a bright light on the foundational skills and really make sure that kids are mastering those, that allows them to experience success in school.”
Luminos students in The Gambia during a literacy lesson. (Photo: Lena Nian for the Luminos Fund)
5) Teaching children how to read is not easy, and teachers need support.
Teaching children how to read is undoubtedly challenging, and explicit phonics instruction can often be new to teachers. They need ongoing coaching and support to help children become successful readers. It involves adapting teaching strategies, providing individualized support, and fostering a joyful classroom environment.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in classrooms in Sub-Saharan Africa and India in the last 16 years having lived here. [In] well-designed programs where teachers are trained and supported to teach these programs that are not only phonics but include phonics, you see the magic of having these kids track with their fingers as their teacher is reading the word, and actually seeing the relationship themselves between the letter sounds and the words.”
Dr. Benjamin Piper
Equitable and Effective Reading Instruction for All
The webinar served as a platform for educators, policymakers, and advocates to contribute to the global conversation on one of the most critical issues facing education today: how to teach children to read.
The insights shared by our speakers reinforce the urgency of prioritizing evidence-based reading instruction for all children. With continued efforts and collaboration, the global community can strive towards equitable and effective reading instruction for future generations.