On October 20, the Virginia Early Literacy Summit brought together leading experts, teachers, administrators, and policymakers for a half-day virtual summit focused on the science of reading.
Nationwide, scholars estimate that about 20-25 percent of children – 12.5 million – struggle with reading. The pandemic has only exacerbated the issue. The event provided an opportunity for educators and division superintendents to learn about the latest research on reading development and how to implement high-quality early literacy programs. More than 500 attendees from across the Commonwealth logged into Zoom or watched the live stream on YouTube.
Opening remarks from Virginia Secretary of Education Atif Qarni and UVA School of Education and Human Development Dean Robert Pianta highlighted the importance of research-based approach to early literacy. “Today’s summit is an opportunity to re-immerse ourselves in the science of reading and its implications for teaching and learning in the Commonwealth’s classrooms,” Pianta said. “As such, I hope it is the next phase of a systematic, programmatic and concerted effort to bring this knowledge out across the state, and to support every educator, child and parent in how to best use what we know as each does their best to promote early literacy.”
Emily Solari, a professor of reading education at UVA whose research includes evaluating reading interventions and programs in school settings, reviewed what the science says about how early reading develops – and what that means for effective literacy instruction.
The research is clear. “There is converging evidence over many decades that has established the scientific evidence base,” she said. So what does it tell us? “First, and importantly, learning to read is not a natural process. It has to be explicitly taught.”
Solari highlighted a framework called the “simple view of reading,” which recognizes two critical pieces of literacy development: word recognition and language comprehension. Word recognition involves learning the building blocks of words – think phonics instruction and decoding – while language comprehension includes vocabulary, background knowledge, and other skills that help children understand what they’re reading.
Effective reading instruction includes systematic, explicit instruction of both foundational reading skills and language skills, Solari said. But that doesn’t mean that reading can’t be fun – an engaging, developmentally appropriate approach invites children to learn by playing with language.
How do we use this knowledge to move the needle on early literacy? First, Solari noted that early screening and instruction aligned with the science of reading are essential. “Reading difficulties do not fix themselves,” she said. “If we can detect difficulties early, we can respond early, and interventions can be more powerful.”
Anita McGinty, a UVA research associate professor and the Primary Investigator of the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) partnership, examined what research says about the way data and screening can be structured to support young children’s learning and took a close look at data from Virginia’s screening process.
Months into the pandemic, the data show that a focus on literacy is key. Applying national projections of learning loss related to COVID to Virginia data, the UVA PALS office estimates a possible 18,000 more kindergarten- and first-graders may be flagged as significantly behind, falling below the PALS summed score benchmark.
Both Solari and McGinty emphasized that Virginia has a uniquely robust screening infrastructure relative to other states. “Virginia has a long history of a commitment to screening and intervention,” McGinty said, explaining how PALS provides decades of standardized data to researchers and a network of connections and resources for teachers. Still, McGinty emphasized that opportunities exist to build on that existing infrastructure.
“We have to recognize that screening, by itself, is going to be an imperfect system,” she said. “Risk and vulnerability exist on a continuum.” While screening is not a comprehensive measure, she said, it is a critical piece of the puzzle. To strengthen the system, McGinty and Solari are working on adjusting measures to align more closely with the science of reading and provide relevant, actionable data for teachers.
In addition to early screening to identify students who need more intensive instruction, Solari and McGinty advocated for investment in professional development to bring systematic, evidence-based reading instruction into all classrooms. Ultimately, Solari said, the best approach pulls on multiple levers, including higher education, state-level policies, curriculum, and parent partnerships.
For all constituents, equity is a central focus of the work to improve early literacy. “As educators we should, at times, take a critical lens to our existing systems to determine if they are serving students as they were intended,” Solari said. “A cursory glance at reading SOL data show inequities in reading outcomes across race, class, and disability status. The data make it clear that improving the system is a matter of equity.”
To wrap up the summit, a panel discussion with school leaders moderated by Jenna Conway, Virginia’s Chief School Readiness Officer, shared insight into what it looks like to implement these practices in schools. Panelists offered practical advice that echoed the importance of a team approach and putting student learning first.
“We believe that poverty does not have to impact a student’s ability to learn or succeed,” said Zebedee Talley Jr., superintendent of Martinsville Public Schools. “Our young people have the ability to achieve if we believe in them.”
James Lane, superintendent of public instruction for the Virginia Department of Education, provided closing remarks. The summit was sponsored by the UVA School of Education and Human Development, the UVA K-12 Advisory Council, the Virginia Department of Education, the Office of the Secretary of Education, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, and the Virginia Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
For a full recording of the summit, visit the University of Virginia School of Education & Human Development YouTube Channel.