Reading & Literacy

‘Science of Reading’ Reforms Show Student Gains in California, Study Finds

By Sarah Schwartz — December 04, 2023 6 min read
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Reforms rooted in the “science of reading” improved student test scores by the equivalent of a quarter of a year of learning, a new study from California shows—providing some of the first evidence that recent policy efforts to bring early reading teaching in line with research have led to gains in student achievement.

The study, from researchers Sarah Novicoff and Thomas Dee at Stanford University, examines the effect of California’s Early Literacy Support Block Grant, targeted to support K-3 instruction in schools in the state with the lowest 3rd grade reading scores. Beginning in the 2020-21 school year, the program provided more than $50 million in new state funding for literacy initiatives with a focus on science-of-reading-aligned pedagogy.

In schools that were eligible for the grant, students’ 3rd grade English/language arts test scores rose by 0.14 of a standard deviation more on average, when compared to scores from students in schools that were not eligible—a moderate increase that the researchers estimate equate to 25 percent of a year of learning. The study also found smaller positive effects on 3rd graders’ math achievement.

The findings demonstrate the promise of evidence-based reading reforms, said Dee, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.

What Is the 'Science of Reading'?

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. ...

At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.

Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.

Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

“We’ve had this kind of enigma where the enthusiasm for the science of reading hasn’t been matched by really clear success in implementing the pedagogy informed by the science of reading at some scale,” he said. “It’s my sense that this is the first evidence of that occurring with apparent success.”

A study earlier this year from researchers at Michigan State University found mixed outcomes among different state early literacy laws. In states that had comprehensive policies—legislation that provided support, training, and funding for instructional change, and implemented 3rd grade retention—students made bigger jumps on standardized tests than in states with a less comprehensive approach.

Program design and implementation likely also played an important role in this Stanford study, Dee and Novicoff said.

California’s grant program didn’t just require schools to make instructional changes; it also offered financial and programmatic assistance—helping schools develop needs assessments and literacy action plans, offering guidance, and striking a balance between oversight and flexibility to tailor resources to local context, Dee said.

“Part of the story here is that these trainings may need to be paired with other support,” said Novicoff, a doctoral candidate in educational policy at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. “This program is quite distinctive in that, yes, teachers are being trained, but they’re also being placed within an infrastructure that is better than the infrastructure that they would have otherwise had.”

California’s grant program offered schools funding, supports

The literacy block grant arose from the settlement of a 2017 lawsuit.

In Ella T. vs. the State of California, the plaintiffs alleged that the state had violated its constitution by sending students to schools that didn’t teach them how to read. The case settlement allocated $50 million over a three-year period for evidence-based reading reforms in the state’s schools with the lowest 3rd grade reading scores.

The grant program mandated that districts and charter management organizations first conduct root-cause analyses to understand the specific needs of eligible schools. Each school had a “literacy action plan,” which schools implemented starting in summer 2021, created with input from school staff, leaders, parents, and community members.

Schools could spend funds in one or more of four categories aimed at improving K-3 instruction:

  • Hiring new staff or providing professional development toward high-quality literacy teaching;
  • Purchasing diagnostic assessments or instructional materials;
  • Providing other student supports such as tutoring or after-school programming; or
  • Providing family and community support, such as parental outreach and training.

Schools had to submit quarterly expenditure reports and an annual report demonstrating progress toward the goals outlined in their plans. This framework held schools accountable to the program aims, but also allowed them to tailor support to their local contexts, Novicoff said.
“You want some degree of oversight to help schools pick things that make sense. But you also want schools to have flexibility to make the choices that they need,” she said.

Schools also had a designated resource they could turn to for guidance—the Sacramento County office of education, which became the state’s “expert lead in literacy” through a competitive-grant process. The office hosted informational sessions on components of evidence-based instruction, facilitated an online reading academy, supported schools in drafting their literacy plans, and held office hours and monthly learning sessions for literacy coaches.

As more than half of states have passed new legislation requiring evidence-based reading over the past few years, experts have warned that strong implementation plans are key: Mandates without support won’t lead to student progress, they have argued.

If states want to see strong results from science of reading reforms, Dee said, “we need to pay attention to these kinds of design and implementation details.”

Can schools sustain success long term?

To determine the effects of the grant program, the researchers compared elementary schools that were eligible to elementary schools in the state that were not. But they also conducted two other analyses.

The schools that were eligible for the grant program were by definition low-performing, so the researchers also compared them to a separate control group, which included other elementary schools that were also lower-performing, but did not fall below the cut off to qualify for the grant. Finally, they also compared 3rd graders in grant program schools with 5th graders in the grant program schools. They found that 3rd graders were also making bigger gains in comparison to their 5th grade peers, suggesting that it was the grant program supports and not other school factors causing the change.

“We have multiple design strategies here, that are all pointing in the direction of the positive impact we find,” Dee said.

The program was also cost effective, the researchers said, averaging $1,144 per student—creating a return on investment that’s greater than general increases in school funding.

Still, Novicoff and Dee caution that the increases in standardized test scores may not transfer to broader skill gains on other measures. It’s also possible that the positive effects in 3rd grade scores could fade out over time, or that schools may not be able to maintain the momentum.

“Whether schools will be able to sustain that success is an open question,” said Dee. “It’s a three-year grant. The money will run out at some point. Will they have to get rid of literacy coaches or instructional aides who may have been a critical part of the success of this?”

Teacher turnover is another potential concern, said Novicoff.

“Maybe these teachers have learned skills that will persist with them, and these teachers will continue to be really successful at teaching reading for future cohorts,” she said. “But it’s also possible that a lot of the teachers that these programs trained will leave these schools.”


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