Throughout her long and varied career devoted to the science and practice of reading education, Dr. Louisa Moats has waged a dedicated campaign to improve the way reading is taught in American classrooms at every level. She has written two books for parents with co-author Susan Hall—Straight Talk About Reading, 1999 and Parenting a Struggling Reader, 2002; she has authored a number of papers for academic journals on subjects from dyslexia to the importance of phonemic awareness as a crucial part of reading instruction; and she has also authored and co-authored policy papers focusing on improving teacher training and professional development. In 2010, Dr. Moats was part of the team behind the Common Core State Standards for reading.
Dr. Moats is the founder of LETRS, Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling—a professional services firm devoted to helping teachers develop and maintain high standard, science-based classroom practices. In 2013, Dr. Moats received the International Dyslexia Association’s prestigious Samuel T. and June Orton Award for outstanding contributions to the field.
You can learn more about Dr. Moats and her body of work at her web site: http://louisamoats.com/
How did you first become interested in the science and teaching of reading?
My first job, after graduating from Wellesley, was as a technician in a newly established neuropsychology laboratory at the New England Medical Center. I learned to give neuropsychological tests to adults and children who couldn’t use language, read and/or write for various reasons. That experience piqued my interest in teaching students with learning disabilities. After earning an M.A. in special education (learning disabilities) at Peabody College of Vanderbilt, I still didn’t know how to teach the students with reading, spelling, and language difficulties because the field was new and nobody knew what they were doing. I bumbled along in various education-related jobs, realizing that much of what I had learned was useless. Years later, I applied to the Harvard Graduate School of Education because I had to get a doctorate to keep my job at the New England Medical Center. My doctoral program taught me the basics of research design, analysis of evidence, and statistics.
After I finished my degree, Reid Lyon and I both lived and worked in Vermont between 1982-1990 and worked on various projects in the state. Dr. Lyon, who was conducting research, reviewing research, consulting on research grants, and applying research in clinical practice, had a profound impact on my appreciation for the National Institutes of Health reading research program and what we could learn from it. He left Vermont to direct the reading research program for the NICHD about 1990 and thereafter included me in meetings with top researchers. I eventually became a Co-Principal Investigator on a major NICHD project in high-poverty schools.
You mention in your 2012 interview with the International Dyslexia Association (available here: https://www.youtube.com/
I’ve always been frustrated by the prominence of fads and wild, unsupported ideas that prevail in education. But lately I’ve become more forgiving. Last year I attended a meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading (SSSR) and realized that the gulf between education (teaching) and scientific research has been created and perpetuated by both sides. Researchers often do not consider the educational import of their studies (or are discouraged by grant givers, professional organizations, and journal editors from doing so). Simultaneously, education courses, textbooks, and conferences de-emphasize the importance of evidence in decision-making and do not require teachers to base their judgments or practices on research. It’s a two-way problem.
We had a few golden years during the Reading First initiative (2002-2008) when qualified researchers were speaking frequently at meetings of educators, knowledge of research-based practice was promoted and valued, and instructional programs were better aligned with research-based practice. We’ve been back-sliding lately, or certainly not making the progress we should be making in changing the substance of teacher education, the standards for education publishing, or the content and methods of instruction.
How did your understanding of learning disabilities like dyslexia grow during your fifteen years in private practice as a psychologist?
Over those years I must have seen at least 2,000 individuals. I developed a keen ear for the presenting symptoms reported by parents, teachers, and individuals. I learned that a student’s developmental, family, and educational histories were key in making diagnoses. Meanwhile, I was attending IDA (and other) conferences and learning from researchers, clinicians, and teachers. I was able to witness how my clients fared over many years. I was able to see how few of my clients were lucky enough to have well-trained, highly effective teachers. I was also able to see, over the long-term, the factors that enabled students to be resilient and to cope, including the importance of a supportive adult and the importance of compensatory skills and strengths. I came to appreciate the uniqueness of many students’ profiles, and the relatively infrequency of “classic cases” of any conditions of LD. Dyslexia can be mild or severe, can occur across all levels of intelligence, and can manifest itself as a circumscribed problem of nonsense word reading and spelling, or as a mix of many language-based processing weaknesses. Variation is the norm.
How did you first meet Susan Hall?
In 1998, Susan called me when I was working in Washington, DC, on the recommendation of a colleague. She needed a content expert for a book she was writing (Straight Talk about Reading). She talked me into working with her. I was impressed by her professional, methodical, practical approach and her MBA from Harvard! We are still colleagues who communicate frequently.
Both your books with Susan Hall, ‘Straight Talk about Reading,’ in 1999 and ‘Parenting a Struggling Reader’ from 2002 spend a good bit of time explaining, functionally, how schools work and how that translates to the ways in which children are instructed. Do you think parents now (via the internet) have more access to this type of information and more importantly, is there more active dialogue between schools, experts and parents? (Both books are available for order with Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=louisa+moats+susan+hall)
Several groups, such as Decoding Dyslexia, IDA, Literacy How, Literate Nation, and Reading Ally are using webinars, conferences, blogs, and social media to advance awareness and advocate for individuals with reading difficulties. These efforts have enabled the kind of political organizing necessary to put pressure on state governments to pass legislative guidelines for student services and teacher training.
In reading your list of journal articles over the years, there’s a common theme that arises: in 1995 you published ‘The missing foundation in teacher education,’ in 1996 you published, ‘Wanted: Teachers with knowledge of language,’ and in 2012, you published, ‘Still wanted: Teachers with knowledge of language.’ Where are we today in terms of teacher training in the fundamentals of language and linguistic concepts and bridging the gap, again, between what’s been known in reading research for many years and the classroom?
It’s difficult for me to know. My impression, from our group’s work with teachers all around the country, is that only rarely are teachers required to take a course on the fundamentals of language structure or the processes of language learning that are so closely related to reading and writing. If states don’t require a course or two, then none is taught. In addition, many teachers themselves were never taught about language structure in grade school. I’ve had licensed teachers ask me, “What is Latin?” So phonemes, graphemes, morphemes, complex sentences, conjunctions, and so forth are an utter mystery. We have to provide a basic education in the English language while we are also trying to teach the teachers how to teach the students in front of them. It can be overwhelming.
The implementation of the Common Core has de-emphasized the importance of the fundamentals. Until and unless there is consistent, unrelenting, unambiguous guidance from federal agencies and the states, and consistent support from major professional organizations, the chasm between reading science and classroom practice will continue.
Relatedly, is there a teacher preparation college program or programs out there that are making strides to rectify this longstanding gap?
The IDA began to accredit teacher training programs three years ago. About 20 college and university programs have been found to align with the IDA Knowledge and Practice Standards, and another dozen are undergoing review. A reading instruction competency test aligned with IDA’s Standards is in development and will be used for teacher certification.
The National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has been working for years to evaluate and rank textbooks, teacher licensing programs, and practice teaching experiences to assess their alignment with scientific reading research. NCTQ found a few programs that actually did a great job preparing teachers — such as Texas A & M and Southern Methodist University in Texas.
The state of Ohio is making gains in requiring university faculty to study current research and update their course syllabi. The state of Connecticut has been moving in the right direction for several years.
In 2010, you and Dr. Marilyn Adams wrote the Foundational Reading Skills Section of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). You’ve commented that since the swift implementation of Common Core testing, “Systematic, cumulative skill development and code-emphasis instruction is getting short shrift all around…” When it comes to reading, how do policy makers and educators begin to turn this around and bring on the ground teaching methods to a place where they can hope to meet what you described as the ‘lofty standards’ of Common Core?
Focus on acquisition of foundational reading and writing skills in the primary grades. Use assessments that are instructionally meaningful — that measure phoneme awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, alphabet knowledge, letter formation, sentence writing fluency, and verbal expressive skills such as retelling and summarizing. Allow for individual differences in rate and manner of learning, while expecting continuous progress in students of varying abilities. Most importantly, expect teachers to demonstrate an understanding and use of data relevant to the major components of instruction and the developmental processes of reading acquisition. Stop the punitive uses of CCSS-related assessments!
In the big picture, where are we currently in the (seemingly neverending) battle between whole language, now better known as ‘balanced learning,’ vs. scientifically based reading research (SBRR) programs?
I’m afraid we are not where we should be. Progress is slow. Few teachers are trained to teach or use programs that teach the structure of language explicitly and systematically, including phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, grammar and syntax, usage, and text structure. Balanced Literacy practitioners will tell you that they teach all those things—with a mini-lesson here and there—but there is no systematic skill development. The right words are thrown around without a deep enough understanding of what they mean in practice. Until teachers are selected, trained and supervised differently, we won’t see any real change.
Can you provide any insights into how parents can best advocate for their children—both at the local level, within their school or district and on the national policy-making level—to ensure they are receiving quality reading instruction?
Organize. Join with other parents who care about systematic, research-based reading instruction. A group of five can change a whole district. Do your homework; study IDA’s fact sheets and publications, not only for information about dyslexia but also about the whole process of learning to read.
Tell the administrators in your school what is and is not working for your child—not just academically but socially and emotionally. Opt out of inappropriate tests and instead ask for assessments to guide planning and instruction. Protect your child’s access to courses and activities that he/she enjoys or that build confidence. Ask administrators to learn the basic facts about dyslexia and learning difficulties. Press the issue of teacher qualifications and training.