Teaching Teachers the “Science” Behind Early Reading Instruction

As a university instructor who teaches literacy courses to current and future teachers, I of course read Emily Hansford’s At a Loss for Words, which raised the important question:

What does the research say about HOW to teach early literacy skills to teachers?

Or, as I put it for my children, who often ask me what I’m working on:

What do we know about how to teach teachers to teach kids how to read?

This led me to write this piece for Reading Research Quarterly’s second special issue on the Science of Reading. In our article Laura, Barb and I read all of the research about how to teach teachers to teach kids to read to answer that question. A few key takeaways:

  • Pre-service teachers need phonemic and morphological knowledge to teach early reading skills, and likely profs aren’t spending enough time on this. Let’s beef up this knowledge!
  • Practice teaching early literacy skills is KEY for building this knowledge. It just won’t stick without practice, and the quality of that practice matters.
  • We don’t research the practice part enough, so we don’t know as much about to know how much practice or what kinds of practice teachers are receiving or how we can do it better.
  • We need better assessments to gauge pre-service teachers’ knowledge of early reading instruction, and data from these assessments can help us figure out our students’ gaps so we can fill them in.
  • We aren’t paying enough attention to diversity in the research, and as a result some profs might be sending mixed messages to teachers about which kids “need” phonics instruction (spoiler alert, it’s all of them!)

For more on this topic, check out our article:

Tortorelli, L., Lupo, S. M., Wheatley, B., (2021). Examining teacher preparation for code-related reading instruction: An integrated literature review. Reading Research Quarterly, second special issue on the science of reading.

As always, please contact me if you are unable to access it and I will help you access this work.


How do I teach whole group reading lessons online?

Recently, a teacher asked me, so now that my classes are fully online, how do we teach whole group reading lessons? I thought this was a great, blog-worthy question so I’ve provided my answer and a sample lesson (both in synchronous and asynchronous formats) below.

Step 1: Evaluate Texts and Mode of Reading in Each Unit (read aloud vs. read independently)

First, I would examine the texts you have selected for your unit and decide a) if you would read aloud the text, b)  have students read the text independently (both with supports you will provide), or c) a combo of both: perhaps you read aloud a part of the text, then have students read part on their own. This step includes evaluating the complexity of the text (can students read it independently with supports?) as well as considering access (do you have the book in a digital format that students can read? Is it on epic or reading A-Z? Or, if you want students to read excerpts, which I recommend, can you snap photos of a few of the pages?)

I would make sure that you have a nice combo of opportunities for students to both listen to you read aloud as well as read some texts independently. This might mean adjusting the texts you have selected for your unit to ensure that there are enough texts students can read independently (thinking both about access and complexity).

What does this look like?

For example, let’s say you were teaching a third grade unit on ecosystems and mapping. Here are the texts you settled on using and the choices for read aloud vs. independent reading vs. combo of both for each text.

Hook/Engage with TopicSimpler Background BuildingVisual or multimodal textsChallenging TextsDecodable Texts
Texts that demonstrate why it is important to learn about different ecosystems and geographic locationsTexts that show students different aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems or geo- graphical features of North and South AmericaVideos or multi-modal texts that build background knowledge about different ecosystemsTexts that show students the relationship between different components in an ecosystems and how the geographic features impact those systemsTexts about ecosystems that students can read at their level to develop basic reading skills during guided reading
Carl and the Meaning of Life by Deborah Freedman (READ ALOUD)          Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner (READ ALOUD)

  I see a Kookaburra! Discovering Animal Habitats Around the World (COMBO)  

There’s a Map on my Lap: All About Maps (Cat in the Hat) (COMBO)  
Brainpop Jr. Ocean Habitat Video

Brainpop Jr. Grassland Habitat video
Social Studies book:  pgs. 6-16 North America  pgs. 18-24 South America

Students could each research a different animals and habitats (aquatic or terrestrial) from either North or South America from various internet resources
Up in the Garden, Down in the Dirt by Kate Messner (READ ALOUD)
What do you find in a backyard?   2.2

What do you find in a coral reef?  2.2

What do you find in a pond?  2.2

Desert Giant The World of the Saguaro Cactus  3.2

Exploring Ecosystems  3.2  


Step 2: Developing Before, During, After Reading Supports

Next, I would develop supports- before, during, after scaffolds- just as you would with in person instruction. I would organize these in handout- or in one place in seesaw (or something similar). I’d put ALL the supports for one text in ONE place (one doc, etc.)

As you develop your supports, think about incorporating a lot of write to learn opportunities so that you can collect and view students thinking about and related to the texts. This is an opportunity for you to respond and interact with students through writing, even if it’s not directly or in the moment.

What does this look like?

For example, let’s explore before, during, after scaffolds for Carl and the Meaning of Life.

Before reading: Students respond to a prompt in a journal entry: Think about how different organisms, such as bugs, animals, trees, plants live in the same place. Who eats what? Who lives where?

During reading: Use a DR/TA or stop and jot down ideas at designated stop points.

After reading: Respond to the pre-reading prompt again and add ideas, be specific about things that happened in the story that show how animals, plants, and insects are connected to each other.

Step 3: Planning Delivery of Instruction

Instruction Around Read Alouds:

Then, I would figure out if you are going to incorporate the read aloud portions during synchronous instruction (meaning, all your students are online live with you) or if you are going to record your read aloud so that students can watch on their own.

If synchronous (e.g., reading aloud on a zoom call): I would then plan your lesson not too differently than you would in person instruction, with considerations for how students can interact using the chat feature, small groups, or sharing out.

As you plan, consider how you will engage students in the before reading activity (could this be something kids do BEFORE they join the zoom class? If so, send that work ahead of time and make sure students know what to do before coming). This could be a journal entry about a topic related to the text, for example. Then, read aloud the text and think about your stopping places or during reading supports, just as you would in person! Consider how you will engage students (use the chat feature? Ask students to share out? Students stop and jot on their handouts?) while reading.

What does this look like?

Here’s an example handout you can use with Carl and Meaning of Life  in a synchronous setting where you are reading aloud live to your students.

Your “lesson plan” might look like this:

  1. Ask students to share ideas from their journals via chat or talking
  2. Introduce the book and walk through the first three pages and look at pics. Ask students to predict what the book will be about.
  3. Read aloud the book and stop and the three designed places in the “during reading” section and respond to the prompts and have students revise their predictions. You can stop more often too!
  4. After reading, ask students to first respond to the post journal, then share ideas. Students could go into small groups and share/discuss and bring back one idea to the big group if you have that capacity.

Asynchronous Instruction (your students are watching this on their own, not live with you): I would plan your lesson in a way that you could encourage students to interact with the text. You can create instructions in your handout for students to do before, during, and after reading. Record your read aloud, or find a read aloud of the book you want to read already available. If you record your own read aloud, you could walk students through the different activities before, during, and after reading. Lastly, consider other ways that you can interact with students, or have them interact with each other. Could they post a response in a message board after reading and then respond to each other? When they turn in their handout, can you leave some comments for them about their ideas?

What does this look like?

Here’s an example handout you can use with Carl and Meaning of Life in an asynchronous setting, where you have provided supports and a read aloud for your students to watch.

Note: What would change for reading independently or a lesson that had both a read aloud and then some time for students to read independently?

If you have students read independently, you can use a similar model to the handout described above, providing supports for students. Make sure to find ways to interact with students, either in a zoom setting after reading where students can share/talk, or in a chat board where students can post responses.

For combo lessons (that include part read aloud and part reading on their own), if you meet with students live first, you can read aloud part of the text, then set students free to finish the text on their own. Or, you can reverse that! Students can read a little bit before joining the session, then you can finish the text by reading aloud and then have a discussion after reading. You can also record the partial read aloud and students could watch, then do their reading independently. It’s key to find ways for students to feel supported while reading and also interact with you and each other.

Resources for Science Teachers

Here are some resources for teachers to support literacy in science.

Great places to find texts:

What the Research Says About Text Difficulty and Knowledge: What Helps Struggling Readers

Thanks to everyone who joined me today at the VSRA to discuss this topic. Please keep in touch!

For further resources, check out:

Comprehension Instruction K-5


Quad Text Set Examples Grades 3-5:


Target Text: The Presidency by Taylor-Butler

Visual Text: School House Rocks The Executive Branch

Informational Text: The President, Vice President and Cabinet: a look at the executive branch by Landau

Young Adult Connection: Grace for President by DiPucchio


Target Text: Relationships Between Organisms

Visual Text: Crash Course in Predators

Informational Text: What Would You Do With a Tail Like This by Jenkins and Page

Young Adult Connection: Who Would Win Series by Pallota and Bolster


Target Text: From Seed to Plant by Gibbons

Visual Text: From Seed to Flower

Informational Text: The Tiny Seed by Carle

Young Adult Connection: Counting Pumpkin Seeds by McNamara

Language Arts

Target Text: For the Unknown Enemy by William Stafford

Visual Text: Graphs/InfoGraphic of Military Deaths in WWII by Country and Website for Exploring the National Monuments

Informational Text:  U.S. Veterans Day parades and ceremonies honor those who served (from Newsela.com)

YA Connection Text: The Bracelet

Resources for Teaching Comprehension to Students Grades K-5

Useful Websites:








Good Internet Reads:

Dr. Wright’s Vocabulary Read Aloud

Should We Teach 100 Sight Words to Kindergarteners by Marcia Invernizzi

Five Literacy Practices to Abandon by Nell Duke

Why To NOT Share Reading Levels With Students

Recommended Books:

Inside Information by Nell Duke

Thirty Million Words by Dana Suskind

Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg

Interactive Read Alouds with a Vocab Emphasis

We know that read alouds are important, but not all reading is equal. Interactive read alouds emphasize certain elements of early comprehension instruction that the research has shown can maximize growth for students. In particular, vocabulary development.

I’ve shared this video before, but I will share it again because it’s a fantastic example of an interactive read aloud with attention to vocabulary.

Additionally, check out some useful resources, including an observation protocol for a evaluating an interactive read aloud and some protocols and research about how to conduct read alouds.

Scaffolding Comprehension in Middle School

Susan’s Quad Text Set Example

Target Text: For the Unknown Enemy by William Stafford

Visual Text: Graphs/InfoGraphic of Military Deaths in WWII by Country and Website for Exploring the National Monuments

Informational Text:  U.S. Veterans Day parades and ceremonies honor those who served (from Newsela.com)

YA Connection Text: The Bracelet

Brittany’s Quad Text Set Example

Target Text: Flowers for Algernon

Visual Text: Excerpt from The Ringer (24:00-36:00)

Informational Text: Article: Down Syndrome Misconceptions vs. Reality

YA Connection Text: Teens With Intellectual Disability Have It Harder by Marie Hartwell-Walker

Laura’s Quad Text Set Example

Target Text: Fall from the House of Usher (Poe)

Visual Text: The Haunted Mansion movie cover

Informational Text: “Why Horror is Good For You (and Even Better for Your Kids)” by Greg Ruth

YA Connection Text: Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning in The Series of Unfortunate Events

Building Background Knowledge Example: Hiroshima

Target Text: How Hiroshima Rose From the Ashes (newsela.com)

Video: Obama visits Hiroshima and Meets Survivors

Lesson materials

Possible Sentences: Congress Example Lesson Materials

Probable Passage Example:

Graphic Organizer

Text: Life Along The Nile

Recommended Reading:

Why Students Think They Understand When They Don’t by Dan Willingham

The Usefulness of Brief Instruction in Reading Comprehension Strategies by Dan Willingham

New Writing Panel Recommendations

Recommended Resources: