A Reading Teacher’s Science of Reading Journey: The Ups, Downs and Everything In-Between

August 17, 2023
A Reading Teacher’s Science of Reading Journey: The Ups, Downs and Everything In-Between

Hi Literacy Lovers,


A note before reading

The intention of this post is not to point blame or shame anyone but rather to inspire other teachers and educators to keep going on their science of reading (SOR) learning journeys despite obstacles in the road. We teach our students to engage in productive struggle, think flexibly, and overcome obstacles, so we must learn to do the same.

The Disconnect: 

Students are Critical Thinkers. 

Teachers who are Critical Thinkers are Troublemakers

We teach our students to be curious critical thinkers, ask questions and be inquisitive.

We tell our students that it’s okay to take risks and not be afraid of doing things differently.

Because challenging our way of thinking helps us to grow as learners. Right?

But what happens when teachers are curious and wonder if the way they were trained to teach reading isn’t working for many students?

What happens when teachers are critical thinkers of the resources they are given to teach reading and writing?

What happens when teachers ask questions like “how are we helping our students with reading disabilities” and “why do we not have any experts on Dyslexia in our school district?”

What happens when teachers challenge their way of thinking and risk teaching reading differently, in a way that is not supported by their school district?

I’ll tell you what happens. Because it happened to me. My name is Stephanie (*I’m withholding my last name in fear of repercussions from sharing my story with others). And this is my story. 

Several years ago, I was hired as the Special Education teacher at my school. I had over a decade of classroom experience but no experience teaching in the special education role and I was excited for this new challenge! Literacy was my passion yet I never felt like I could reach all of my learners as a classroom teacher. Each year, I would send three or four students off to the next grade without the skills they needed to be successful readers, thinking they just needed more time and then reading would somehow just click. I also kept my fingers crossed that these students would eventually get an Individual Education Plan (*an IEP a document created for students who have learning difficulties, are behind in reading, have diagnosed learning disabilities, and/or need special accommodations) to state they were behind in reading and get the extra, small group support they needed.


More Questions than Answers

My passion for literacy, coupled with a few Special Education courses and Professional Development workshops, and I felt naively equipped to help the children that I wasn’t able to “catch” as a classroom teacher. However, to my surprise, I was seeing the progress I had expected with small group instruction. By the end of my first year as the Special Education teacher, I had more questions than answers:

  • Why weren’t my students learning to read at the same rate as their peers?
  • Why weren’t my small groups working? 
  • What did I need to do differently? It was abundantly clear that small group instruction, using the same instructional strategies I’d been trained to use, wasn’t working and my students were still not able to read proficiently.

Throughout the year, I participated in Collaborative Inquiry (CI) groups with other primary teachers, but they also had the same questions and no answers. We just kept going in circles with no expert at the table to guide us. I turned to the literacy consultants. I asked my Vice Principal and my Principal. But no one could tell me how to get my non-readers reading other than to put them on an IEP and hope for the best. I was running out of people to ask for help.  So, as a last resort, I decided to find answers myself. I applied to the Master of Education program at my local university and was accepted as a part-time student so I could keep teaching, too. My goal was to figure out what the scientific research says about teaching students to read and, more importantly, how to help them learn how.

After graduating from the Master of Education program, I once again had more questions than answers. I now knew the reading research but still needed to learn the approach, the practical “how-to” instructional strategies to teach students to read in the classroom setting. So I reached out to a local private reading center and asked them if they could train me and teach me “the magic” because no child walked away from that center without knowing how to read. This inquiry led me to a teacher training center about 3 hours away from where I lived. It would be a big commitment but they promised to train me in something called the “Orton-Gillingham” approach which, I was told, was an approach to reading instruction that worked for students with dyslexia (aka reading disabilities). I figured I’d gone this far with my training, so why stop now! So I registered for the two-week course, paid for it with my own money, and it was the investment I’d made in my entire career. After two weeks of training, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot! But I still left with one question: Why wasn’t I taught this before

After taking my Orton-Gillingham training, I immediately started implementing this explicit, systematic approach to reading and writing instruction in my small reading remediation groups. I also began using it in the whole class setting with my 29 kindergarten students that I taught part-time. I thought to myself, why should students have to be behind in order to get this approach to reading instruction? What if I use this approach in the whole class setting and try to prevent them from being referred (to me) for small group remediation!

I felt like I had won the lottery! After over a decade of failing so many students, I finally knew how to teach ALL of my students to read. I wanted to shout it from the mountain tops and share everything I’d learned with everyone I knew.  First, I went to my Vice Principal and said “I know how to teach kids to read! Like REALLY read, without the help of a computer or someone to read to them!”. She listened but had a lot on her plate at that time and was more focused more on the behavior needs of our students. So I went to my principal and said the same thing “I’ve learned how to teach kids to read! I think I can help other teachers learn this approach, too!” 

His response was, “our kids need more than what we can provide them; we need to get their behaviors under control first and then maybe focus on reading.” I persisted and said I felt that the student behaviors were a symptom of, or reaction to, their inability to read or understand what was expected of them when they didn’t have the foundational skills to do higher level tasks. But this was a foreign idea and I was unsuccessful at convincing him to allow me to share what I knew with teachers in our school. Still feeling hopeful that someone would listen to me, I went to one of my school board trustees, or members. And then to my local Member of Parliament who apparently was also dyslexic and had been homeschooled throughout his elementary school years because his mother felt the system couldn’t teach her son to read. Sadly, that meeting came to a dead end when the MPP’s term came to an end before we could have a second meeting. 

Going Up the Ladder

I started to feel a sense of urgency. Why wasn’t anyone hearing me? I had just finished my M.Ed (on my own time) and spent another 2 weeks on Orton-Gillingham training (on my own dime) and wanted to share my knowledge with others so they didn’t have to spend the time or money I had just spent. There was a lot of talk of EDI: equity, diversity, and inclusion in my district so I decided to take my “I know how to teach kids to read!” speech to the Equity Coordinator at the Board office. But I was told that Literacy was not part of his portfolio (what the heck?!? Literacy was not part of the Equity coordinator’s portfolio?!? That’s an entirely different blog for another time!!) and he encouraged me to speak to our Literacy Team. 

So I reached out to our Literacy Team, as well as the Superintendent of Literacy Curriculum. I repeated my “I know how to teach kids to REALLY read!” speech but was told that my “views on literacy” did not align with the school district’s vision for literacy (which I later realized was solely to hire a consultant, an expert in the area of phonemic awareness, and then purchase his book for teachers in our school district). When I asked the literacy team for the research that supported the practice of doing PA without letters, I was told: “Go find it yourself” because they were “too busy” to look for any research. I had just finished my Masters so I knew where to find the reading research. And I did. And it did not align with what my school district was doing.

I felt defeated. I had done all this training and no one was interested in listening. I was in my little bubble, in my classroom, making a difference for 30 or 40 students while thousands of others were still being referred to private tutors and clinics because their teachers did not have the information they needed. 

The Last Resort

As a last resort, I wrote a letter to my director. I said that I had specialized training that could help other teachers in our board learn how to teach more students to read. I explained that I could help teachers understand that an IEP doesn’t help students with dyslexia if we don’t have any teachers trained how to teach them! I said students with reading disabilities CAN read when they are taught with an explicit, systematic approach to reading, following a scope and sequence, and with early identification of future reading difficulties followed by immediate, evidence-based remediation.  

To my astonishment, the Director of Education invited me and a colleague with similar training into a meeting! We had prepared an outstanding presentation, defining the scientific research on how children learn to read (think Seidenberg, Dehaene, and Gaab), outlining the foundational skills students need to be proficient readers and writers, aligning the research with our school district’s mission statement for more equitable learning outcomes, and offering to provide teacher training and mentoring for FREE.

I remember my Director’s reaction because it felt like the ground had fallen out from under me. They said that they had heard about what we were doing and told us that our literacy team did not want to meet with us. We were challenging them and the direction in which they were moving teachers, and polarizing our school district. I was in such shock that I didn’t know what to say. For the first time in my life, I was speechless. Had they not heard us say that we knew the reading research? Did they not understand that we knew an approach that would ensure more students would learn to read? Did they not hear us say that reading was a human right in our country and that there was currently a human rights inquiry into how reading was being taught in school boards across our province and we knew how to improve reading instruction? Was this just a terrible dream? Was taking my Masters of Education and Orton-Gillingham training a mistake? I left that meeting feeling crushed, defeated, and hopeless.

For several weeks after that, I did not know what to do next. I cried. In the words of an anonymous teacher on Emily Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast, “I kept my head down” out of fear of losing my job, meaning all of this work, time, and money would be for nothing. Most of all, I couldn’t stop thinking of our students, students I knew I could help but wasn’t able to. I was being silenced. I was made to look like the black sheep. It was a terrible time. Colleagues that I considered to be friends stopped talking to me. Other teachers in my school district started reporting me to the teachers union. My union told me that I was making other teachers look bad for not wanting to do professional development during the summer break. I was told to back down or they would not support me in the future. 

When my own daughter was struggling in school, I reached out for help and the teacher reported me, inferring that I was judging her ability as a teacher to meet my daughter’s needs.  I was called in by the school principal and told I was “a teacher first, parent second.” I was no longer allowed to advocate for my own daughter’s needs. 

Shortly after, a superintendent called me at home to tell me she wanted to vet my slides before doing a presentation for Parent Council on students’ right to read; the superintendent said I wasn’t allowed to share information that may look negatively on the district nor was I permitted to share any data on the number of students in our board who graduate unable to read proficiently (which, by the way, is around 30%). 

Shortly after, I had a second superintendent come in to observe me teaching in my classroom because I’d been reported so many times by my colleagues. I lived in fear of losing my job, a job that I loved very, very much.

Don’t Wait for Change, Be the Change 

One summer, I decided to take matters into my own hands and not wait for my school board to provide literacy training to teachers. I started a Science of Reading book club. I had read dozens of books on the Science of Reading but yearned for the opportunity to discuss the learnings with others. I sent a memo to teachers in my district and to my amazement, by the end of the week, I had 67 teachers signed up for this SOR Book Club! Clearly, teachers DID want to learn this information and were happy to learn it on their own time. The idea caught on! There are lots of Science of Reading Book Clubs popping up!  

I ran the book club throughout the year, recommending one book and offering one virtual discussion group at the end of each month. The excitement was growing. I knew teachers were hungry to learn more but were limited by time; there were so many books but not enough time to read them all. With time constraints in mind, I started a Podcast Club. Similar to a book club, I recommended one podcast episode each month and a group of teachers would meet virtually to discuss it. I started a “snacks and screeners” at my school where staff would get together to watch a documentary while eating lunch, such as Nessy’s free, award winning film, “Mical” and a documentary titled “Our Dyslexic Children.” I started offering family literacy workshops at the local libraries in an effort to educate parents and caregivers on the way reading should be taught in public schools. I started doing webinars and podcasts for organizations across the country. I also started a Science of Reading Lending library so that teachers in my school didn’t have to spend their own money to buy books, they could borrow mine and learn along with me. Momentum was building.

A Breakthrough

In the winter of 2022, something monumental happened. Ontario released a Human Rights report after a two year inquiry into the way reading was being taught in public school across our school board. And the inquiry found that schools were systematically “failing” students’ right to read and robbing them of future opportunities. Literally the next day, I received an email from my Director. They were now ready to listen to what I had to say. 

Once again, I repeated that I had my Masters of Education and knew the reading research; I had Orton-Gillingham training and knew the explicit, systematic approach that was essential for struggling readers; and now, I had experience training and coaching other teachers, in other school districts, across our country. My director was finally open to the idea of change, interested, and said they would like my help. 

After the Human Rights report was released, the Ministry of Education gave school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to take immediate measures to train teachers and provide them with “evidence-based” resources in preparation for a new, evidence-based literacy curriculum that would be released in fall 2023. So I was stunned when my director said there was no money to compensate me for my time to train other teachers in the school board and teach them about the science of reading. I was shocked again when they said there would be no release time to do this training during the school day and I had to train teachers during my evenings and weekends, and possibly during my summer break.

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: The Letter of Discipline

A few months later, I received a letter of discipline from my school board’s Human Resources Department. Human Resources said they called me in because of the pressure they were receiving from staff in the district to stop what I was doing. I had lost the support of my union so my union representatives didn’t help me fight this letter. Every day, I carry the burden of knowing that I have a letter of discipline on my record and my job is in jeopardy. 

Growing my Science of Reading Community 

Since the day I received a letter of discipline from my school board, I have devoted all of my time, energy, and passion to working with those who want to work with me. I got a contract with the Department of Education to help revise the new language curriculum; I have met people in the science of reading field- experts- that I have so much respect for, including Christopher Such, Kareem Weaver, and Tracey Weeden. I have led dozens of Literacy Workshops for parents and caregivers of children who struggle to read, who do not have the money for private tutoring. I have been working harder than ever before to share my knowledge of evidence-based practices with those who want to learn and are not afraid of change.

My heart is full when I teach a struggling or non-reader to read. I see their confidence grow as they learn the “magic code” (ex. letter/sound correspondence). I’ve taught children whose parents are incarcerated, children who are in foster care, and children who are black, brown and indigenous, to read. Illiteracy has no boundaries and I want to do my part in helping to break any boundaries that may prevent them from having a literate future that is full of possibility. OHRC Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire said, “Knowledge is power, but only if it is shared.” This idea drives me to keep learning and sharing what I learn. 

I still teach my students to be curious critical thinkers, ask questions, and be inquisitive.

I still tell my students that it’s okay to take risks and not be afraid of doing things differently.

Because that’s what I did and that’s what I’m going to keep on doing. Because our kids are worth it. 

If you are the parent or caregiver of a child who struggles to read, you are not alone. Follow this link to Parent for Reading Justice for more information on how you can ensure your child learns to read and write in the public education system. 


Thanks for reading, Literacy Lovers! 

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Topics from this blog: Literacy knowledge building Science of Reading