The Reading Excellence Act: A Breakthrough for Reading Teacher Training

by Robert W. Sweet, Jr.
Co-Founder & Former President
Right to Read Report, December 1998

Robert Sweet is a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Education, White House domestic policy advisor to President Reagan, head of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency under President Bush, and former high-school teacher. In July 1997, he resigned as President of the foundation to become a professional staff member on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

It took just over a year to develop and pass the Reading Excellence Act. This landmark federal bill was signed into law on October 21, 1998. The crafting of this legislation began in earnest in July 1997, and was passed only after months of negotiation and debate. A bipartisan coalition, including the U.S. Department of Education, the White House, and Congress, agreed to support scientific research in reading instruction. It took many congressional hearings and input from leading researchers all across America to reach this historic consensus. States are now developing proposals to qualify to receive grants. The Reading Excellence Act, if its intent is followed, can be a major catalyst in helping to turn back the rising tide of illiteracy, and in ensuring that reading instruction is based on scientific research. Following is a brief technical description of the legislation:

The Reading Excellence Act (REA) provides competitive grants to states to improve reading skills of students and the instructional practices of teachers of reading, by using the findings from “scientifically based reading research”. Mastering the skills of phonemic awareness, systematic phonics, and reading comprehension are essential if students are to become fluent readers.

For the purposes of the REA, “scientifically based reading research” means the application of rigorous, systematic, and objective procedures to obtain valid knowledge relevant to reading development, reading instruction, and reading difficulties. It employs systematic, empirical methods of research, rigorous data analyses, and approval by a panel of independent experts or a peer-reviewed journal.

For the purposes of the REA, the term “reading” includes all of the following skills: the understanding of how phonemes (speech sounds) are connected to print; the ability to decode unfamiliar words and read fluently; and the knowledge of sufficient background information and vocabulary to foster reading comprehension.

The REA expands the number of family literacy programs where two generations are taught to read using instruction which applies the findings of “scientifically based reading research.” It provides early literacy intervention to children who are experiencing reading difficulties. Another objective of the REA is to reduce the number of children who are incorrectly identified with a reading disability and inappropriately referred to Special Education.

Tutorial Assistance Grants are available through the school for students who continue to have difficulty in mastering phonemic awareness, systematic phonics, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. Volunteer tutors will receive training in scientifically based reading instruction as well.

A partnership will be established in each state receiving an REA grant to include the Governor; Chief State School Officer; Chairman and Ranking Member of each committee of the State Legislature responsible for education policy; a representative of one eligible local educational agency or community-based organization that uses instruction based on “scientifically based reading research;” a parent of a public, private, or home-schooled student; a successful reading teacher; and a family literacy provider. A state receiving an REA grant will then make competitive sub-grants to local educational agencies for at least a two-year period.

The National Institute for Literacy will disseminate information on “scientifically based reading research” and information about sub-grantee projects that have proven effective in teacher instruction and in improving the reading skills of students.

A grant received by a state under REA must be at least $500,000. The Congress appropriated $260,000,000 for fiscal year 1999 and authorized the same amount for fiscal year 2000.

Note: The 1999 Omnibus Appropriations Bill (H.R. 4328) was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on October 20, the U.S. Senate on October 21, and was signed by the President on October 21, 1998. You can find the Reading Excellence Act of the 1999 Omnibus Appropriations Bill as well as all information regarding the implementation of the Act, including applications for grants, awarding of grants, dates for future grant awards, etc. at www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/REA.