When it comes to the teaching of reading, it is imperative that we get it right the first time. If we don’t, our students and ultimately society suffers. Unfortunately, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2011 test scores, we are not getting it right the first time. Forty percent of Minnesota’s fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level, meaning they can’t identify words in print. Almost 70% of Minnesota fourth graders cannot read proficiently (with good comprehension). Sadly, Minnesota has the biggest achievement gap between those who can read and those who can’t in the country.
Only ten percent of children who do not read at grade level are dyslexic and have a neurological reason for their difficulty with the printed word. Ninety percent of students who read poorly are instructional casualties. They have never been taught properly, largely because their teachers have not been trained properly in colleges of education. It is critical that students learn to read by the end of third grade as this is when the focus of schools changes from teaching students to read to having students reading to learn. If students haven’t learned to read by the end of third grade, they will hit the proverbial “brick wall” in fourth grade and beyond. It is also imperative that a student with a reading disability be identified and proper forms of intervention provided by the start of third grade. If not, there is only a 25% chance that that student will read at grade level during the next nine years of school. Unfortunately, our current system of identifying these students doesn’t do so until fourth grade or later. Many students never have a chance.
What makes reading failure so frustrating is the fact that we know how to teach reading to all students; there are no secret ingredients. We know that students need to have phonemic awareness, the ability to sequence and segment sounds found within words; we know that they need to have an understanding of symbol-sound associations and of word parts—syllables and morphemes; we know that they need to become fluent readers (to read with accuracy and an appropriate rate); and we know that students need to develop a sufficient vocabulary in order to comprehend what they read; we know that students need to be explicitly taught different question types and they need to learn how to derive meaning from different types of writing; and, finally, we know that students will learn to read better and faster when the above components of reading are taught explicitly and systematically by a highly knowledgeable teacher.
While reading researchers have conducted a multitude of studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are reading “experts” who feel they know better. They feel that students will learn to read better using a child-centered, constructivist approach in which the student directs his learning; the teacher is merely the facilitator. If a student is not reading to his potential or if he is not at the same reading level as his classmates, it’s because he is not ready to learn to read. Practitioners of this approach will say, “Don’t worry. He will read when he is ready to read. The light bulb will turn on.”
All students deserve to find pleasure from reading, and using this approach with emerging and struggling readers does them a great disservice. We know how to teach them to read. It is our responsibility as adults to teach them with evidenced-based practices. To do anything less, impedes not only the individual child but society at large.
John Alexander, Head of School, Groves Academy