Reading is an incredibly complex, unnatural process. Unlike learning to speak, our brains are not wired to learn how to read through mere exposure to print. Reading needs to be taught directly, explicitly and systematically using an evidence-based approach.
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, suffer. 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 one of the biggest achievement gap between those who can read and those who can’t in the country.
At Groves, we have developed a learning program for students with learning disabilities that works. New test results show Groves students continuing to gain about 2 ½ year’s growth in reading comprehension each year. Yet 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.
We have also found that what works for Groves students, works for all students. From a research perspective, the characteristics of good reading instruction include it being explicit, sequential and systematic, multisensory, and developmentally appropriate. The four components of the Groves Literacy Framework are quality core instruction, data-based decision making, response to intervention, and time for professional collaboration. Groves reading instruction also addresses the five strands of reading determined important by the National Reading Panel in 2000: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
It is critical that students learn to read by the end of third grade because in fourth grade the focus of schools changes from teaching students to read to having students read 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 students 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 to read at grade level.
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 students need to have phonemic awareness, the ability to sequence and segment sounds found within words; we know students need to have an understanding of symbol-sound associations and word parts—syllables and morphemes; we know students need to become fluent readers (read with accuracy and an appropriate rate and prosody); we know students need to develop a sufficient vocabulary in order to comprehend what they need; we know students need to be explicitly taught different question types and need to learn how to derive meaning from different types of writing; and, finally, we know students will learn to read better and faster when the above components of reading are taught explicitly and systematically by a 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. According to practitioners of this approach, 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. These practitioners will say, “Don’t worry. He will read when he is ready to read. The light bulb will turn on.” How sad this is for the affected child.
All students deserve to find pleasure from reading, and using this erroneous approach with emerging and struggling readers does them a great disservice. We know how to teach kids 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 was head of The Greenwood School in Vermont, a boarding school for dyslexic boys, prior to becoming Head of School at Groves Academy in St. Louis Park in 2005. He also headed The Chartwell School, a school for dyslexic students in California. John holds a Master’s degree in Reading and Language Disabilities from Harvard University and has taught graduate-level classes in language structure and in diagnostic-prescriptive teaching. John served on the Minnesota Board of Teaching’s State Reading Task Force and was instrumental in the creation of new reading standards to better prepare teachers to teach literacy skills to struggling and emerging readers. He has recently been asked to serve on a national committee for reading reform.