Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning


Who is to Blame?

As I have mentioned on this literacy blog, we have a reading crisis in this country.  Approximately 30% of our nation’s fourth graders do not read at a basic level (they can’t decode the printed word); over 60% of our nation’s fourth graders can’t read proficiently (with good comprehension).  These dismal scores provide fodder for politicians, the media, and the general public to vociferously criticize teachers.  “For heaven’s sake, why can’t Billy read?”

Do teachers really deserve this blame?  I don’t think so.  The primary blame lies at the feet of two constituencies, higher education–colleges and universities, which prepare teachers and are supposed to be the beacon of scientific inquiry–and state departments of education, which are responsible for teacher licensing and knowledge standards.  As evident by the course requirements for most undergraduate programs, the teaching of reading is not highly valued in the world of education.  I think most of us would contend that learning to read is the most important skill that a child can acquire in school.  Without the ability to read proficiently at a minimum of sixth grade, a child is wandering down a path that will most likely lead to a dark future.

School district administrators–principals, directors of curriculum and instruction, and special education directors–as well as reading specialists and literacy coaches shoulder some of the responsibility for poor reading scores.  Not only should they be providing appropriate professional development for their teachers (especially the kindergarten through third grade teachers), they should also be pressuring higher education and state departments of education for stronger knowledge standards in reading that teachers must demonstrate mastery with in order to receive a teaching license.

Finally, teacher unions share the blame.  Speaking from experience, teacher unions are resistant to change that affects their primary stakeholders, teachers.  Isn’t it ironic that teachers are the primary stakeholders of teacher unions, not students?

There are plenty of constituencies who share the blame for our nation’s literacy crisis.  The question now becomes:  Will anyone step forward and do what is needed to affect meaningful change?  We know how children need to be taught for them to learn to read.  We can do it.  Will we?

John Alexander, Head of School



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Are One In Five American Students Dyslexic?

A recent contribution on a literacy thread, Spelltalk, reported that one in five American students are dyslexic; they are students with reading, spelling, and written expression difficulties due to the way their brains are wired. This created a great deal of controversy with many people claiming that the number was way too high. I wonder whether it matters.

I think the best way to think of the teaching of reading is that all kids  learn to read with differing amounts of personal effort and with differing amounts of explicit instruction required. Kids on one end of the reading continuum have neurological wiring issues between areas of the brain that, for whatever reason, do not work efficiently. This wiring impacts specific areas of the brain’s ability to communicate with one another, and this impacts their ability to read fluently; kids with wiring issues themselves fall on a continuum. You can have real significant wiring issues or you can have minimally impacted wiring issues. The wiring issues help determine (but don’t solely determine) how quickly kids learn to read fluently and proficiently. I believe that Shaywitz in Overcoming Dyslexia states that these kids make up almost one in five of kids who are not reading at the basic or proficient reading levels. For 20% of our students, there is a brain-based reason for their struggles with reading.

An issue of equal, if not greater importance, are the kids who have more traditionally wired brains but who still don’t learn to read fluently or proficiently. Given the NAEP scores across the country, this problem is an epidemic. About 30% of our nation’s fourth graders don’t read at a basic reading level. (They have difficulty decoding the printed word.)  About 60% of our nation’s fourth graders don’t read proficiently (with good comprehension). These kids aren’t dyslexic. They are ELL kids; they are kids from poverty with a single parent or being raised by relatives; they are white middle class kids; they are everywhere. These kids are instructional casualties.
Many years ago, Louisa Moats, one of the nation’s reading experts, said that teaching reading is rocket science. We know more now. We know that good reading instruction is good reading instruction. Kids need to be proficient with phonological processing; at a young age, they need to be able to segment, sequence, and manipulate sounds within words; they have to have an understanding of the alphabetic principle to the point of automaticity; they need to understand syllable patterns and morphological structures of words; they need to be able to read fluently; they need to have an adequate oral vocabulary; and they need to be taught comprehension strategies to help them understand what they read. In short, as Moats says, they need to understand the  relationship of speech to print, and in the early years, their spelling instruction needs to complement their decoding instruction. All of these skills sets need to be introduced and mastered in an appropriate developmental scope and sequence of skills.  We know that explicit instruction is better than implicit instruction. Simply stated, we can’t expect teachers to impart the relationship between speech and print to their emerging and struggling readers if teachers don’t understand the relationship between speech and print. The vast majority do not.
We can’t control where the kids are coming from, but we can control critical variables of instruction including: the content and instructional knowledge of the teacher; the curriculum used; the intensity of the instruction (reading group size); the frequency of instruction (how many minutes a day do the kids receive explicit instruction?); the duration of the instruction or the intervention; and the appropriate grouping of students for reading instruction based on their reading skills.
Children in reading programs that identify these variables of instruction and are both intentional and thoughtful about the delivery of the instruction can, and do, make significant gains in their reading–both in fluency and in comprehension. I believe we can attain reading proficiency with 90%+ of the student population when such a program is implemented, provided it is implemented with knowledgeable teachers who teach with fidelity and who can be diagnostic-prescriptive in their approach.
Don’t believe teachers who say that kids all learn to read differently. They don’t. Reading science shows us this.
Finally, if 60% of fourth graders can’t read proficiently, does it really matter if one in five American students are diagnosed as being dyslexic? All students–dyslexic or not–deserve good reading instruction.
John Alexander, Head of School