The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveals that 63 percent of American fourth-graders are not proficient readers.
Children who are not reading on grade level by the end of third grade are significantly more likely to drop out of high school and end up in the criminal justice system. Some try to use poverty as an excuse for poor readers. But the truth is much less forgiving: nearly all kids can become strong readers if they are taught the right way.
So, why aren’t all kids learning to read?
To understand why kids aren’t learning to read, we need to know how kids do learn to read.
The recent APM Reports documentary Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read? captures the history of reading education. In recent decades, “whole language,” or the newly-repackaged version “balanced literacy,” has engaged in a contentious war with phonics.
Phonics instruction teaches students that words are made up of parts and showing them how different letters and combination of letters connect to the speech sounds in words. Whole language, on the other hand, relies on students’ experience with and exposures to texts for them to figure out how words work.
The problem with the whole language approach is that it assumes reading is a natural process, like learning to talk. But it is not. In fact, decades of scientific research show that the human brain isn’t wired to read. Instead, children must be taught how to read.
Unfortunately, many American schools are still using whole language or balanced literacy instead of scientifically-based reading methods to teach reading.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress released the National Reading Panel report, which concluded the research-supported methods to teach kids how to read. What exactly did that report find?
As mentioned, direct teaching of phonics is critical, but by itself is not enough. Students need what is intimately referred to by some, as the “Fab 5,” which includes phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
How you teach the Fab 5 is also important. Explicit and systematic instruction is key!
Next week, we’ll look at how a couple of states have tackled this challenge to ensure all students leave third grade with the reading skills they need to learn, graduate and succeed. Stay tuned!
Read the next blog post in this series: