#AskExcelinEd: Why Can’t Millions of Kids Read?



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?

The Science of Reading: Phonics v. Whole Language

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.

What is Scientifically-Based Reading Instruction?

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.

The Fab 5

  1. Phonological Awareness – A child’s awareness of the sound structure of spoken words. It encompasses awareness of individual words in sentences, syllables and awareness of individual sounds in words.
  2. Phonics – Teaching how to connect the sounds of spoken words with letters or a combination of letters and teaching students to blend the sounds of letters together to read unknown words.
  3. Fluency – The ability to read at the appropriate rate with accuracy and proper expression.
  4. Vocabulary – In general, vocabulary can be described as oral vocabulary or reading vocabulary. Oral vocabulary refers to words that we use in speaking or recognize in listening. Reading vocabulary refers to words we recognize or use in print.
  5. Comprehension – Understanding of text read.

How you teach the Fab 5 is also important. Explicit and systematic instruction is key!

How Can We Fix America’s Reading Problem?

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!

Up Next!

Read the next blog post in this series:

#AskExcelinEd: How Can States Fix America’s Reading Problem?

Solution Areas:

Early Literacy

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