Teaching Kids to Read: Education’s Climate Change Crisis

Let’s start with the facts. Researchers know what it takes to teach children to read. Many teachers do as well, though most do not. This is history’s most studied field in human learning. Yet, despite mountains of data telling us what works, just over a third of U.S. fourth and eighth graders read on grade level. A trend that’s barely budged in a quarter century.

Public education, in its own version of climate change denial, remains unable to take decisive action towards change despite insurmountable scientific evidence of the dire consequences at stake. The issues are known, as are the solutions; yet, for a myriad of reasons I touch on below, progress remains minimal.

 
 

As long as poverty has been a facet of the American economic landscape (always), it’s been one of the excuses relied on to explain away poor reading outcomes for those students. We are now seeing cracks in that defensive front. In a recent plot twist (gasp), wealthy and suburban (White) families are discovering their students aren’t reading as they should either.

Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught. But many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.

Now that the issue is reaching beyond Black, Brown, Native, and poor students, the depths of the challenges are finally receiving widespread attention. Emily Hanford at APM Reports has done excellent reporting titled “Hard Words. Why Aren’t Kids Being Taught to Read?” She digs deep into Bethlehem, PA which mirrors much of the country where, by some estimates, one-third of struggling readers come from college-educated families.

 
 
 

New Mexico’s most recent reading scores on NAEP.

 

Emily’s reporting is simultaneously eye-opening and infuriating. She does a bang up job of explaining the history and issues at play. She’s also interviewed on the Education Gadfly and Voices 4 Ed podcasts. All New Mexicans must make the time to either read the article or listen to the podcast. We know what works, but do we have the courage, leadership, and fortitude to realign our systems to what works for students, instead of adults?

There is no debate at this point among scientists that reading is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught by showing children the ways that sounds and letters correspond.

According to all the research, what you should see in every school is a heavy emphasis on explicit phonics instruction in the early grades. There is no evidence this turns kids off to reading or makes reading harder. In fact, it’s the opposite. If you do a good job teaching phonics in the early grades, kids get off to a quicker start.

After several listens through, my top takeaways are:

  1. “Balanced Literacy” and “Whole Language” are undying myths: “Balanced literacy was a way to defuse the wars over reading. It succeeded in keeping the science at bay and allowed things to continue as before.”

  2. Ignorance (not refusal) is the primary culprit: “Too many teachers, school administrators and college professors don't know the science.”

  3. Data and science aren’t necessarily destined to prevail: “One thing that we've learned from climate change and the other issues over which we have polarization in this country is that facts aren't the thing that change people's beliefs. In fact, confronted with data that contradict deeply held beliefs, instead of bringing people closer together, it can have the paradoxical effects of entrenching them further.”

  4. “Science of Reading” training works really well: “In 2015, before the science of reading training began, more than half of the kindergartners in the district tested below the benchmark score, meaning most of them were heading into first grade at risk of reading failure. At the end of the 2018 school year, after the principals and kindergarten teachers were trained in the reading science, 84 percent of kindergarteners met or exceeded the benchmark score. At three schools, it was 100 percent.”