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    Why we are failing to teach every child to read

    One flaw is being blinded by average reading scores, masking the students who are falling behind. Another is the regimented, stuffed curriculum, which crowds out time for teaching each child to read by the early elementary years. But reading is not just another subject; it's the fundamental and crucial skill.

    Learning to read is essential for success in school, and it takes individualized attention to each child.

    Learning to read is essential for success in school, and it takes individualized attention to each child. KIPP Bay Area Schools

    In a recent article I wrote that when educators set student progress goals in terms of averages, particularly with regard to “closing the achievement gap” and increasing reading test scores in the early elementary grades, they blind themselves and the public to what really needs to be done. It gets worse, for another reason I will discuss a few paragraphs below.

    First, to review my earlier point. I argued that administrators, district superintendents, school boards, and other policy makers quite regularly and nearly universally look at class and school test score averages to show — when they go up — that the system is improving, kids are doing better.  Well, yes, sorta.

    But measuring school district and school success or failure by looking at average test scores automatically means that some kids and sometimes whole schools in low-income neighborhoods get left behind. An average hides the fact that some kids can read at grade level or above and some just cannot.  In this way, our K-12 education system, self-evaluating in terms of average student test scores, utterly fails every child who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade (our universal target right now) or any other grade.

    Our educators have failed those kids, lots of them, who are below average and don’t read anywhere near grade level because, well, the average is moving up, isn’t it?

    To avoid this statistical trap and to stop hiding this failure from parents and the public, I proposed that educators should adopt a different way of measuring.  They should deem grade-level reading by third grade an absolute standard and provide each child sufficient instruction to reach that plateau. This should be done at all costs, since teaching kids to read, if you think about it, has to be the fundamental goal of our K-12 schools, particularly in the early elementary years, K-3. And in that previous essay I suggested looking at the Kennewick School District between 1995 and 2005, to see that even in heavily low-income school districts, 90-95 percent of third graders can reach the grade-level reading target within existing resources.

    Wouldn’t it be preposterous if our educators threw up their hands and said, “we can’t do that, it would cost too much”? (Don’t hold your breath. It’s almost certain someone right here in Seattle will say that, though the chief impediment is not too little money.  It’s long-standing practice and state regulations determining how time is used in elementary school.)

    By the way, teachers see EACH child; they don’t think in averages. But in their classrooms time just runs out — move on to the next subject, the school day ends, whoops, summer vacation! — before the job is done.

    In any case, there is a second reason our schools can’t manage to get our kids properly reading at grade level in the early elementary years, a mindset possibly more responsible for the problem and more damaging even than thinking in averages. It’s this: Educators at all levels, and this time I include many teachers, don’t understand the difference between a skill and knowledge.

    A skill is something you learn to do with varying levels of proficiency depending on how long you work at it or practice. Reading is a skill. Shooting free throws is a skill. Proficiency usually requires long hours and in some cases, such as reading in elementary schools, proficiency may take several years of practice with increasingly difficult sentences and vocabulary.

    Most importantly, having certain skills will determine success or failure in various endeavors. A child who is unable to read, won’t get much out of school, won’t gain much knowledge. In fact, if a child can’t read it doesn’t matter how good a teacher she’s got in front of her. Skills can be essential. Reading is essential. Sometimes being able to swim is essential. Shooting free throws is useful, but not essential the way reading is.

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    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 7:53 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is a nice enough piece, but I think that the time you're spending differentiating skill from knowledge is truly a distinction without a difference. It sounds great, but part of the problem I perceive with schools today is that there's a great class of people who suck the resources away by going around and peddling a lot of education fads that sounds great.

    Further, and not to denigrate the good work done in Kennewick, their 09-10 state tests show a 3rd grade passing rate of 74.2% in reading. The 90% reading goal is one to strive for, but goals aren't always met.

    Frankly, a lot of what you describe here sounds like college students cramming for a final. Got your philosophy 201 test tomorrow? Bone up on Nietzche. Are you a third grader who struggles? No fun in school for you--it's going to be reading, reading, and more reading at the expense of PE, music, social studies, and art. Want to see the light of learning die? Make Johnny stay in the classroom and run phonics drills while everyone else goes out to recess.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 7:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    Reading and math are tools. You use these tools to do everything else.

    Being able to read well enables all other learning. If you can read easily and enjoy reading, any text becomes a source of learning.

    Likewise, if you find basic math easy and enjoyable, anything that depends on basic math is easier and more enjoyable.

    I can't imagine what it must be like to not have these tools. If reading is difficult and a chore, anything that depends on reading must seem deeply unpleasant. No wonder students reading below grade level do not enjoy school and perform poorly in school.

    Dick Lilly is right, we should make sure students have mastered the basic tools of reading and math at grade level. Those tools make everything else easier.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    "We" aren't failing to teach every kid to read. Many parents are.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    At the same time as individualized reading instruction is called for, equal attention needs to be paid to each child's ability to take in instruction. What I mean is: maybe some kids can handle more than one hour of reading class & maybe that's more than some can take in. After a certain point, a child's ability to simply pay attention fully & absorb material & information is going to hit overload. Kids need to move their bodies, not just sit like little statues for hours at a time; how many kids learn better kinesthetically or multimodally? Can't reading be taught through other other activities like math, music, art, social studies, science, PE. Because reading needs not only the how to's but the whats--the content to make it even worthwhile TO learn to read & not get bored out of one's gourd! Where are the studies that show reading is also learned as incidental learning & simply as a part of a child's overall learning, not only as a specifically taught skill? And how too much drill & kill WILL become overkill. Hook 'em on reading, don't book 'em into reading jail. (And the pun there was unintentional!)

    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 9:59 a.m. Inappropriate

    I’m glad the author makes an attempt to distinguish between knowledge and intellectual skills.

    When one recognizes the difference, one can better appreciate what (good) teachers do. That is, if a teacher is merely a dispenser of knowledge, then teaching is a pretty meager affair. However, if a teacher must know things and be an excellent coach, then teaching is much more challenging.

    This is, in part, the same debate about de-skilling teachers. When the focus is largely on knowledge distribution, the curriculum comes to the fore; we just need to figure out what admixture of subjects makes for an intelligent person. When the focus is on skills, the teacher comes to the fore; a professional teacher will be able to best gauge what his/her students need and how to get them there. This is also a class issue since children from more affluent families come with many intellectual skills already developed.

    Clearly school should be balance of knowledge and skills, but the author is right to note that current debate attempts to make skills training fit into a hole designed for knowledge distribution.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 10:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    BlueLight is spot on in this case. Of course, this piece was about education in the schools. Still, though, considering it was about why children can't read, I was surprised not to see any mention of parents. I could read when I entered kindergarten, and always read higher than my grade level. I credit my parents entirely with this. It is because of them that I became a writer and editor, not because of school or college. Not that I didn't get anything out of school or college. But had it not been for my parents reading to me early, I wonder if my school would have been able to take up the slack.

    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    Benjamin Lukoff was lucky to have parents who taught him to read before he entered school. So was I.

    Not all children are as lucky. Since children don't choose their parents, they should not be punished for life for getting a family that doesn't teach them to read at home. I'm not sure they should be punished for life even if they could choose their parents.

    The promise of universal education is that these kids get a fair equitable start - regardless of their families' support of their education.

    What kind of cold-hearted jerk would tell a seven-year-old "Sorry, but your family isn't supportive enough of your education for you to read well enough to be successful at school, and we, as a society, don't care to fill the gap because it might cost us an extra $14 a year. Sucks to be you, second-grader, but you're a loser for life."

    Is that really the position that we want to take and defend? BlueLight? Mr. Lukoff?

    Even if the students' families are horrible people in every way - that's not the child's fault and it does not diminish our obligation to teach the child to read.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Those of you who can read should read this from the Washington State Constitution:

    It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.

    That's the law. That's our commitment as a society. Want to back away from that duty? Then work to get the law changed. Until then we accept that duty and we work to fulfill it on our honor.

    Ample provision for children with families like mine or Mr. Lukoff's isn't much. Ample provision for some other kids is a lot more. That's the reality. It is OUR reality to address and we cannot shirk that responsibility.

    The very idea of grown people shirking their responsibility to children is disgusting. Using the children's dysfunctional families as an excuse to do less for the child - rather than doing more for the child - is repulsive. We need to provide for these children specifically because their families do not. The fact that their families don't support their education gives us a duty, not an excuse.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

    Coolpapa, I am by no means saying this is entirely the parents' responsibility and that the state has no interest in the matter. We are all better off if everyone is educated. If I didn't believe this, I'd call for the elimination of all public instruction, across the board. There are people out there who advocate that (perhaps BlueLight?), but I'm not one of them.

    We absolutely must make up for those cases in which parents do not teach their children to read. And I don't blame the parents entirely. They themselves may not have been taught to read by their parents, and may have been failed by their own schools.

    "We need to provide for these children specifically because their families do not" is spot on.

    All that having been said, I was still surprised to see no mention of parenting anywhere in this piece. I would be interested to see a breakdown of the home environments of children who read below grade level, or can't read at all. Is it that their parents don't care? If so, why—because they don't understand the value of being able to read, or because they think the schools will take care of it? Do they have to work too many hours in order to support their family, so they don't have the time to read to their children?

    We should be looking at root causes at the same time as we strengthen the safety net. If we don't do the former, sooner or later everyone will need the latter.

    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    I think one change we need to make: flip the tax code to recoup the cost from those having babies. Rather than a tax "deduction", parents should see their tax rate go up with every new mouth/cost they inflict on the system.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 12:49 p.m. Inappropriate

    How about a tax gift to the families whose children commit suicide? (as long as they die without inflicting further costs on society.) Bluelight is right, people are a burden on society and the sooner they die the better... or was that from Scrooge in Dicken's novel. I keep getting these two guys mixed up.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    Mr. Lukoff, we can take it as given that children who cannot read have not be taught to read or have not had sufficient reading practice. Any part of that instruction and practice that they did not get at school is attributable to a gap at home.

    There. The attribution analysis is done. Now we can turn our attention to the students and providing them with whatever they each - individually - need to become fluid readers.

    Seriously, I don't know what sort of analysis you're looking for or what benefit you imagine the analysis will provide. What difference does it make which of the large menu of reasons that a child's reading isn't supported at home? Except, of course, to that child and the people with the task of teaching the child to read. What would be the benefit of aggregated data? Each case must be addressed individually.

    If you had the data and analysis, what would you do or stop doing that wouldn't otherwise? Distribute children's books to low-income families? Skip the analysis and do it. Promote the value of reading to children? Skip the analysis and do it. Encourage families to bring their children to the library? Skip the analysis and do it. Really, no analysis or study is needed.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    We're supposed to be entering the "user pays" era, aren't we Gary? We're tolling roads and passing all kinds of "fees" based on this principle. So why not apply the "user pays" approach to the tax code? No kids, tax rate = 15%; one kid, tax rate = 20%, etc.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 3:30 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Why do we subsidize parents?"

    Ok, I'll bite, its because when you are the most fertile you are at or near the lowest level of income producing that you'll ever get. Second, children are the future of the society, especially for those who wish to close the door to immigration. So we give a tax break to parents who raise children because it benefits all of us even with the additional expense of schools, roads, health care etc. The theory being that when they grow up, they'll be tax paying folk who will cover the rest of us.

    Perhaps a tax deferment is what you would agree to? Or is depopulation as in countries like Italy and Japan where the birth to death ration is negative the plan? After all the easiest solution to global climate change would be a mass die off.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 3:37 p.m. Inappropriate

    Oh and BlueLight, the fundamental difference in our outlook is that you believe "Everything you earn, you earned on your own with no help from society. Hence any tax you pay which does not directly benefit you is a taking by the government" And I believe "That sharing the burden of the uncontrollable costs of events is like buying insurance. When I need care/money it will be there for me. And fortunately I haven't needed it." That is to say government is a way of leveling the opportunity field via regulation, education, and protection. That funding is necessary for the running of government and that those who can pay more should. Even if their direct benefit is not in proportion to their payment. ie Sick children get full care even though they are nothing but an expense until they reach adulthood.


    Posted Tue, Apr 5, 3:51 p.m. Inappropriate

    The reason that the tax code includes a personal exemption for each dependent in the house is the same reason that the tax code includes an exemption for the taxpayer(s). It is because there is some absolute minimal amount of money needed to preserve life and that minimal amount of income is not subject to taxation.

    It is not to encourage child-rearing (I don't know anyone who had children for the tax deduction). To suggest that the tax code favors children is an ignorant statement. The tax code just doesn't tax the few dollars needed to sustain each life (child or adult) in the household. After all, there is no requirement that the dependent be a child.

    That said, the government does undertake some efforts when there is consensus agreement that the endeavor serves the common good - such as universal public education.

    Schools, like national defense, public safety services, public health services and such are not subject to user fees because people do not choose to use them. They are provided universally because they serve the common good, people cannot do them for themselves, and they cannot be entrusted to private providers.

    There is a proper role for government no matter how much neo-conservatives and other anarchists want to eliminate it.


    Posted Wed, Apr 6, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

    A second interesting statistic is that a huge number of prison inmates are functionally illiterate. (http://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/illiteracy.html) Since prison costs us 3x what schools cost us in warehouse costs alone, it would make sense to catch these kids when they are young.

    Of course one could infer from the Mortgage security fraud that literate criminals just don't end up in jail but that's another day's rant.


    Posted Wed, Apr 6, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

    Maybe your social security entitlement should be means tested on whether your child turned out to be an asset or liability to society...


    Posted Wed, Apr 6, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

    either we hang together, or assuredly we'll hang separately. Ben Franklin.

    And that's still true today. Either we are a nation all pulling together, and we take care of each other in our times of need and we'll all succeed or as individuals we'll all fail. And to start with everybody who can should be taught to read. It's in all our best interests, regardless of how irresponsible, poor or illiterate your parents are.


    Posted Wed, Apr 6, 11:08 p.m. Inappropriate


    What difference does it make which of the large menu of reasons that a child's reading isn't supported at home? Except, of course, to that child and the people with the task of teaching the child to read. What would be the benefit of aggregated data? Each case must be addressed individually.

    Each case must indeed be addressed individually, but that doesn't mean research is worthless — if only so you can justify yourselves to those who, unlike me, oppose what you're doing.

    If you had the data and analysis, what would you do or stop doing that wouldn't otherwise? Distribute children's books to low-income families? Skip the analysis and do it. Promote the value of reading to children? Skip the analysis and do it. Encourage families to bring their children to the library? Skip the analysis and do it. Really, no analysis or study is needed.

    I'm for all three. They cost money. If you don't have the money yourself, you need to get it from somewhere. That's where analysis and study come in.

    I am not one of the people you speak of at http://saveseattleschools.blogspot.com/2011/04/tough-luck-kid.html. We're on the same side. But the reality is that often, others need convincing of what, to you, seems obvious.

    I have no quarrel at all with encouraging literacy and education. Far from it — my parents were professors, I'm a writer, I'm on the board of a local education nonprofit.

    The only way I seem to differ from you and GaryP on this is that I dared to broach the subject of the parents.

    Posted Thu, Apr 7, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

    It is the parents and Geoffrey Canada knows that and is addressing it. HCZ includes parenting classes and counseling.

    In my opinion, the most important part of the work he's doing and the least reported on. I remember one interview with Mr. Canada, in particular, where he was describing the response to this advice he was giving HCZ parents.

    "Read to your children, even your babies, especially your babies. Lose the corporal punishment. You can control the outcome."

    He said one of his Moms was hopping mad. "Why hasn't anyone ever told us this?" she demanded.

    Good question. Is imparting this knowledge, support, and empowerment worth the estimated additional 5,000. per child the HCZ spends annully? Absolutely. It's not going to be forever. The youngsters in the Zone now are going to grow up literate, competent, and confident. Employable and productive. Their children won't need as much additional funding and support. The next generation, even less. It's very little money when you compare it to the 100 million we are spending daily on our latest war.

    Mr. Canada, with his infinite wisdom and intimate knowledge, knows what it is going to take to break the cycle. And he's doing it.

    Dos Equis

    Posted Sun, Apr 10, 4:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Stop with the parents thing. My parents didn't teach me to read; parents didn't do that in the 40s, because the schools did it. I wanted to learn to read so I would have regardless of what my schools did, but the point is the schools DID do it. Reading was considered to be the most important thing you learned in school, and you learned to read before you learned to do anything else because it was necessary before you COULD learn anything else.

    No research is necessary; no decisions is necessary; certainly, it is not necessary for parents to be professors (and Benjamin, that's a real red herring to throw in there).

    If a school does not teach a child--any child--to read by the third grade, that school is not performing the first duty it has. If the school needs to keep the child out of recess in order to do so, so be it. By the time children are 20, they will be glad they knew how to read when their peers could, and they won't give a damn if they had to miss a few recess periods.


    Posted Sun, Apr 10, 5:36 p.m. Inappropriate

    I'm not blaming the parents, sarah9, or assigning them the task of teaching their children to read. I was told by one educator that a child, surrounded by books and language and support, will teach themselves to read by age 8.

    My point is your parents made sure you went to a good school, a school with books and supplies and good teachers. You were fed, clothed, and looked after, all the things that go into being prepared to learn to read. It seems effortless when everything goes well and everyone's emotional and physical needs have been met.

    Dos Equis

    Posted Mon, Apr 11, 2:17 p.m. Inappropriate

    Parents, spend time reading to, and with your children.
    We dis and our daughter was reading well above level before
    she entered school. She on went to ace the reading section
    of the SAT (800, out of 800)and scored 730 (out of 800)for
    the writing section of the SAT.
    Parental involvement in their child's education is more
    beneficial and important than anything that a school, or
    a school district can accomplish


    Posted Mon, Apr 11, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    My post should read
    We did this, verses We dis. My fingers were
    too slow I guess


    Posted Tue, Apr 12, 8:52 a.m. Inappropriate

    Karen Lee, you're making assumptions simply based on the fact that I did learn to read. I lived in a small town. I was sent to the only school on my side of town; no one investigated whether it had good supplies and books, etc. My parents didn't know the teachers. They simply handed me over to the school, as other parents did, and the teachers made everyone learn to read, because that was the expectation. That happened at school and had nothing to do with whether my parents, or any parents, fulfilled us childrens' emotional or physical needs.

    Learning to read is a fairly simple activity, and can happen through a number of teaching strategies. It involves one teacher, not the whole village, and doesn't require studies, curriculum review, or specialized textbooks. Somehow, Afghani children learned to read at the schools Greg Mortenson set up. Somehow, chidren learned to read in one-room schools containing 6 grades all taught by one teacher, which I attended when I was in the fifth grade (I watched the younger kids learning). Children are curious about symbols the meaning of which older kids know, and that curiosity plus one teacher leads to reading.

    If you expect them to learn, that is. If they know that you blame their parents, or their race, or "society" for all sorts of things, you'll be giving them sufficient excuses not to bother.


    Posted Tue, Apr 12, 5:53 p.m. Inappropriate

    sarah90, again, I am not blaming anyone. I am simply stating reality. I expect the parents to parent, and the fact of the matter is, they don't all know how to or have the support they need to do it successfully. You can expect great things out of the students, I will continue to expect great things out of their parents. We're not so different.

    Isn't it funny, like in Geoffrey Canada's case, that it's a man that is teaching parenting? And getting through to his parents? T. Berry Brazelton is another wonderful parenting coach. He works closely with the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

    If I made an assumption about your early education, I think you validated it with your post. It doesn't sound like you had to spend your time outside the classroom dodging bullets, someone's backhand, or the affections of a drunken uncle.

    Your statements are your perspective, your experiences, and your truth. Please give mine the same consideration.

    As for further studies, I wasn't advocating further studies. I think we know what works and how to implement it, if and when we choose to do so.

    Dos Equis

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