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.

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

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.

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.

Knowledge, on the other hand is optional. And this is what educators don’t understand, particularly those in thrall of the so-called “standards movement.” Clearly, if I don’t have any knowledge of math and logic, I’d be pretty unlikely to seek jobs as a software developer. But if I knew a lot about something else, say biology, I might follow a course into research or medicine. In either case, I’ve got real job possibilities and chances for success in life.

But if I can’t read, there’s no way I can know much about either of those things or anything else or even learn much on the job in any field. Reading, then, is fundamental. It’s a fundamental skill. And it’s a skill essential to obtaining any academic knowledge.

Given that, here’s where educator’s confusion between skill and knowledge prevents the K-12 system from helping each and every elementary school child develop solid, grade-level reading skills. The system automatically — through rules stating what has to be taught — limits the time devoted to each subject. The system treats all “subjects” as equal.  Reading, an essential skill, is granted little more importance than the other activities filling the elementary school day.

Granted, this has been changing. In the mid 1990s when I was an education reporter for The Seattle Times, K-3 teachers told me that they spent only a half hour (sometimes less) each day on reading. That has risen in most schools and now in many places an hour and sometimes more is devoted to reading.

However, with the resistant mass of all the subjects stuffed into the elementary curriculum, expanding the time devoted to reading, despite lip service paid to its importance, has always proved difficult. Regardless of individual student needs, the needs of kids not reading at grade level in second or third grade, the curriculum marches on to units on dinosaurs, rainforests, weather, butterflies — all good things for kids to know and be able to talk about. But if they miss some of the information for whatever reason, it doesn’t matter much, probably doesn’t matter at all. That stuff is just knowledge, and you can come by it anytime. If you can read.

In contrast, the kids having trouble reading, who haven’t had enough practice time to master something by the end of the reading lesson, who haven’t had time to hard wire the connection of symbols with their sounds, for example, are quickly handicapped. They can’t read as well. They’re on a trajectory to fall behind, and fall behind in other subjects as well, even though teachers these days make a huge effort to work reading into every part of the elementary curriculum.

Indisputably, reading is the skill that opens the doors of knowledge. Children who read poorly or who can hardly read at all will fall steadily behind their classmates, get less out of elementary school, little out of middle school and likely drop out of high school.  There you have the “achievement gap” — and it lasts a lifetime.  Seventy percent of high school dropouts were reading below grade level at the end of third grade. Half our prison population reads at ninth grade level, or below.

Our K-12 school leaders can fix this, though. I’ll venture to say it’s simple, even if implementation won’t be easy. All they have to do is recognize that reading is such an essential skill that EACH child must receive instruction sufficient to master it. Kennewick showed that this means some kids will need two or three times the hour or so usually allotted for reading instruction in the elementary school day. (See The 90% Reading Goal and Delivering on the Promise published by the National Children’s Reading Foundation in Kennewick.) Reform means restructuring elementary school so reading instruction takes precedence over everything else and each individual child gets the instruction and practice time s/he needs for mastery.

This is not measured using averages. It’s measured by counting the kids who are proficient readers at the end of third grade.  Nothing short of nine out of 10 will do. No excuses based on the kids’ socio-economic disadvantages allowed. Those kids just need more time on task and educators need to change the elementary curriculum to allow it, to make reading instruction job one until each child is proficient at grade level.

Some will argue against this, claiming kids will be somehow worse off for missing the dinosaur unit or some other beloved part of the elementary curriculum. But kids who are not grade-level-proficient readers by the end of third grade won’t get much but the pictures, anyway. And they probably won’t get out of high school, either.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.