Reading proficiency is essential for learning. A child’s future potential is largely determined by his ability to read well. If a child has been taught to read well, that child will also be able to speak, spell and write well. The child taught to read at the proficient level has been taught the code of the English language: phonics- letters, the sounds they make and rules for pronunciation.
Alarmingly, teacher preparation is not aligned with the reading research (National Council on Teacher Quality 2006). The majority of children in Nebraska and across the nation are not being taught to read well. Current reading curricula and instructional practices are largely ineffective. Teaching whole words as though they were pictures is widely practiced. If you have ever seen a preschooler or kindergartner being shown whole word flash cards, that child’s brain is being crippled for reading.
The brain has two major hemispheres responsible for very different functions. The left side is the letter, number, detail side. The right side is the picture or creative side of the brain. When a beginning reader is repeatedly shown whole words as though they were pictures, the right side of the brain learns to go to work when the eyes see text. The letter box, left side of the brain is the reading side, letters and the sounds they make. Unfortunately, that side is turned off while the word pictures are flashed in front of the child.
Underutilized brain connections are pruned around age 9.
Bad teaching doesn’t just delay reading mastery, in many cases it cripples the child from ever learning to read at the proficient level, confirmed by national reading assessments. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 37% of Nebraska’s fourth and eighth grade students performed at the proficient level or above in reading, about a third of students. Worse yet, only 23% of poor fourth graders and 22% of poor eighth graders scored at the proficient level or above in reading- while just 16% of Black fourth and eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level in reading on that same assessment. NAEP reading scores have remained relatively flat for decades.
Failure to teach reading was our dirty little secret in the past. No more. Now there are international assessments. A look at reading scores from the 2012 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Program for International Student Assessment is revealing. Of the 65 participating countries, the United States ranked 21st; a drop from 11th place in 2009- the last time the assessment was administered.
According to the American Psychological Association, The Rising Curve 1998, innate ability is increasing and is universal. The range in IQ is the same throughout the population, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic level.
Virtually all children can be taught to read well and quickly if phonics and only phonics is taught first. Rudolph Flesch explained the process in his 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read, followed up by his 1981 book Why Johnny Still Can’t Read. Flesch’s prophetic analysis of reading mastery has been confirmed by the latest brain research, 2009 Reading in the Brain by Stanislas Dehaene.
The science behind the ease in which the brain masters reading with phonics instruction has been traced back more than 50,000 years through phonemes: distinct units of sound such as vowels, consonants and tones. A study by evolutionary psychologist Quentin Atkinson, published 2011 in the journal Science found that the pattern of phoneme usage globally mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity. Humans gradually lost genetic diversity as they migrated out of Africa. Similarly, English has around 46 sounds while the San bushmen of South Africa use 200.
Gering, Nebraska public schools taught all their kindergartners to read by Thanksgiving. A 20 minute you tube video walks you through how they did it. (Gering reading video). Unfortunately, Gering’s reading success is not being replicated across the state.
Reading is the prerequisite for all learning and achievement. Reading failure is the foundation for, and virtually guarantees, low achievement and low earnings. Unfortunately, children who have not been taught to read well feel responsible for their reading failure. Parents tell me, "Whole language did not work for my child." We know Whole language/balanced reading does not work for ANY child. Repetitive memorization of word shapes does not teach the English language phonics code. When a child rapidly guesses at words while "reading", that child has not been taught to read. A child properly taught how to read would "sound out" each letter of the unfamiliar word.
We know phonics works quickly and well to teach English. We know this from history, experience, curricula studies and now from brain research. Why is this ignored? Why is reading (and other) curricula not part of the student achievement discussion? Why are we consigned to endless new initiatives which do little to remedy the core problem of ineffective curricula and instructional practices?
Stay tuned. We will examine the "Why" from a new perspective.