Throwing the kitchen sink at reading
It’s time for an end to excuses
In the late 1980s, when I was in upper primary school, I was involved in a research project where older students helped younger students who struggled with reading. Typically for the time, we were not allowed to help the younger kids decode words. Instead, when they reached a word they did not know, we simply read it for them. I’m not sure how successful this project was. I have tried looking online for a paper about it but I don’t know the names of the researchers and I’ve drawn a blank.
I was reminded of this when I saw a tweet by Robert Pondiscio about the Chicago teachers’ strike:
If only 23 percent of students in Chicago are proficient readers, this represents a terrible failure*. The original meaning of ‘no excuses’ when referring to Charter Schools was nothing to do with school discipline. The idea was that there should be no excuses for system failure of this kind. No, 23 percent proficient readers is not excusable because the non-readers are poor, from tough family backgrounds or from minority communities. There is a very small percentage of children who have cognitive impairments that will always make reading a struggle (some estimates claim around 5%), but the overwhelming majority of kids, including many of those labelled as dyslexic can, with the right methods, learn to read.
This should be our most basic, non-negotiable expectation for a taxpayer funded school system. Yes, it’s possible to redefine the goals of education so that it becomes about climbing trees and making dioramas, but this is not why we embarked upon the great civilising, democratising project of mass education. We don’t need schools for kids to learn to climb trees.
Even from the perspective of ‘wellbeing’, the buzzword for our times, the case for reading is compelling. Reading is foundational to all academic disciplines associated with formal education, and level of formal education is positively related to life outcomes such as health and income and even intergenerational effects such as that the children of more educated parents eat more fruit and vegetables.
And imagine yourself in a geography or science lesson, but you cannot read the learning materials. Imagine this repeating day after day. How would you cope with that? I’m not sure I would behave particularly well and this perhaps explains a link between reading and behaviour problems seen in research. And it also likely explains the prevalence of literacy issues among young offenders.
So, what are the right methods to treat reading problems. Firstly, children should receive systematic phonics instruction. They should be taught reading comprehension strategies, even if we have perhaps relied too much on these in recent years. There are also sound theoretical reasons for building background knowledge to aid comprehension through a structured, knowledge-rich curriculum. Recently, research results have begun to confirm this.
However, we can’t stop there because reading is so important. We need a well-resourced research programme working out the details of the most effective approaches in real classrooms. Although I find approaches such as Structured Word Inquiry implausible for initial reading instruction, the question of the role of morphology and etymology in reading instruction and when they are best introduced is a live one.
We must move away from a model where children receive initial reading instruction and, if that fails, we don’t know and we don’t do anything about it and when the parents notice, we suggest their child is just not ready to learn to read yet. We need screening assessments and a graduated set of tiered interventions, based on Response to Intervention, where we throw the kitchen sink - resources and research - at those few holdout students who are still making inadequate progress.
It’s easy to think schools are about anything other than academic progress and the reading skills that underpin it. It’s fashionable. Shockingly, you may even receive a round of applause for making a statement to that effect on the stage of an education conference. But there are no excuses for failing students so fundamentally that only 23 percent are proficient readers. There are no excuses for that at all.
*the 23 percent figure is apparently based upon NAEP testing and its interpretation is contested