Effective literacy instruction in schools is our most powerful tool to advance equity of educational outcomes. Together, we can ensure that every child can read, write, learn, and thrive.
BY DR. LAURIE QUINN, PRESIDENT OF THE STERN CENTER FOR LANGUAGE AND LEARNING
The reading crisis in the United States is among the most solvable problems of our time, but as we commit to the work of solving it, let’s understand how we arrived at the current reality of two-thirds of our fourth graders not reading proficiently. That galvanizing reality check gets even more stark when we reckon with the proficiency figure for black American kids: just 18 percent are proficient by fourth grade.
The primary driver of the reading crisis is a disconnect between the overwhelming scientific evidence on reading, affirmed by researchers across decades of studies, and the still-widespread practices that have shaped what teachers know and are taught to do when providing reading instruction. As more and more teachers discover the research evidence and square it with what actually happens with the students in their classrooms, many find that they have to move through some guilt, and overcome some defenses. Most refocus to find renewed hope of fulfilling their calling to open up learning for a better future when they learn that 95% of students can learn to read with structured literacy methods. It’s not the kids. It’s not the teachers. It’s the approach, and it can be changed, and the sooner, the better.
Ethical individual teachers and school leaders supporting cohorts of educators have become an unstoppable movement toward reading justice for all our kids. Parents are learning what the families of dyslexic learners have known for years: it’s not enough to assume that teachers know how to teach reading or, when it’s not working, to take comfort in vague assurances that their kids will catch up. Too many do not, as the 8th-grade national scores in reading make clear. Parents, teachers, and community activists are advocating for kids whose reading potential is underserved and underestimated through racial and socioeconomic inequality, coming together to insist that reading is an undeniable civil right of our time.
Every child deserves the joy of learning through literacy, and the denial of that right amounts to preventable harm. Some of you reading this know, while some of you will have to imagine, what it feels like sitting through year after year of school knowing that your inability to decode words must mean you’re stupid. Choosing to act out behaviorally, to withdraw anxiously, to cheat elaborately, to leave altogether, becomes all too common—because these things provide a shield from the slowly unspooling trauma of being the kid who never “got it.” Too many kids don’t get it because we don’t consistently ensure that they have access to it: the right to read.
We at the Stern Center embrace our role as catalysts in a hopeful yet insistent change movement of parents, teachers, and leaders who are waking up to the powerful opportunity to make a difference that will positively change the future, kid by kid. Teachers are bringing their own experiences, instructional wisdom, and commitment to their students to a growing recognition of how discredited methods and implicit biases have left too many students behind. The statistics below make it plain as day: race and socioeconomic status are too often used as an excuse for reading failure, but we who embrace equity of opportunity can commit to a shared vision of reading success for all students.
HOW THE READING CRISIS AFFECTS US ALL:
Those who struggle with reading early in their schooling are more likely to drop out of high school, experience periods of unemployment, live in poverty, and end up in the criminal justice system.
of U.S. 4th graders scored BELOW proficient in reading in 2022.
—National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
of U.S. 4th graders who qualify for free and reduced lunch scored BELOW proficient in reading.
—National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
adults in the U.S. have low literacy skills. More than half (54%) of Americans between the ages of 16 and 74 read below the equivalent of a 6th-grade level.
—Gallup analysis of data from the U.S. Dept of Education
WHAT THE READING RESEARCH SAYS:
A Scientific Consensus Over Decades
Experts from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, education, linguistics, and other fields have produced an extensive body of research on how we read, showing the most effective ways to teach learners how to decode text, read fluently, and understand what they’re reading.
Prioritize Strong Decoding Skills
Effective literacy instruction needs to start early and prioritize strong decoding skills. Students should be taught in deliberate, systematic, and explicit ways about sounds in words (phonemic awareness), syllable types, spelling patterns, and the meaningful parts of words.
Learn to Read, Read to Learn
First, we learn to read, and then, we read to learn. Reading each word proficiently is the foundation for fluency, comprehension, and flourishing as a learner.
RESOURCES TO KEEP LEARNING:
Sold a Story—How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong
Emily Hanford’s groundbreaking journalism on the reading crisis has become a riveting set of stories in this must-hear podcast from American Public Media. features.apmreports.org/sold-a-story
The Reading League
The mission of The Reading League—a nationwide nonprofit led by educators and reading experts—is to advance the awareness, understanding, and use of evidence-aligned reading instruction. The Stern Center for Language and Learning hosts Vermont’s chapter of The Reading League. thereadingleague.org
The Truth About Reading
A documentary about the issue of illiteracy in America. thetruthaboutreading.com
The Knowledge Gap
Author Natalie Wexler examines how to systematically build knowledge of the world among elementary students, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds. nataliewexler.substack.com
Teaching Reading is Rocket Science
Louisa Moats’ groundbreaking treatise summarizes the complexity of how our brains learn to read while advocating clear, specific, practical instructional strategies that all teachers can use. aft.org/ae/summer2020/moats
The Right to Read
A documentary by award-winning filmmaker Jenny Mackenzie about the early reading crisis and its connection to equity. therighttoreadfilm.org