Learning to read is the most complex task we expect children to master – more complex than learning to play the piano. And the stakes are much higher. Children who do not read well are more likely to drop out of high school, become teen parents, or enter the criminal justice system. You might think learning to talk is more difficult but in fact, we are essentially hard-wired to learn how to talk. We are not wired to learn to read. Reading is a human invention that coopts parts of the brain originally designed for other tasks, like language, hearing, and perception. That means that in order to learn how to read, children need careful and highly technical instruction. First they must master the alphabetic principle – that letters stand for sounds and that these letters combine to create words that have meaning. Then they have to learn how to make sense of what they have decoded, which is even more difficult. Unfortunately, because it is a polyglot, English is among the most difficult languages to read: the spelling is irregular and the vocabulary is vast. And we expect children to accomplish this by the end of third grade!
That said, virtually all children CAN learn to read by fourth grade if they are provided optimal amounts and types of reading instruction. For example, in a recent longitudinal study, we randomly assigned students to receive individualized instruction from first through third grade based on their unique constellation of reading and vocabulary skills. The results revealed that 94% of students who received the individualized instruction in all three grades were reading at or above a fourth grade level by the end of third grade and many were reading above grade level – a fifth grade level on average. Compare this to 78% of students in the control group; and this is still better than the national average of about 66% based on recent NAEP scores (58% in Arizona).
So what was different for these students compared to students from across our nation? About 50% of them qualified for the free and reduced lunch program so it was not that the students came from well-to-do families. Nor were these charter schools. But there were some differences. First, the study brought research into the classroom. Second, the study was conducted in Florida where pre-kindergarten is state-funded and available to all children. Thus virtually all of the students attended high quality preschools. Third, teachers used valid and reliable assessments to guide their instruction and planning using Assessment-to-instruction software – technology helps. Fourth, teachers received training and professional development, including a literacy coach, to support their efforts. Finally, school leaders and teachers welcomed the opportunity to participate in rigorous research as partners while researchers made their findings relevant and accessible to them. With increased funding for rigorous research through the US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, and other funders, such school-research partnerships can flourish and continue to improve outcomes for our students.
I am indebted to Dr. Carol Connor for the ground breaking work described here. See her bio:
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