The Decline in Reading Proficiency in U.S. Schools

Over the past several decades, reading proficiency has been slowly declining in U.S. schools. There is a lot of speculation as to why this is, but rather than place blame and point fingers, we owe it to our current and future students to explore the problem and come up with a viable solution. Before we jump in to the great reading debate and some possible and effective solutions, let’s take a look at some statistics regarding the decline in reading proficiency.

It is estimated that 67% of fourth-grade students do not read proficiently at their grade level. Only one-third of high school seniors are considered proficient readers, and only 4% of seniors reached the highest level of advanced proficiency in reading on a recent test. Unfortunately, early literacy struggles are indicative of later struggles in academia and in life. When students cannot read by the end of third grade, they are more likely than their well-read peers to struggle with reading long-term. Additionally, struggling readers are more likely to fall behind in other classes in school, drop out of school, live in poverty, and even end up getting arrested or in jail.

Does Socioeconomic Status Play a Role?

People have long believed that the income level of a student’s family was directly related to his or her ability to succeed in school. While some statistics do show that lower-income students are more prone to struggle in their education or have more barriers to overcome, studies have shown that income level and reading proficiency are not directly related. While some poverty-stricken communities have low reading proficiency, so do some higher-income communities. It is estimated that about a third of students who struggle with reading come from families with college-educated parents. While it cannot be denied that higher-income families and communities have more access to reading materials, educational resources, private tutors, and more, the research has shown us that we cannot blame a lack of reading proficiency on socioeconomic status.

The Literacy Debate: Phonics vs. Whole Language

Researchers have studied reading science and reading education intensely for decades. Since it is such a foundational skill that all students need, it is heavily funded and explored all across the nation and world. What they’ve found is that multiple different approaches are taken to teaching reading, but that one particular method is more effective than any others, and that is the phonics approach. Phonics involves teaching kids the sounds that individual letters make, as well as the sounds that specific letters together make, all with the end goal of them being able to sound out and “decode” words based on their letters.

In the 1970s and 1980s, a different approach was considered as teaching phonics seemed to be too boring and not engaging enough for young students. This was the “whole language” approach, which based its foundation in the idea that learning to read is a natural skill that students will acquire when they are simply immersed in printed materials. Whole language methods focus on teaching sight words, teaching words as a whole picture rather than individual items (letters) put together to make something bigger. Though science has proven that not to be the case, whole language proponents abandoned phonics instruction for fear that it would limit students’ abilities to connect with language and comprehend written material, citing that the tedious skills of phonics were old-fashioned, conservative, and unenjoyable.

In 2000, this debate had come to a head and was so intensely discussed in the world of education that Congress actually had to step in. They put together a National Reading Panel, whose job was to gather and review all prior research that had been done on the phonics vs. whole language debate. What they found was that when teachers intentionally instructed students on the relationships between letters and their sounds, their reading improved and their proficiency increased. No evidence was found to support whole language approaches to teaching reading.

As more and more school districts are learning the science behind reading education, they are beginning to shift their focus to phonics-based instruction. While facets of whole language learning are often included, such as memorization of sight words, phonics seems to be the key factor in our proficiency problem.

Based on the research, we know with complete certainty that children become more proficient readers when they are given phonics instruction that is both explicit and systematic. This is a consistent finding in the area of reading education research, and it simply cannot be ignored any longer.

But what can be done?

Start with the Current Teachers

Teachers are no strangers to professional development, but when what they’ve practiced for years or even decades is questioned, they tend to dig their heels in a bit. Current teachers absolutely must be informed of the science behind reading instruction, and they must be encouraged or even required to make appropriate changes to the way they teach reading. As an article published by American Public Media states, “many educators don’t know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail.” We know that not everyone changes their stance even when presented with cold, hard facts, but we also know that teachers, at their core, long to educate kids as effectively and completely as possible. Current teachers, administrators, and district leaders must be educated on reading science, and they should be encouraged to implement teacher training on the scientifically proven ways to teach reading.

Don’t Forget About Future Teachers

Only 39% of teacher preparation programs across the nation are actually teaching the concepts and strategies of effective reading instruction. Most college-level teacher education courses will present multiple ways to approach teaching reading, sometimes as many as 10-12. Rather than encourage future teachers to integrate all of these in a variety of ways and in different applications and circumstances, they are more often encouraged to pick one or two that “fit their teaching style” and stick with that in their reading instruction. State-based standards are often more about the demonstration of a general skill rather than the implementation of a particular part of that skill, such as reading on a particular level versus the broken down skills needed to read on that level. So teachers are not being held to instructional standards so long as their students “meet” the general skill standards. When their students don’t meet the baseline level of performance, often outside influences, such as poverty, are blamed rather than the methods utilized by the teachers.

In the early 2000s, the state of Mississippi started delving into their teacher preparation programs to see exactly what future teachers were learning about how to teach students to read. They did comprehensive studies at the state’s eight public universities, including in-class observations, exploration of textbooks and syllabi, and interviews with students, professors, and deans. They found that in a two-year program, future teachers were only learning about phonics instruction for about 20 minutes total before graduation. This should be concerning and is something that needs to be explored in universities across the country.

Remember Those Who Educate Educators

Even though scientific research and countless studies on reading instruction have found that phonics instruction is vital to students’ abilities to read well, professors often have the freedom to teach and instruct whatever they want in the college classroom. This often includes overlooking the science and the facts of what truly works in preference of personal “beliefs” or favored methods.

Elementary school teachers are used to continuing education courses and professional development, but college professors and deans are not. It’s also much harder for a state to require colleges to require specific topics to be taught within their teacher education programs. However, when new teachers fresh out of college have to be retrained immediately on how to teach reading to their students, there is a problem.

Starting in 2016, the state of Mississippi began requiring new teachers to pass a test on reading science, and if they didn’t pass, they didn’t get certified to teach elementary school in the state. Because of this, college professors began to see the importance of instructing their students (the future teachers) on reading science. If they didn’t teach it in their college courses, their students would fail the reading science test and be unemployed, which would reflect poorly on their university.

The Literacy of Our Children Hangs in the Balance

As parents and educators, the future literacy of our children is in our hands. Something must shift in the schools, at home, and in our approach to reading and reading education if we are going to set our children up for success in both school and the real world.

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