In many cases, it’s not that Johnny can’t read…
That American children are struggling with reading has worked its way into the media conversation at last. It’s about time.
First came the “news” that the 2021 post-Covid NAEP (our nation’s report card) reading scores for 4th and 8th graders dropped for the first time in decades:
Nearly two thirds of our students don’t read proficiently!
What wasn’t reported is the fact that nearly this same percentage has been the case for some time.
Then in the fall of 2022, Emily Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast recast the eternal Reading Wars. This time, the opposing camps are Lucy Calkins’ Balanced Literacy vs. the Science of Reading. Lucy Calkins’ curriculum did not come out well in this. The media blew up over it, and various states have banned Balanced Literacy’s 3-cueing strategy for figuring out unknown words and poured money into retraining teachers in the Science of Reading, aka Structured Reading, with its heavy emphasis on systematic phonics instruction.
I couldn’t help wondering. Are there really primary teachers who—no matter what curriculum they use—don’t teach phonics? How in the world can you not in the teaching of beginning reading?
The next big thing that made news and drew the attention of the world beyond education insiders was the release of the film “The Right to Read” on Juneteenth of 2023. Promoted by LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow fame, its aim is to shine a light on the literacy crisis as a symptom of societal injustice and to promote the Science of Reading as the solution and path to equity.
Two things about all of this are especially important.
First is the acknowledgment that we actually have a literacy crisis. When 65% of our 4th and 8th graders don’t read proficiently, that’s a problem. Reading well is foundational for all learning and has lifelong implications for individuals as well as society.
According to the United States Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.
The second good thing is we’re taking a hard look at how reading is taught.
The reality is that college teacher training programs don’t actually teach prospective teachers how to teach reading. New teachers learn on the job, and what they learn is generally determined by what is gleaned from colleagues and the curriculum that the school adopts.
It can take several years of experience in the classroom for teachers to understand that effective reading instruction involves many essential threads. The wholistic approach and appreciation of literature that Balanced Literacy celebrates and the systematic direct instruction promoted by the Science of Reading are both necessary in good teaching.
Excellent teaching and fundamentally sound comprehensive reading curriculum are extremely important.
“Our bigger problem now is Johnny doesn’t read.”
But here’s the thing.
If a student is well taught and yet does not read outside of classroom instruction, it’s unlikely that student will become a proficient reader.
Like any skill, the practice of reading matters when it comes to mastery.
In many cases, it’s not that “Johnny can’t read.” Our bigger problem now is Johnny doesn’t read.
Yes, technology has a huge part to play in this, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.
What I will do is remind you how children become motivated to choose to read. Parents and teachers both have important roles to play here.
Let’s start with parents who, I would argue, have the most critical role. I’ve written about this in The Invisible Toolbox, explaining in as concise and direct a way as possible, how reading from birth affects a child’s development and future readiness for school.
Repeated exposure to books is a bedrock foundation for future reading for pleasure and makes the road ahead much smoother for a child.
“While it’s ideal to begin reading to your child from the get-go, if you haven’t, it’s not too late.”
Up until adolescence, generally speaking, children—even if they don’t appear to—crave the time and attention of their parents, so it is possible to begin a nightly read aloud habit even with older children. They may balk a bit at first, but if you choose a great book to share, that should quickly dissipate.
While it’s ideal to begin reading to your child from the get-go, if you haven’t, it’s not too late.
Which brings me to the next thing parents can do. Visit the place where you can borrow books—for free! Your local library. Do this together and do it regularly. Help your child get their own library card and choose their own books.
While you’re at the library, pick out some books for yourself. Let your child see you reading. Talk about books, yours and theirs.
Set clear boundaries for technology and enforce them.
Encourage your child’s daily reading habit. Make sure there is space in their day or evening for it.
Once you’ve done this for a while, your child may begin to choose to read themselves. Eventually, they may find their homework goes more quickly, becomes easier for them. Their grades even improve! This is the time to gently make the connection for them.
“I’ve noticed that all this reading for fun you’ve been doing, seems to be making school more interesting for you…” Then take them to the nearest bookstore or second hand shop and let them buy a book to celebrate.
“Teachers have an important role here too in supporting reading for pleasure.”
Teachers have an important role here too in supporting reading for pleasure.
Make sure that you teach great books that you love as much as they will. Your genuine enthusiasm and interest matter if you want them to engage.
Also, be sure to provide opportunities for students to choose their own books.
When I taught fifth grade literature, I required students to choose a book a month within a particular genre and create a project after reading it. This assignment provided for both accountability and choice. It also ensured their exposure to various genres they might not choose on their own. For instance, a student who reads nothing but fantasy books might discover they enjoy historical fiction too.
At the end of the school year, students often reported this monthly book report activity as one of their favorite things. Kids love hands on projects. They often discovered an interest in genres they’d never explored before.
Another thing teachers can do is to actually talk to kids about the importance of reading, explaining why and how it makes a difference in their schooling and lives.
A teacher can also help students make the connection between their choices and the outcomes.
At the end of each trimester, my literature students took an Accelerated Reader standardized achievement test. The results showed their growth throughout the year, their independent reading levels, and also indicated how they performed compared to students that the test was normed on in their age group.
With my fifth graders, I always shared these scores with them–privately, of course. I explained how standardized tests work and how the choices they make, even outside of the classroom, affect their scores.
As their awareness grew as the year progressed, it was interesting to see how students who previously hadn’t paid attention began to care. Once they understood how the tests actually functioned and how the choices they made—and believe me, they knew what they were—actually showed up in an objective way, it was empowering for them.
This student report indicates a leap from the 27th percentile to the 73rd, quite a jump even when factoring in possible summer slide to account for the low beginning of the year score. The intervention included a chat with a parent who didn’t realize two hours of gaming each school night was an issue. Video games were moved to weekends only, homework began to be turned in, and the student reported to me that “Now, when I’m bored, I read.”
For teachers, facilitating students’ awareness and encouraging their agency in making good choices about choosing to read go hand in hand with teaching the skills and helping students find pleasure in reading.
The last thing I’ll mention that I recommend teachers do is something I would do at the beginning of each school year when parents came to meet me at Back to School Night.
I talked to parents about the importance of their child reading for pleasure outside of the classroom.
I encouraged parents—even my fifth graders’ parents whose children were already independent readers—to read aloud to them and enjoy books together. I reminded them that adolescence was around the corner and that reading aloud together during this time in their child’s life was a wonderful way to connect and nurture their bond in preparation for the days ahead when peers become ever more important.
At the end of one school year, one of the mothers sought me out to tell me that she’d taken my suggestion with her two sons, one a fifth grader, the other a seventh grader. She created a family read aloud ritual that school year and the boys loved it.
Her sons were already voracious readers for pleasure, so her aim wasn’t about helping them find their way down that road. It was about connection through creating space for family time together and sharing the pleasure of a good book.
When it comes right down to it, isn’t that what reading for pleasure is all about?
A child who reads for pleasure will not only have the tools and skills they need for school and beyond, they’ll have a habit that the English novelist Anthony Trollope once said “…lasts when all other recreations are gone. It will last until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”