For all the diversity in our country and in our schools, our teaching of literacy shows surprising consistency: It is consistently ineffective.

Reading is the first “R” for a reason: it’s hard to be successful in other subjects without it. Reading also carries with it the societal expectation that it will be the first important thing children learn in school. Kids feel this expectation, too. Kids expect to learn to read in kindergarten and to become more confident readers in first grade. Adults expect these same things. For kids who don’t make these milestones, the stigma of academic failure often attaches. Teachers begin to treat these kids differently—and they begin to think of themselves differently as well.

Kids know almost instantly that reading is very important, and they want to be very good at it. Soon they also discover that much of the knowledge we want them to acquire depends on reading. Not being able to read early in school is a double curse—frustration with the task itself and frustration with all the tasks that require it. Struggling with reading is something many people remember long into adulthood even if they eventually catch up and become literate.

No Help In Sight

For struggling readers, things get worse the farther they go in school. Few of our schools offer effective approaches to remediation for children who fail to master fluent decoding, effective expression, and easy comprehension of simple chapter books by the end of third grade.

The remediation challenge has both intellectual and emotional components. Teaching older kids the basics of reading is difficult. Some have internalized bad habits or incorrect information; virtually all have learned the shame of failure. Having endured several years of unsuccessful struggle, intense work on reading is the last thing they want to do. Older children who receive additional help may also feel self-conscious about it, especially if they are pulled out of regular classroom activities. They may also find the types of texts available to them for practice to be too childish or otherwise uninteresting. Reading short books with big print, when their friends are reading long books with small print is a constant reminder that they are different—and not in a good way.

In the end, however, the problem of catching kids up comes down to time and teaching. Most of our schools lack sufficient numbers of people well-trained in high quality reading instruction.

Primary grade teachers know that their focus is early literacy. They prepare for it in their pre-service training and remain focused on it for most of their careers. But teachers at fourth grade and above don’t expect to have to work with kids who have first and second grade reading skills. They are trained to focus on reading to learn, not learning to read.

Even reading specialists may not be able to give struggling readers the attention they require because they don’t have enough time to spend with the large numbers of kids who need help. When they do, taking kids out of their classrooms for extended periods of time leaves them behind in other areas.

The conclusion here is simple: we must provide effective reading instruction in kindergarten and first grade for every child. We must also ensure that every child reads with fluency, expression, and comprehension by the end of third grade. In most school systems, no practical alternatives exist given the constraints of time, talent, and tradition.

The Way It’s Has Always Been

With something so serious, one would think that great urgency would surround this issue in almost every school. But the notion of teaching kids to read by third grade is relatively recent. Officially, it only occurred in 2001 with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. As unpopular and as flawed as this law may have been, it asserted a correct idea: that all children must be literate by the end of third grade.

Prior to this, our nation had no such commitment. While no one wanted to see kids struggling with reading, few felt pressured to be certain that every child succeeded in a timely manner. It’s as if we have always carried with us a complacency about early reading achievement defined by the hope that kids who don’t do well in their primary years will somehow catch up eventually—and that even if they don’t, they’ll probably turn out okay in the end.

This idea, grounded in the well-intentioned emotions of hopeful educators, however, has never aligned with the shocking statistical reality that low literacy skills are linked closely to low academic performance, increased high school dropout rates, and high incarceration rates, especially for young men of low-socioeconomic circumstances.

Persistent Problems

For all the advances we’ve made in our collective knowledge about the teaching of early reading, the past still dominates the present and predicts the future. For most of the last hundred years of reading in America, we have persisted a set of ineffective instructional practices:

  • We teach decoding backwards. English is an Alphabetic language so we should teach it in accordance with the Alphabetic Principle. This means teaching from sounds to the letter patterns used to encode them in print. Most teachers in the U.S. teach “Sesame Street style”, organizing their teaching by introducing a letter by name every few days or once a week. Many teachers persist in using the more-than-a-century-old “whole word” or “sight word” approach when the structure of our language clearly indicates that segmenting and blending individual phonemes is superior.
  • We rely too heavily on poorly conceived instructional programs instead of on simple science and common sense. Educational publishers pack their offerings with conflicting and often useless approaches to instruction in order make their reading programs large and competitive (on quantity of materials), and to encourage adoptions (via frequent additions). This leaves teachers confused as to what good reading teaching entails. Reliance on programs also reduces their ability to think for themselves, to learn the science of reading, and to apply common sense. Too often, a reading program becomes a crutch—and not a very good one at that.
  • We separate writing from reading. Reading and writing are complementary activities. They can and should be taught at the same time. Having kids spell while they are learning to read reinforces sound-symbol correspondences. Taking dictation, practicing handwriting, and participating in teacher-guided writing can all be used to enhance reading concepts.
  • We fail to match kids with texts at appropriate reading levels. When kids read texts that are too easy, their growth may stall. When they read texts that are too hard, they may become frustrated or develop bad habits as coping strategies for dealing with inappropriately challenging material. A majority of a student’s individual reading should be done in texts that match their independent reading level.
  • We don’t require enough individual reading. Kids simply don’t read enough to get good at it. This is especially true of individual reading. Reading must become an over-learned automatic process. We need to make sure kids read extensively, especially if they don’t have print-rich environments at home.
  • We don’t provide enough explicit instruction while children are reading. The perfect time to teach readers something is when they’re reading on their own. By contrast, most explicit reading instruction in our classrooms is done in group settings either before or after reading occurs.
  • We don’t require the reading of enough non-fiction. We raise our children on fiction then expect them to succeed in a non-fiction-dominated curriculum. This puts kids at a double disadvantage: they fail to learn how non-fiction texts work and they don’t gain the subject matter knowledge they need to succeed across the curriculum.
  • We don’t require enough reading across a well-organized curriculum. Even on those rare occasions when kids do read non-fiction texts, they usually select them at random. In general, our school curricula are not sufficiently coordinated to provide kids with a thoughtfully organized experience of knowledge acquisition.
  • We don’t provide explicit instruction in fluency and expression as a scaffold to comprehension. Fluency and expression are the precursors of comprehension. Yet we spend almost no time teaching kids how to master these important sub-skills of reading. Without knowledge of the prosody of our language, many children struggle to comprehend even relatively simple texts because their reading is so awkward.
  • We don’t leverage the instructional value of read-alouds. We read aloud to children regularly but often we fail use these opportunities to instruct through modeling and think-alouds. Kids need good models of reading to imitate. But to imitate well, they need an explicit understanding of what we’re doing.
  • We don’t help kids develop sufficient background knowledge to help them understand more difficult texts later on. Reading comprehension is domain specific. Even if kids can decode a text, read it fluently, and understand all the words, they may not fully comprehend a text if they don’t understand the subject matter. A rigorous knowledge-packed curriculum is required.

Each of these items is an important piece of the reading puzzle, a bit of instructional leverage we can use to increase the power of our work. Improving even one of these areas (especially the first one regarding the teaching of reading according to the Alphabetic Principle) would make a significant difference to struggling students, especially to those who don’t have much support at home. Improving them all is the key to making sure that all children read well by the end of third grade.

Children who reach this benchmark have a high likelihood of graduating high school and moving beyond to meaningful life opportunities. Children who do not, do not. Third grade reading ability is one of the strongest predictors of future academic—and life—achievement that we know of. Part of the reason for this is developmental; the best time to learn to read is between the ages of four and nine. But part of it is structural; school simply isn’t designed to help kids improve their basic reading skills after third grade.

There’s a part of us that wants to believe that the 13-year ascent from kindergarten to high school is a smooth, unbroken path. It’s not. There are gates of a sort, spots along the way that we have to make sure kids get through. Perhaps the most important of these is 3rd grade literacy. Raising the third grade literacy rate in America would likely do more to increase the high school graduation rate than any other single goal we could set.