Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Star

When it comes down to it, the most critical element of school reform is improving literacy for all of our kids. Right now, we spend too much time on everything else. But if our kids can’t read, they will fail in life. And we will have failed too.

Reading is complex and to some extent it appears at least somewhat mysterious to all of us. After all, we can’t really see it happening even with a brain scan, so we can only guess about whether and how it is occurring in the minds of individual children. And yet, when the subject of teaching kids to read comes up, everyone seems to have something very weighty and important to say—though few people, I find, have ever actually taught even a single child to read, let alone several hundred at all ages, abilities, or grade levels.

To improve literacy in our country, I suggest we start paying attention to the people who have taught the most kids to read. Not necessarily the theorists, the pundits, the psychometricians, etc., but the actual human beings who’ve done the real work of teaching real kids to become real readers.

I have been very lucky in the kind of work I have been allowed to do in education. And getting literally thousands of chances to teach thousands of different kids to read is one of them. Here are ten important things I’ve learned over the last 15 years of teaching literacy all over the United States in all kinds of teaching situations:

1. It is not hard to teach kids to read. We should start at age three or four and all kids should be reading and writing independently by kindergarten. There is no reason this cannot happen. The most common reason given for why this cannot happen is that kids are not ready. I ask people who say this if they’ve ever tried teaching small children to read. They say “no”. And I say, “They how would you know if they were ready or not?” This seems utterly logical to me, yet it fails to impress anyone in the dialog. Just another indication, it seems to me, of how irrational we are as a nation when it comes to literacy. Read McGuiness’s latest books if you want the scoop on how quickly kids could learn the “basic code” of reading and how early we could begin teaching it to them.

2. Even though there are literally hundreds of reading programs out there, there is only one way to teach kids the phonics or decoding information they need at the start. This approach matches the way our language works and the way our brains work (as such, no program is required; the language is itself the program; though a program that follows the language would work just fine). If we do not base early decoding instruction on The Alphabetic Principle (essentially teaching sounds before letters and showing kids how letters and letter patterns map to the 40-plus sounds of our language), we waste time and confuse our children. Yet fewer than five percent of our kids by my estimate are taught this way.

Most get a “Sesame Street” letter-of-the-week approach or the good old “A is for apple” approach. Both are disastrous, yet they remain maddeningly popular. Most kids in America are taught to read by letter. Any cursory exploration of English spelling and pronunciation will show that this is a patently absurd and highly inefficient approach. When a kid needs to read the word “dog”, the names of the letters are irrelevant. The sounds, however, used here in their “basic code” configuration, are the key to successful decoding.

3. Reading must be combined with writing because they are complementary processes. This should be patently obvious to everyone but it is not. Kids do almost no writing as they begin to learn to read in American schools. Again, McGuiness and others are very clear on the value of combining reading and writing instruction.

4. In order to ensure success for all, we must read approximately 500 percent more than we ask kids to read now, and much more of this reading must be individual reading with kids reading their own books. When there’s too much whole class reading, kids fail to develop independence. And when kids never get to pick books to read that they like, they tend not to like reading after a while. This is my own opinion based on the amount and type of reading I have had to assign in order to pull kids up to grade level over time. You won’t find a study on it because no one has ever studied how much reading kids need to do — especially disadvantaged kids. And even though Diane Ravitch contends that “No kids will pick Moby Dick on their own”, I have had this happen several times (along with many other classics) so I know that at least that old chestnut of an argument is wrong. Given responsible instruction, and exposure to good literature, kids read a ton of classics. Why? Because they’re good. But not every kid need read the same set of classics. Why? Because this limits the number of classics any single kid can read.

5. While E. D. Hirsch and the folks at Core Knowledge are correct that reading is “domain specific” and that “background knowledge” is the number one  predictor of comprehension, he and his very well-meaning and extremely intelligent group have offered us little help in the area of instructional techniques for increasing kids’ background knowledge. They seem to argue that merely buying into the Core Knowledge curriculum solves the problem all by itself. There are actually many interesting ways to help kids gobble up knowledge at very quick rates—and retain it much longer than usual. So, if Mr. Hirsch is right, and he is, we need to be focusing on this aspect of teaching (helping  acquire and retain new knowledge) as much as any other in order to help our kids become more literate. Core Knowledge is not the only way to go. It is merely one extremely conservative example of how to present information. It is a curriculum and, as such, provides little help in terms of the instructional techniques that might be used to teach it well.

6. Reading fluency is extremely important for reading growth, especially in the primary years. Unfortunately, because of the popularity of the DIBELS system, and the general lack of knowledge about reading in America, most educators equate fluency solely with reading rate or reading speed. In actuality, fluency depends on rate, phrasing, and expression, and the latter two are extremely important for comprehension. To put it succinctly, we lose many young readers because we don’t teach fluency explicitly.

7. While Hirsch is correct that, because of reading’s domain-specific nature, there really is no such thing as a reading comprehension test, our country seems to delight in creating and giving them. In fact, reading scores on traditional comprehension tests are used to make hugely important decisions about kids, teachers, and schools. As a country, even our most thoughtful psychometricians don’t take this into account. Therefore, our ability to assess kid’s reading levels by mechanical purposes are suspect. Well-trained human beings tend to make better decisions about what kids know and need to know next when it comes to reading.

8. Even though many people have worked hard to discredit reading strategy instruction, I’ve read the literature carefully and it does admit that a small amount of a certain type of reading strategy instruction works well. Personally, I teach maybe six strategies at the most, and I teach them very thoroughly. A small number of well-chosen strategies, well-taught, can make an extraordinary difference, especially for kids who are many years below grade level. It is obvious, however, that the reading strategy movement has gotten ridiculous and that we certainly don’t need any more classes called “Reading Strategies” or any more books called 101 Reading Strategies That Really Work.

9. For all the sound and fury around reading, we don’t actually do much in our country to teach kids how to get good at it—we just tell them to read and hope that they eventually figure it out. Taken in the aggregate, reading instruction in the US is essentially random. This is largely because we don’t teach adults how to teach reading and because we don’t pay attention to what reading is, how our language works, how the brain functions, and how closely reading is connected to writing. Teaching reading is not rocket science, especially at the beginning. Virtually all parents could teach their kids to read before they arrived at school. We would simply have to provide a very small amount of information to make this happen—along with access to good books. In fact, one might think that our schools could provide this information to families in their neighborhoods.

10. Check out the percentage of kids in the lowest bracket of the 4th grade NAEP Reading: You’ll notice, as I did recently, that it’s just about exactly the same percentage as the percentage of kids who don’t graduate from high school on time. To me, that says that our new-found mania for cleaning up failed high schools is sorely misplaced. The game is won and lost in the primary years, so that’s where we should be spending our “school turnaround” dollars if we want to eventually do away with “dropout  factories.”

We can get all excited about charter schools and merit pay and taking away teachers’ collective bargaining rights. We can spend billions of dollars trying to fix broken high schools. We can adopt new standards and make new tests. But if we can’t teach our kids to become literate human beings by third grade, little of that other stuff matters very much.

On one level, education reform is very simple: it’s really just literacy reform. Teach kids to read and write reasonably well by third grade (toss in some math using the same basic instructional principles) and you’ve just reformed education.

We say that reading is “the first r”, but we treat it like it’s the last thing on our reform agenda. Oh sure, we like to test it a lot, and we love to talk about how the numbers don’t go up. I think we’d be better off, however, if we just taught well instead. It’s not hard. It’s not expensive. And it really is the moral thing to do. Not teaching kids to become literate condemns them to that infamous Hobbesian existence that is so often “nasty, brutish, and short”. If you can’t read and writing, school is awful—and life after school isn’t much better.

Labor relations and STEM programs and high school turnarounds may have captured our nation’s attention for the moment. But let’s not take our eye off the ball here. Literacy is the foundation of education success. It should be the foundation of education reform.