Everyone reading this blog knows how important it is that every child become a confident, skilled, and motivated reader. The latest NAEP results, released this month, remind us that there are far too many children who do not read well, that disadvantaged and minority children are overrepresented among poor readers, and that the inequalities in academic outcomes by race and class–our most serious social as well as educational problem–begins with reading inequalities in the early grades. Everyone knows that children who don’t read well will incur huge expenses over time in remediation, special education, repeated grades, and ultimately delinquency, dropout, and unemployment.
Everyone reading this blog also knows that we know how to ensure success for virtually every first grader. Imagine that your job were to ensure the reading success of every child in a Title I school by the end of first grade, and you had flexible resources to do it. You’d make sure kids had language-rich preschool and kindergarten experiences, learned phonemic awareness and letter sounds in kindergarten, and were taught using proven kindergarten- and first-grade reading programs that emphasized systematic phonics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. Recognizing that even with the best of teaching not every child will succeed, you’d provide tutoring for kids who are struggling in first grade. You would test children’s vision and make sure they had eyeglasses if they needed them. You’d check their hearing and general health, and would make sure that all of these problems are solved as well.
You’d help teachers use effective strategies such as cooperative learning to motivate and engage kids with reading and effective classroom management methods to further build motivation and make effective use of time. You’d use technology, such as embedded multimedia, to add motivation, build skills, and individualize for students’ needs. You’d constantly assess children’s progress in reading and respond right away if they are found to be falling behind in any way.
Understanding that parents are a key partner, you’d encourage and help them read with their kids, build vocabulary, and develop a love of reading. You’d also work with parents to help ensure that all children attend school every day, and are healthy, well nourished, and have enough sleep.
You’d provide your staff with extensive professional development, give them regular opportunities to share ideas and solve problems with each other, and constantly monitor the quality of every part of your strategy. And, when your staff runs into problems that are not being solved with current approaches, you’d experiment with alternative solutions.
Each element of this strategy has substantial evidence of effectiveness in increasing reading performance.
If you did all of these things, and if the entire school system were focused on making sure that they were done in every elementary school, could anyone doubt that reading failure would be greatly reduced, if not eliminated?
Yet this rather obvious set of actions is far from what actually happens in most Title I schools. Title I elementary schools have funding for precisely this kind of work, and because they receive a lot of federal money, these schools are particularly responsive to federal policy. This is an area in which federal policy could make a substantial difference. Federal policies sometimes focus on aspects of reading, but do not facilitate the comprehensive approach needed to get every child to succeed.
Many problems of education are very complex, and the right solutions are not immediately apparent. In contrast, reading for every child is dead simple. Solutions are known. Wouldn’t it make sense to focus attention on this critical, solvable problem?