Prioritize Tutoring for Low-Achieving Readers

In speaking and writing about tutoring, I am often asked about where limited tutoring resources should be concentrated.  My answer is this: “Make certain that every single child in America who needs it gets enough tutoring to be proficient in phonics. All other priorities are tied for second place.”

There are many pragmatic reasons why early reading should be the focus. First, the largest number of proven tutoring programs focus on grades K-2 or K-3 reading, and these programs tend to have spectacular impacts on measures of reading comprehension as well as phonics. Second, reading is fundamental. Very few students end up in special education, or are held back in grade, due to failure in any other subject, for example. Most other subjects depend on reading, of course. But also, a student’s academic self-esteem depends primarily on his or her self-perception as a reader.

Note that “early reading” in this case does not only mean reading in grades K-3. The great majority of students who are failing in reading in grades 4-12 do not have solid phonics skills, typically taught in grades K-2. There are no proven middle school reading programs in the U.S., but there are two in England, and both were adapted from K-2 programs, with a strong focus on phonics.

My point about focusing on phonics first is influenced by the fact that very poor reading skills (defined here as scoring “below basic” on NAEP) are very widespread, especially among disadvantaged and minority students. On the 2019 4th grade NAEP, 34% of all students, but 52% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students, scored below basic. At 8th grade, it’s 27% below basic for all, 46% for Black students, and 37% for Hispanic students. Using these numbers, I’d estimate that 9.5 million elementary and 7.3 million secondary students are scoring below basic on NAEP reading, and surely need tutoring. While we wait for someone to create and evaluate secondary reading tutoring programs, could we start with the 9.5 million elementary students? This is a mighty big job in itself. We could also use proven upper-elementary tutoring programs to work with some proportion of secondary students reading far below grade level.

Even leaving aside the importance of immediate capacity, demonstrated impact, and the obvious importance of reading in elementary schools, consider the huge role of the reading gap on the most important social problem in our nation: Inequality by race and social class. In large part, racial and social class disparities cause the reading gap, but they are also caused by reading gaps. And it is possible to close the reading gaps, alongside other efforts focusing on closing economic, housing, criminal justice, and other gaps. If we made sure that every American child could read at the fifth grade level by fifth grade, the reading gap would be no longer be a major problem.

The numbers I have been citing are from 2019, before the pandemic. Now things are much worse, and there are surely a lot more than 9.5 million elementary students and 7.3 million secondary students who would score below “basic” on NAEP. Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan Act is providing substantial resources to combat Covid learning losses, and low achievement in general. Covid or no Covid, we have an opportunity and a clear pressing need to close the reading gap and provide a strong foundation for reading for today’s students.

Note that I do not mean to minimize the importance of mathematics, or of secondary school reading and math. These are crucial as well, and we need to solve these problems too. But first out of the gate, in 2021-2022, let’s make sure we use the proven tools we have at hand to solve the problem we happen to be best placed to solve, which happens to be the most important educational problem we face at this moment.

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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