Changing the Opportunity Gap in Reading
65, 51, 2 – 5, 25, 5, and 1 - What do these numbers have in common?
There's a story to tell with these numbers (and no, they’re not this week’s lottery numbers!). Not all of the story is good, I’ll admit…but this story is important, and it comes with a message of hope – hope that we can finally close the opportunity gap in reading.
Please take the time to hear this story and feel inspired to spread the message of hope that this story can bring to millions of young and struggling readers from around the world.
Closing the Opportunity Gap in Reading
[If you'd rather read the transcript from the above video, here ya go...]
The Truth about America’s Opportunity Gap in Reading
If you're not already fuelled with passion to make reading education in this country available to everyone and eradicating the opportunity gap for good, I hope this will light a little fire within you!
I don't want to overwhelm you, but I do want to give you a vision for how it can be done and not be overwhelming. So, let's go back to those numbers I mentioned on top of this post...
First of all, in the U.S., about 65% of fourth-graders are not proficient readers. This is a really large number, right? We can do better than this!
I think a part of the problem is that we've gotten accustomed to this. This is how it’s been (more or less) ever since the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) has been in development. Those numbers are even worse for our students of color. It’s simply not acceptable.
But, I don't want you to panic because there are some other numbers...
Is How We Prepare Teachers a Part of The Problem?
Yes, our kids aren’t learning as well as we might have thought. However, the issue seems to stem--in part--from the way we're preparing our teachers.
Teachers learn a lot about how to do writing processes, how to do interactive, read alouds, shared reading, how to build community, and so on. While these are all wonderful things, there is something very important being left out or perhaps not addressed as thoroughly as it should be.
If you’ve gone through the mainstream traditional reading education program here in the U.S., there is at least one really important component that we're not getting across well. This component is represented by the number 51.
The National Council for Teacher Quality is assessing teacher preparation programs in the U.S. and looking at some very fundamental things. Are they including the big five that were indicated as most important from the National Reading Panel? Are these teacher prep programs, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, knowledge, and comprehension?
51% are including those foundational principles, at least at some level. That means that many of them (49%!) are excluding some of those core components, which we know lead to reading achievement. That would be like a doctor missing an entire section of their preparation by not learning about viruses and how to treat them. It's just unacceptable.
Sharing my experience…
I think there is a correlation between these two numbers (65% and 51%). Of course, what's going on in teacher prep programs is not everything by any stretch of the imagination, but we hear regularly from teachers like you, that you haven't felt very well prepared to teach reading. And, you haven't felt like you knew how to teach anyone how to read the words. You’re not the only one - that was my experience too!
I had a master's degree. I felt like I had good tools for learning and how to teach higher level skills, how to teach comprehension strategies, how to develop motivation, how to develop knowledge of different genres, and so on. But when it came to the topic of learning how to recognize words, I was not well-prepared.
That is what led me on this path to develop Reading Simplified. Over the last 20 years, I've been working passionately on this, and that's part of my message of hope.
Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, & Overcoming Reading Difficulties
Next, I want to explore the meaning behind the numbers 2 to 5 and 25. How do they relate?
Well, David Kilpatrick, who wrote this ground-shifting book, ‘Essentials of Assessing Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties’ in 2015, starts the book out with some really powerful words. He builds a case for this thesis that he's established in the first few pages and I believe that his findings relate to the numbers I mentioned above.
Here’s a short quote from Kilpatrick:
"There have been literally thousands of research studies in the last four decades on all aspects of reading, but only small bits and pieces seem to make their way out of the scientific journals and into our K 12 classrooms."
Has that been your experience? To some extent, that has been mine too. Kilpatrick goes on to say…
"To illustrate this, studies of the most common intervention practices used for struggling readers show that those interventions result in an average improvement of two to five standard score points.”
"By contrast, some of the research coming from federal intervention grant initiatives indicate average improvements of 12 to 25 standard score points that are maintained for two to three and four years follow ups. The fact that we are not seeing average gains like these in our schools demonstrates why I refer to this research as largely untapped."
So, we are actually blessed with a tremendous amount of reading research now, but it's just not getting its way into the classrooms. It’s really important to make a difference to these numbers. Why aren't we doing the interventions that get 25 standard score point differences, as opposed to just two to five? That’s a big difference--one of the main points that Kilpatrick is making.
Addressing the Lack of Phonemic Awareness Teaching in Schools
Another thing that I want to point out with regards to this 51%, is that a lot of schools are not teaching phonemic awareness despite the fact that phonemic awareness is the number one trait most likely to predict reading achievement.
In other words, not enough schools are teaching educators about the best single predictor of reading achievement. Phonemic awareness--the perception of individual sounds in words--is the best predictor and, yet, many schools don’t give it the close attention it needs.
This is kind of mind-blowing because, in the social science research, you always find initially that IQ or socioeconomic status as the main predictor of outcomes, because the opportunities we have and maybe the gifting that we were born with, can often precede all the other things. But in the case of reading, I.Q. is not number one, nor is SES.
There is this brain skill called phonemic awareness, that perception of hearing the sounds and words, that ties into beginning reading and how sounds and symbols line up. This is one of the biggest missing pieces for our kids.
This reading research is not just coming out in the last four to five decades and telling us that phonics is important. Yes, we know we need to teach the information explicitly, but really the thing that's most surprising (that the public may not be aware of) is that phonemic awareness is what drives and opens up the door for students to be able to read.
Yet, a lot of our teacher prep programs aren't teaching phonemic awareness, even though it's strongly correlated with early reading achievement skills.
Why is Phonemic Awareness Important?
Phonemic Awareness is the number one predictor and has been studied across a wide range of areas including psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, brain scans, educational studies, case studies, qualitative studies, and many others.
Teaching Phonemic Awareness is particularly important for English speakers because our language’s spelling system is a little trickier than most alphabetic spelling systems. We have to have more finely tuned skills when it comes to processing the individual sounds so that we can map them more carefully to all the possible spelling choices or match them up.
Can we Really Make a Change?
So, if we're going to change this number (65%), you must be confident that we can! We’ve seen interventions that are getting 25 standard score points, but that's not the status quo. Two to 5 standard score points are the status quo, and, in many places, the status quo is ignoring phonemic awareness.
Or, if it's including phonemic awareness, usually it is just at a lower level of segmenting or blending. Another important point that comes from David Kilpatrick's work, is that phonemic awareness at the segmenting or blending level is lower than the manipulation level. That’s the manipulation level that all good readers get and that all the studies that have strong outcomes have that type of training.
When we create word work activities that connect sounds and symbols and get kids moving sounds and symbols in and out of words, in a manipulating way, or they're really playing with the sounds of words, that's when we're going to see the gains like this.
We know it can happen because there have been several large federally-funded research experiments with a control group and a group that got the treatment that included the number one predictor for phonemic awareness training. We have seen these programs get the ‘failure rate’ down to 5%.
So, why are we still accepting 65% as the status quo? Sixty-five percentage of our kids are not reading proficiently in the U.S. and in many other English-speaking countries too.
How to Close the Opportunity Gap in Reading
When you think about these numbers, it might seem like there is a lot that needs to change to close the opportunity gap in reading.
However, don’t be discouraged!
Sixty-five percentage of children are not proficient readers, but that can change. We can do better. We don't need to live in this (65%) world. This is not because of poverty entirely. It is not because of structural things in society and structural things in our schools. Those things do matter. But, if we simply implemented what we already know from research and did the activities that we’re getting strong outcomes from, we would see this number change rapidly, and we should be aiming not for 65% to struggle, but 5%.
So, if you are one of those teachers that have felt like you were not prepared to teach reading, and I've been there, I don't want you to just get discouraged. I don't want you to get overwhelmed. I want you to keep believing that we can do better, and I want you to expect more. We have proven that we can do better. We know there's lots of science and studies that show what we're missing out on, and we should start pushing towards that to help close the opportunity gap.
If you don't have answers yourself yet, I would encourage you to keep searching here at Reading Simplified. We are trying to present a streamlined, simple system for how to teach anyone how to read.
As a reading tutor, I typically get struggling readers to grade level after 12 hours of reading instruction. Students who might be at a more challenging level will take longer for sure, but they're not taking years with their approaches that integrate phonemic awareness at a high level in all activities. The roots of the program that we recommend here at Reading Simplified are connected to programs that have gotten those 25 standard score point gains.
So, consider the activities here at readingsimplified.com to learn how a handful of activities can accelerate your students' reading, or if you're not interested in that, I still encourage you to keep searching. Look for answers. Don't be satisfied with the status quo. We can do better than this. We should expect more.
Pair all of this with all the challenges that our children face today, and our schools face, such as structural challenges, poverty, racism, homelessness, mental health, all of the challenges that we face. If we're going to choose an intervention that is going to barely move the needle...we shouldn't expect to see this change, but we know we can do better. Don't give up. Expect more and keep searching!