Most people, even those whose children are facing the horror of reading difficulties, are totally unaware of the fact that the problem is not limited to 5 percent, 10 percent, or even 20 percent of the population. The shocking fact is that approximately 2 out of 3 children—perfectly healthy, normal children—fail to achieve proficiency in reading.
It seems impossible to believe that a skill this important could be in this much trouble. But it is. In state after state, the figures for failure hover around the same numbers. For example, in a report titled The Nation’s Report Card: Fourth-Grade Reading, the National Assessment for Educational Progress (U.S. Department of Education, 20013) found almost 4 in 10 fourth graders reading “below basic levels,” and only 3 out of 10 “above proficient levels.” Think about it—more children are doing badly than are doing well!
Because reading is the single most critical and important skill children will need to succeed in school and in life, failure in this area can be devastating—for the children, their families, and the nation. All too often the children who struggle with reading are diagnosed as “learning disabled,” placing the problem on the child and not on the system. But as a prestigious government report acknowledges, 80 percent of children with learning disabilities are in special education “simply because they haven’t learned to read.” They are “instructional casualties and not students with disabilities” (President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education).
We could delve into a whole range of issues that contribute to this horrendous state of affairs. Kids watch too much TV; teachers are overburdened; books cannot compete with high-tech devices. But if you want to cut to the quick, there is a single, simple source: the current teaching of reading rests on a slim set of weak, inadequate techniques that can do nothing more than leave many, many of our children in the dust. As long as these techniques are used, failure is ordained!
Reading education in schools has limited itself to two systems: phonics and whole language. Phonics, the dominant force, focuses on having children convert the letters on a page into the sounds that become real words. The whole language approach concentrates on providing children with complete, or “whole,” books that are deemed to be more “natural,” “authentic,” and “motivating” than traditionally used teaching materials.
Despite the fact that these inadequate systems have resulted in so much failure, the schools are not trying anything else. It’s like hitting your head against a wall. The pain won’t stop until you stop the banging! Or as Albert Einstein put it, “There is nothing that is a more certain sign of insanity than to do the same thing over and over and expect the results to be different.” As long as current reading techniques are used, the frighteningly high rate of reading failure is ordained!
Schools often try to calm the many doubts that parents raise with well-intentioned messages, such as, “Children are different. Just give him time,” or, “She’s really beginning to make progress,” or, “We are using a balanced approach and offering your child everything that will lead to reading success.” Those messages can be deadly. What you sense about the advantages of success in early reading is true. And what you sense about the dire consequences that follow from early reading difficulties is also true. The sad fact is children who do not read well by third grade almost never end up reading well, and as a child grows, reading problems only worsen—it’s a snowballing handicap. Without the skills that school brings, job opportunities, job satisfaction, and high earnings often fall out of reach.
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