It’s time for the U.S. to rethink reading in the classroom

A staggering two-thirds of American kids cannot read fluently, according to the National Assessment of Educational Process. According to their 2022 Report Card, about 30% of fourth graders can read above the NAEP Basic level but below Proficient, while 37% of fourth graders read below the Basic level, meaning almost four out of every 10 fourth graders are essentially nonreaders.

This is just one data set that is a testament to America’s literacy crisis. Educators and parents alike have also grown increasingly aware that children are having difficulty reading — and are increasingly outspoken about it.

This is an undeniably grave and critical issue that needs to be addressed by policymakers, educators and parents. Though it is certainly difficult to reduce to one solution, on the whole, it is necessary to reframe the approach to teaching literacy — as well as to attend to other factors like pandemic-related learning loss and socioeconomic gaps.

For decades, there has been a debate over the two main approaches to teaching reading. Phonics-based instruction centers on the relationship between written letters and the sounds they make. On the other hand, supporters of the “whole language” method believe children will naturally memorize words if exposed to them — akin to learning how to speak a language. 

Since the 1990s, most schools in the U.S. utilize a “balanced literacy” approach, which technically incorporates reading philosophies. However, just how “balanced” it is varies widely, according to Education Week. Balanced literacy usually does not focus strongly enough on the phonics element, and it’s this approach that needs to be rethought.

There is an abundance of research that suggests phonics are reliable and effective. As just one specific example, a 2007 meta-analysis of 22 studies found that urban minority elementary students who were taught phonics scored the equivalent of several months ahead of their peers, not just in reading, but on multiple academic measures.

Beyond pure research, there are plenty of examples of the benefits of state-implemented phonics instruction. Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama — all states that had low NAEP reading scores — have made gains due to recent legislation. Mississippi rose from the 49th state for fourth-grade reading in 2013 to the 21st in 2022, according to AP News. While Mississippi relied on multiple strategies, a substantial change was an emphasis on teaching phonics.

One of the opinions of the balanced literacy camp is that repetitive phonics instruction diminishes childrens’ natural enjoyment of reading, making them less likely to get the practice necessary to become truly adept.

Indeed, while lessons centered around phonics can be boring and even initially confusing, if a child does not fully understand the “building blocks” of written language, then reading will be a continuous struggle. Of course, reducing all instruction to phonics is simplifying the issue, but to read, in fundamental terms, is to decipher letters to understand a word. Without a basic understanding of that process, students are not truly reading. They are memorizing; they are guessing.

However, other factors have contributed to the literacy crisis, like pandemic-related learning loss. Though the fourth-grade NAEP reading average scores did decrease by two points from 2017 to 2019, they fell by another three points from 2019 to 2022. 

The pandemic has also exacerbated education inequity, especially in regards to low-income students and English- language learners, according to Policy Analysis for California Education. 

Various methods to recover learning loss have been suggested, including additional education time, teacher-centered reforms and student connectivity. These are just some ways schools could fight the aspects of the literacy crisis that were generated by the pandemic.

Beyond this, more should be done.

Parents should make a committed effort to read to their children, and the teacher shortage in the U.S. should be attended to. In essence, there are options. We just have to act on them. America needs to be awoken to the fact that as of now, we are setting children up for a lifetime of hardship if they cannot skillfully read — and the country truly needs to do everything in its power to prevent this.

Previous post Personal Perspective: Caroline Hunt
Next post Staff Ed: Healthcare is a human right. California is finally recognizing that.