This is a popular notion right now as the education pendulum swings back toward phonics. States are jumping on board the train. Here in Utah, every K-3 teacher has been made to take part in a two-year program to get them on the phonics page – essentially, a college class for teacher’s evenings and weekends.
Underlying all of this phonics fervor is the mistaken notion that schools can instruct students into reading proficiency. Contrary to the radio show thesis, I think schools made the mistake of thinking they could move students to proficiency without family involvement.
It was about 20 years ago that I noticed a shift in the rhetoric at trainings and meetings. If a teacher brought up strategies for how to get families involved with reading with students at home we were told, “We can’t control that, so let’s talk about the things we can control.” Instruction of students became less of a partnership between home and school. Over time, the responsibility shifted solely to the school. A lot of parents took that as a signal that they could leave the work of educating their child to that building the child busses to each morning. For many, education became a consumer item that one could write a check for and forget about.
So, in a lot of American homes, kids just quit reading. There is your third of students not reading on grade level. The best instruction by the best instructors will not change that.
There is a slice of students who need intervention due to reading struggles… but, in my experience, that is not the issue with most underperforming readers. These kids need time on the page and they are not getting it. They need daily, one on one, time with an adult who reads with them. Schools (for all of their best intentions) and states (with their expectations) cannot make up for that lack.
Let me give the example of George. He was a (very) senior citizen who came to my former Title One school every day to read with kids. He was not a reading specialist. He was available and he read with one of my 6th-grade students almost every day.
My student read at a 2nd-grade level. She didn’t like to read because she was unsuccessful at it and because she was unsuccessful at it she didn’t like to read. Most of my Title One students were stuck in this vicious circle. Still, she was willing to read with George.
Over the months, her resistance to reading lessened. She started carrying a book in her back pocket and I would catch her at recess reading under a tree. By the end of the year, she was reading at a 4th-grade level.
Her success had nothing to do with my reading instruction (I had 37 students that year). It was her daily time spent with a saint who somehow got from his downtown apartment to our building.
Moving that struggling third cited in the radio show to grade-level is not going to come about due to instructional methods. It will happen when our culture gets back to adults being available to read with kids.