“Research has documented what works to get kids to read, yet those evidence-based reading practices appear to be missing from most classrooms,” write three public school administrators in a recent issue of Education Week, a prominent industry publication.

“Systemic failures have left educators overwhelmingly unaware of the research on how kids learn to read,” they continue. “Many teacher-preparation programs lack effective reading training, something educators rightly lament once they get to the classroom. On personal blogs and social media, teachers often write of learning essential reading research years into their careers, with powerful expressions of dismay and betrayal that they weren’t taught sooner.”

Although nearly 20 years has passed since a blue-ribbon federal reading panel reviewed 100,000 studies about reading instruction and issued a careful report that came down firmly on the side of phonics, most public schools are still using failed and ineffective methods to teach reading. This has handicapped millions of American children and led to a “national reading crisis,” the three say.

Among the things most schools and teachers fail to do to support reading are:

  • Nine in ten schools group children by reading level or assign books only at their supposed reading level, even though that’s not effective.
  • Many teachers overemphasize “reading skills and strategies” at the expense of phonics and practice, which are more important.
  • Students won’t understand what they read if they don’t know a lot about a lot of different things, and most schools’ curricula don’t ensure students learn a lot about a lot of different things (i.e., is “content light” and skills heavy). Southwest Allen County Public Schools, for example, mandate daily 90-minute blocks of reading instruction in early grades, which is more time than it actually takes to teach reading using phonics. It also crowds out time for learning in other subjects that actually improve reading comprehension. Across the country since the 1990s, history and science study has dropped an hour and a half per week on average.
  • “Daily, systematic phonics instruction in early grades is recommended by the National Institute for Literacy, based on extensive evidence from the National Reading Panel.”

This state of affairs is not a new problem. It was first popularized by the University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch’s bestseller “Cultural Literacy” in the 1980s. Despite years of reform attempts and examples like this showing that most schools are simply not doing what is best for kids, little has changed.

Teachers shouldn’t be ashamed of not knowing what most teaching programs haven’t taught them and schools should change their practices to do what is best for kids. In the mean time, parents should find schools that are already doing it.

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