Why Kids Can't Read
The cause of poor education
By Nancy Salvato
Studying Teacher Education -- a voluminous report of the American Educational Research Association Panel on Research and Teacher Education (2005) -- reaches some tough and generally honest conclusions about the scant evidence supporting the value of formal teacher education. In short, they concede that there is presently very little empirical evidence to support the methods used to prepare the nation's teachers. 
When employed, research-based teaching methods and approaches can assure that our children will read proficiently.  In a new book, Why Kids Can't Read: Challenging the Status Quo in Education (edited by Phyllis Blaunstein and Reid Lyon), are twelve essays which explain not only how to identify problematic methods commonly employed to teach children to read in our nation's schools, but also include a number of scientifically proven methods of reading instruction which can help resolve the crisis of inappropriately prepared teachers using poor pedagogy to teach reading.
In chapter one, The Crisis in Our Classroom, Blaunstein and Lyon explain that the goal of whole language philosophy based programs, for which there is no scientific evidence to support "is to instill a love of reading, not the ability to read, seemingly without the realization that the latter is the pathway to the former."  Although scientific research deems the following skills necessary for reading success: phonemic awareness; phonics; vocabulary; reading fluency; and comprehension strategies, they are not systematically and explicitly instructed within these programs.  Blaunstein and Lyon conclude that although the current system is failing our children, "well trained teachers, effective instructional programs, and strong educational leadership" can ensure most children will learn to read.
Chapter two, Armed With the Facts: The Science of Reading and Its Implications for Teaching, urges readers to share the scientific basis for phonics-based reading methods and provides clues to help determine whether or not a child has a reading problem.  Two doctors, Sally and Bennett Shaywitz explain that the National Reading Panel (NRP) found that to break the code, beginning readers must discover that spoken words have parts and that the smallest sounds are called phonemes. Phonemic awareness is being able to segment (pull apart) and blend (push together) the individual sounds in words. Reading difficulties stem from being unable to perform this type of exercise.  Learning how letters and letter combinations link to sounds is called phonics. There are 44 phonemes and 26 letters. Imagine the possibilities... Unless a child can use phonics, words never before encountered are unmanageable.  In whole language approaches, children guess words by looking at pictures or using the context rather than sounding it out. Although some phonics may be taught, "letter-sound linkages are not taught in a preplanned or systemic way; often some, but not all, of these linkages are taught, and vowels are often overlooked."  The Shaywitzes dispel the myth that reading difficulties are developmental lags and will be outgrown.  Furthermore, they explain that evidence-based reading intervention can spur necessary neural systems growth, which results in significant and durable changes in brain organization.  Finally, they provide a list of symptoms which can indicate reading problems which must be addressed. 
In the next four chapters, individual authors share personal stories about how the system was failing and the ways they each responded to their individual situation in order to receive proper reading instruction. Whether enlisting the help of a "Reading Specialist", doing some sleuthing to determine whether reading materials are in alignment with current research on reading, realizing that behavior problems are a symptom of reading distress and shopping around for a school that can meet a specific need, or advocating policymakers for widespread changes in instruction, everyone has suggestions on how to solve the problem, although many of the solutions require time and commitment.
While chapters seven and eight deal with how to enlist the media and how to advocate to change laws in order to benefit your cause, chapter nine provides a history of how reading came into this state of being. Sara Porter explains that there are many teachers who are aware there are problems with the instruction of a portion of their students but have not accepted the solution. In some cases, remediation is simply more of the same whole language programs. 
The science and evidence that now tell teachers that they must teach children to read using instruction that is systematic, structured and comprehensive, and that this is necessary for all children, are viewed with suspicion. They do not understand that this is not simply an "approach." They do not understand that scientifically based reading instruction is not a "one-size-fits-all" solution. On the contrary, scientifically based instruction is built upon our knowledge of how children learn to read and why some children have difficulty learning. It asks that teachers understand this knowledge in depth so they can adjust instruction to meet every child's needs - needs that differ from child to child. 
Chapter 10 and 11 give accounts about how two different schools implemented plans which would help students achieve grade level in reading. I preferred the plan offered by Benjamin Sayeski at Johnson Elementary School in North Carolina because it took only three years to establish and make gains. Also, the plan utilized at Hartsfield Elementary School, which took six years to implement, required dumping Social Studies instruction at certain grade levels. This is because it relied on commercial curriculums which did not integrate the disciplines. I believe that expository reading and writing can be taught through Social Studies and that just because it isn't tested doesn't mean it isn't important.
After the book's conclusion there are a number of appendixes, a glossary, and resources to help the reader affect change in the way reading is currently being taught in our nation's schools. I especially enjoyed First Lady Laura Bush's essay on how to identify a good early reading program.
Overall, this is an extremely informative, helpful book for anyone interested in understanding what the reading wars are about and how to navigate through the propaganda and decipher the facts. I highly recommend this book.
Blaunstein, Phyllis, and Reid Lyon. Why Kids Can't Read: Challenging the Status Quo in Education. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2006.
Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy. Copyright (c) Nancy Salvato 2006
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