Ending the Downward Literacy Spiral

The data is alarming, twenty-five million children in the United States don’t read proficiently, reading test scores are dropping, the number of illiterate adults is also climbing. On the face of it, the future looks bleak, but it is anything but hopeless. Twenty years of research by reading experts, developmental and educational psychologists, cognitive and neuroscientists has led to important breakthroughs that fundamentally change the way reading should be taught and could break this downward spiral of literacy!

The researchers’ goal was to answer some very important questions:

  • How do children learn to read? 
  • What causes reading difficulties? 
  • What are the essential components of effective reading instruction and why is each important? How can we prevent or reduce reading difficulties?

Scientists used the latest equipment to study brain activity of children as they engaged in reading activities. They learned which areas of the brain were activated by both speech and print and their responses to instruction. The results of this research is known as the Science of Reading.

Reading Instruction Based on the Science of Reading

The National Reading Panel (NRP) reviewed the findings of the research and found that many reading difficulties could be tied to inadequate phonics instruction and that systematic and explicit phonemic awareness instruction resulted in improvement of both reading and spelling. As a result of the Science of Reading, in 2000 the National Reading Panel established five key components for effective reading instruction for young children.

  1. Phonemic Awareness – the ability to identify the different sounds that make up speech. The ability to distinguish and manipulate letter sounds within words is critical to reading success. Researchers found that processing sounds is the fastest thing the brain does. 
  1. Phonics – the ability to match sounds to letters or letter groups. This skill is important because mapping sounds onto spellings enables children to decode words and devote their full attention to making meaning of the text.
  1. Fluency – the ability to read accurately and quickly. Fluency is essentially the bridge between word recognition and comprehension.
  1. Vocabulary – learning new words to expand knowledge. Having a working vocabulary is key to reading comprehension because understanding words is vital to understanding what’s been read. 
  1. Comprehension – understanding and making meaning of what was read. Comprehension happens when words on a page become thoughts, ideas, and important information. This is the ultimate goal of reading and translates to long-term growth and success. 

These guidelines seem pretty straightforward and have scientific research and data to back their implementation, but they aren’t being implemented in many areas. In fact, the Science of Reading is still being ignored in favor of other approaches that haven’t proven to be successful. Pre-service teachers are often given a rudimentary foundation for teaching reading. School systems often invest in programs that, on the surface, appear to be just what their students need, but in practice fall short of meeting the basic principles of the Science of Reading.

It is expensive to “retrain” teachers and even harder to change ingrained ways of teaching reading. This is quickly changing as state and national reading deficits become priorities to state educational leaders and government officials. It’s a crisis that can longer be ignored. An illiterate population means a decline in the workforce and standard of living. Florida, along with ten other states have passed legislation designed to expand evidence-based reading instruction. Others will likely follow suit soon. There is a push for increased teacher training and for intervention programs to support students who struggle with reading. Funding is increasing in these areas.

Ending the downward spiral of illiteracy is possible if we teach children early using evidence-based practices. Reading closes the gaps between the haves and have nots, it ends the cycle of poverty and provides a way for social and economic success for all. We have the power to meet children where they are and give them hope that will take them farther than they can ever imagine. Reading opens a world of possibilities!

Teia Hoover Baker is an educator, published author, and entrepreneur. She is an innovative, devoted educator whose career has been dedicated to coordinating programs that support struggling learners. Her passion is meeting students where they are and guiding them to excel. Her main focus is always what is best for children. Teia holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism and a Master’s of Education. In her spare time, she enjoys being Lovie to her growing grandchildren.

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