We are growing impatient for reading improvements

Published March 23, 2023

By Tom Campbell

For more than a decade we’ve studied the problem exhaustively, we’ve talked about it almost incessantly, we’ve engaged the latest curriculum du jour, and have spent more than $50 million dollars, yet we still can’t solve the mystery of our children’s reading proficiency. Our patience is wearing thin. Now the finger pointing has begun. We want to know who to blame. Two recent stories demonstrate the frustration,
The March 11 editorial from The Washington Post was titled, “Cut the politics. Phonics is the best way to teach reading.” The Editorial Board minced few words in saying that people learn to talk by listening, but that’s not how people learn to read. They must be taught, and the trouble is that parents and educators can’t seem to agree on the best way to do that.
The column goes on that the approaches that we as a nation have been following aren’t working. Reading scores demonstrate that too many can’t read. Only one-third of fourth and eighth graders are proficient at reading. It is unacceptable and proof that we aren’t teaching reading properly.
The WaPo editorial continues, saying the debate over “how to best teach children to read lends itself to a conclusive answer. That’s phonics.” The column launches into praise for the “Mississippi miracle,” a program that resulted in their state’s fourth grade reading proficiency jumping from 49th in the nation to 29th.  Third grade reading proficiency rose to above 80 percent.
In North Carolina the data is deplorable. Pre-pandemic end of grade tests revealed only 57 percent of third graders were sufficiently proficient to be promoted to fourth grade. Last November the scores dropped to 47 percent proficient. In other words, 53 percent were not reading at grade level in grades three through eight. That’s a failing grade no matter which scale you use.
In classic fashion, our state jumped on the latest fad and purchased a program called LETRS, language essentials for teachers of reading and spelling. It required 44,000 elementary teachers in our state to undergo 160 hours of training. You can just imagine how excited our already weary teachers were.
But despite all the money and the new training we are still not seeing dramatic improvements. And lawmakers, parents and our UNC Board of Governors (BOG) want to know why.
In January the BOG stated the obvious, saying one essential step in the process is ensuring that our schools of education prepare prospective teachers to best teach reading. They cite a report from TPI-US, a non-profit organization that consults on teacher preparation programs. It reviewed 73 courses across all 15 of our universities and reported only six of the 15 were “consistently practicing the new reading approach in all or most courses.” The other nine need significant improvements in course content and faculty teaching. The UNC system governing board was clearly irritated and is threatening action if our universities don’t turn things around, telling our schools of education they have four months to improve. Left unfinished was the “or else” part of the declaration.
We understood that the university can’t teach children to read, but they can ensure that the teachers who do teach reading are properly taught to do so.
Here’s my spin: This isn’t nuclear physics. What worked when we were kids will work now. Remember learning our ABCs by singing the old familiar song and we were also coached on what sounds letters make, along with rules like “i” before “e” except after c. A large part of our reading education focused on regularly reading out loud to a teacher, parent or volunteer. Whenever we stumbled trying to read a word we were constantly coached to “sound it out.”
All of this process was reinforced by having vocabulary words to learn each week – both how to spell the word and what it meant. There was the test each Friday to make sure we had learned our words. And if we didn’t pass the test, we might have to stay in during recess to focus on them more. Like construction, one level was layered over the one before. No wonder the process has been called “drill and kill.”
It is just that: a process. One that worked then and works now. But for reasons hard for this layman to understand we aren’t following the tried-and-true plan. We don’t need fancy programs, meetings, 160 hours of training or much else. We just need to execute the basics.
Educators need to understand that we are increasingly impatient. We want better results soon. It is priority one in elementary education.