The Agony of Reading Failure

by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.d.

It is a Tuesday morning and the kids in Ms. Martin’s third grade classroom are participating in a lesson where the youngsters take turns reading aloud. Adam hates this exercise. He becomes more and more anxious and fearful as it nears his turn. Adam begins reading. It takes him a long time because many of the words baffle him even though he knows he has seen them before. He guesses at their pronunciation but tittering from his classmates tells him he guessed wrong. He is full of shame. The rock in his stomach grows heavier and he wants to cry. He feels very stupid. As he continues, he reads some of the words correctly but then misreads the same word as it appears in the next sentence. He starts and stops, as he tries to sound out some words, but he cannot remember which sounds go with which letters. The class tittering grows louder and he hears quiet laughter when an attempt to pronounce a word results in a word that does not exist. He hears the dreaded words again, “Adam is so dumb.” His heart is pounding louder and he wants to crawl in a hole and hide. He is mortified. Finally, he comes to the end of his passage and Ms. Martin asks him to explain in his own words what he read. Adam literally has no idea. He was working so hard to say each word that there was no way he could make meaning from what he read, much less explain to the class what his passage was about. He is devastated once again and can only shake his head in a way that tells Ms. Martin that he can’t. This happens most days to Adam, he feels dumb and worthless every day. At home, he frequently cries himself to sleep on school nights. Sarah, whose turn is coming, is scared to death. She sounds just like Adam and she knows what is coming.

Unfortunately, Adam and Sarah are not alone. There are thousands of Adams and Sarahs at every grade level in the majority of schools across America. Research, over the past four decades, conducted by scientists in the National Institutes of Health, reading research network, has taught us that for about 60% of our nation’s children learning to read is a formidable challenge, and for at least 20% to 30% of these youngsters, reading is one of the most difficult tasks that they will have to master throughout their schooling.

The centrality of reading skills
Why is this so disturbing? Simply because if you do not learn to read and you live in America, you probably will not make it in life, or reach your full potential. Consider that reading serves as the major avenue to learning about people, about history, social studies, the language arts, science, mathematics, and the other content subjects that must be mastered in school. When children do not learn to read, their general knowledge, their spelling and writing abilities, and their vocabulary development suffer in kind. Said more bluntly, reading proficiency serves as the major foundational skill for all school based learning, and without it, the chances for academic and occupational success are limited indeed.

There are many educators who seem to have difficulty understanding that reading failure rates have remained at about the same levels for as long as we have measured reading abilities. And as with Adam and Sarah, our longitudinal studies following thousands of proficient and non-proficient readers from preschool into adulthood underscore the devastating effects that reading failure has on children’s lives. By the end of the first grade, we begin to notice substantial decreases in the children’s self-esteem, self-concept, and motivation to learn to read if they have not been able to master reading skills to keep up with their age-mates. As we follow the children through elementary and middle school grades these problems compound, and, in many cases very bright youngsters are unable to learn about the wonders of science, mathematics, literature, and the like because they cannot read the grade-level textbooks. Consider that by middle school, proficient-readers typically will read at least 10,000,000 words during the school year. On the other hand, children with reading difficulties read less than 100,000 words during the same period. Poor readers lag far behind in vocabulary development and in the acquisition of strategies for understanding what they read, and they frequently avoid reading and other assignments that require reading. By high school, these children’s potential for entering college has decreased to almost nil, with few choices available to them with respect to occupational and vocational opportunities. These individuals constantly tell us that they hate to read, primarily because it is such hard work, and their reading is so slow and laborious. As one adolescent in one of our longitudinal studies remarked recently, “I would rather have a root-canal than read.”

Reading proficiency as an indicator
Reading failure is invasive and cumulative. Our National Institutes of Health (NIH) studies have taught us that eighty percent of youngsters who read poorly at the end of the first grade, read poorly at the end of the fourth grade if they have not received highly effective instruction. The Alliance for Excellence in Education reports that students who have not caught up by nine years of age typically drop out of school at significantly higher rates than their classmates who read proficiently. Poor readers are more likely to become a teen parent, end up in prison, and suffer from persistent health problems.

While a lack of proficiency in reading is more likely among poor children, nonwhite children, and nonnative speakers of English, recent data derived from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, 2013) reveals an alarming and continuing trend in Pennsylvania. Twenty seven percent of Pennsylvania’s fourth grade children had little or no mastery of the knowledge and skills necessary to perform reading activities at grade level. Reading failure, of that magnitude, cuts across all ethnic and socioeconomic variables. Fifty three percent (53%) of African-Americans, 44% of Hispanics and 20% of white students in the fourth grade across Pennsylvania’s school districts are reading below the basic level. What many of these children have in common is that 41% come from low-income families. Unlike their more advantaged age-mates, they may not have been exposed to laptop reading, bedtime reading, or discussions around the dinner table where a huge amount of vocabulary is acquired. It could be that their parents do not read themselves; it could be that paying for food has a higher priority than buying books, magnetic letters for the refrigerator, drawing paper, newspapers, and other reading-related material. It could be that they hear fewer words at home and have limited conversations with adults. Many have learned only half the words they must know when they enter kindergarten. Often, they will not know the letters of the alphabet or how to follow words from left to right across the printed page. It is very difficult for children to develop emergent literacy skills when they do not have access to these resources at home. By the ninth grade many of these children only have the vocabulary of a third grade student. And this gap in vocabulary development portends a very tough academic road. Consider that a student must be able to read correctly approximately 95% of the words and 90% of the vocabulary presented to comprehend what is read.

Why is learning to read so difficult for many children?
Although we sometimes take our ability to read for granted and many of us cannot recall how we were taught to read, it is a very complicated process. Over the years, some educators have felt that struggling readers could become more proficient if they were just provided a heavy dose of phonics. Other educators have felt that phonics instruction is harmful; they believe learning to read is a natural process requiring only rich exposure to language and literature. Both of these views are incorrect and casting one approach against the other is not productive. The fact is, reading requires the learning of many skills that must be integrated and applied to reading many different types of texts.

Skilled reading requires the awareness of the sounds in our language, a skill referred to as phonemic awareness. This awareness is a difficult skill for many youngsters, particularly those who have limited experience with language and literacy interactions from birth to school entry. Clearly if one does not have an awareness of sound it gets in the way of “sounding out” new and unfamiliar words. The reader then must map the sounds on to the letters of our alphabet, a process commonly referred to as phonics.

While learning these “decoding skills,” phonemic awareness, and phonics skills, is absolutely necessary because readers will constantly encounter new words in print, such skills are not sufficient.

To comprehend what you have read, these “decoding skills” must be applied to text in a rapid and fluent manner. If one spends too much time trying to decode words, it will be difficult to recall what has been read, making comprehension impossible. But, the ability to apply decoding skills while reading text in an accurate and speedy way only gets you so far.

Some of the mechanics of the process of reading
As we read, we are constantly bringing to bear our vocabulary bank to understand what is being read. If I were asked to read a passage from a text on astrophysics, I could probably decode most of the words in a fluent manner but I will not be able to figure out what the heck I read because I simply do not know what the words mean. This sounds like a “no-brainer,” but many educators still do not understand how critical vocabulary development is and why it is so important that vocabulary instruction be present in every lesson, in every content area.

Unfortunately, it is the case that a student may be able to apply decoding skills in a fluent manner and have the necessary vocabulary to understand the words being read but still struggle to comprehend. This happens pretty frequently and it is usually because the student is reading without specific reading strategies to relate what they are reading to their own background experience or to content that they previously learned. This is why a lot of our kids can remember some details in what they read but bog down when asked to apply what they have read. This description of reading development is far too simplified. Our NIH scientists, at Florida State University, developed an illustration that provides a better picture of what it takes to become a skilled reader. While the majority of us reading this article will not understand what the technical words mean, teachers must acquire knowledge of this complexity if they are to be successful in teaching struggling readers.


Reading Comprehension and Critical Thinking graph_color

Effective reading teachers have been trained that there is no substitute for data analysis, and there are no “magic bullet” solutions. One size does not fit all! The trick is to analyze the assessment data, apply the right interventions to the right students, for the right amount of time, and then continually monitor student progress and adjust instruction as necessary when reading goals are not reached. If this is done, we know from our NIH studies that reading failure can be reduced to below 10 percent levels.

If we know this, why does the NAEP data continue to show us horrific reading failure rates? There are many reasons: teacher preparation, continuing education, and leadership quality.

The teaching of teachers needs to be addressed
Arthur Levine, in his 2006 landmark study of teacher education, reported that many teacher education programs do not provide the time or the program structure to prepare effective teachers. Relatively few preparation programs provide systematic mentoring of new teachers by highly effective teachers in student teaching once they arrive at their school.

Our NIH studies found that many teachers receive little formal instruction in reading development during undergraduate or even graduate studies, with the average teacher completing only one to two reading courses. Surveys of teachers taking these courses indicate consistently that they have not observed professors demonstrate instructional reading methods with children, and that coursework is frequently superficial and unrelated to teaching practice. And the supervision of student teaching and practicum experiences is fragmentary inconsistent. At present, motivated teachers are often left on their own to obtain specific skills in teaching phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These motivated teachers often seek out workshops or specialized instructional manuals. It is hard to teach what you do not know and this is not the teacher’s fault. Many times they clearly are doing the best that they can.

The impact of effective leadership at state, district, and school levels is enormous. Next to effective teachers, education leaders have the most impact on student learning and reading achievement. Effective leadership is not all about making sure the buses run on time, although this must be done. It goes without saying that school leadership is an extremely complex task. But, if increasing student reading proficiency is to become more than a talking point, at a minimum a School-Leader must be adept in collaborating with teachers, effective in the implementation of district reading initiatives, and must understand grade-level reading program implementation. Our data show that leadership resulting in reducing reading failure is based on sufficient knowledge of reading development and reading content in order to provide instructional leadership. Increases in student reading proficiency are highly related to implementing a school schedule that provides sufficient time for reading instruction, for teacher collaboration, and for collective problem solving. Reading proficiency increases when non-negotiable goals for student learning and achievement are in place and there is a system for continuous evaluation and accountability. It is critical that professional development is continuous, systematic, and based on what works. These leadership traits and skills are just a few of the many which build an effective school, but they are non-negotiable. Unfortunately, like teachers, few leadership preparation programs inculcate these qualities.

Awareness is Key!
Many reading this article will be surprised at the reading failure rates in Pennsylvania’s schools. This lack of awareness may be related to the fact that, as noted, reading failure is most prevalent among children from low-income environments. Consider that on the NAEP, fourth grade students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low family income, had an average reading score that was 27 points lower than students who were not eligible for free/reduced lunch. Similarly, low income eighth graders had an average score that was 24 points lower than their higher-income peers. Could it be that those who have never experienced reading failure and its consequences that it produces, may not give the reading issue a great deal of thought? Not learning to read is something that happens to other kids and families down the street or in high poverty schools. But this is not to be avoided or overlooked, no matter what your station in life. This will dramatically affect the community, your state, the nation’s future employment rates, the country’s economic prosperity, and the quality of life for many citizens. The wealthy do not get a pass, either. Anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of middle- and high-income children suffer the same fate with struggling to read. Fortunately for them, their families may have the resources to do something about it before it cripples their children’s futures.

Hopefully, the time has come to revisit the extent to which reading proficiency eludes too many of Pennsylvania’s children. Learning to read is a national civil right and one that is forgotten for many of our most vulnerable citizens.

G. Reid Lyon, Ph.d.

Former Distinguished Professor of Education Leadership and Policy, Southern Methodist University and Distinguished Scientist in Cognition and Neuroscience at the Center for Brain Health, the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Lyon provided an information session for area school administrators and reading specialists at the University of Scranton in April 2015. The session was part of a broader initiative aimed at eradicating illiteracy in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Six individuals representing several educational institutions developed a comprehensive plan to address the literacy crisis in the United States by working with a variety of community agencies and institutions in Northeastern Pennsylvania which provide direct and/or indirect services to children. The members of this committee include Dr. Debra Pellegrino, dean of the Panuska College of Professional Studies at the University of Scranton; Sandy Pesavento, faculty specialist at the University of Scranton; Dr. Teresa Conte, assistant professor in the nursing department at the University of Scranton; Mary Lou Heron, Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit (NEIU) 19; Jenna Stoddard, school psychologist for the Blue Ridge School District; Sandie Lamanna, school psychologist and former faculty specialist at the University of Scranton; and Gina Colarossi, Pennsylvania Department of Education.

For information about the initiative, please contact Sandie Lamanna at (570) 313-9061 or Sandy Pesavento at (570) 941- 6219.


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