The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.

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The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.

Scot Scoop News

The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.

Scot Scoop News

Opinion: Schools are failing young readers

Picture Books/Enokson/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Many American schools continue to use ineffective tactics to teach students to read, causing them to develop bad reading habits such as relying excessively on context provided by pictures to understand a book.

Two-thirds of fourth graders in the United States struggle to read, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Nationwide, the average reading score on NAEP fell three points from 2019 to 2022. Today’s eighth graders are actually a bit worse at reading than their counterparts were in 1998.

The list of shocking statistics goes on. Reading proficiency levels among children are alarmingly low in America. International assessments have also shown that the U.S. is not performing very well academically when compared to other countries. 

So what’s the problem? One explanation gaining ground is that schools have simply failed to teach kids to read. Growing evidence from experiments and concepts of neuroscience finds that the U.S. has adopted reading strategies that just don’t work very well. 

Many schools appear to have overlooked the importance of phonics — helping kids learn to sound out words independently — as well as other evidence-supported approaches. Phonics involves corresponding the sounds of a spoken language with individual letters or groups of letters. This helps children identify unfamiliar or unknown words by sounding them out.

However, many American students today are taught strategies like memorizing sight words. Sight words are those that appear most frequently in reading and writing, such as “said” and “there.” Unfortunately, this tactic can be largely ineffective and often sets children up with bad reading habits.

In 2015, a Stanford University study on brain waves illustrated that different teaching methods could have a significant effect on reading development. The research showed that teaching kids to decode or “sound out” words sparks far more optimal brain circuitry than instructing them to merely memorize entire words. This means that beginning readers who focus on letter-sound relationships, or phonics, increase activity in the area of their brains best wired for reading.

This is only the beginning of decades of research and studies that prove the effectiveness of the phonics approach. 

In 2008, the National Early Literacy Panel considered dozens of studies on phonological awareness, or the ability to recognize and manipulate the spoken parts of sentences and words, and phonics instruction in preschool and kindergarten. Children who received decoding instruction scored much better on phonological awareness tests than those who did not. The benefit was equal to a leap from the 50th to the 79th percentile on standardized tests, suggesting these students were better prepared to learn to read.

Nevertheless, some still argue that recognizing words by sight helps kids become faster, more fluent readers. For example, sight words can help in cases where words aren’t spelled the way they sound, when using phonics wouldn’t always work. 

Supporters of the sight word approach also say it can help students find context clues because a child can guess the overall meaning of a sentence or paragraph by recognizing some of the sight words. And if a picture is also provided, students may determine even more of the meaning.

As it turns out, this strategy has a wide range of flaws. First, relying on the context in this way can be detrimental to a child’s reading comprehension. Due to memorizing a limited number of words, many beginning readers have to use context to guess words they don’t know and often skip unfamiliar words. 

While utilizing context seems like a practical skill, researchers have found that the reality is the opposite for beginning readers. Many experiments that forced individuals to use context to predict words show that even skilled readers can correctly guess only a few words. The poorer readers, not the more skilled readers, were most dependent on context to facilitate word recognition.

Encouraging young students to use pictures accompanying the text frequently can also make them too reliant on images when guessing the context and meaning of sentences. 

Margaret Goldberg, a teacher and literacy coach in the Oakland Unified School District, saw firsthand the issue with the three-cueing approach. This model teaches children to rely on meaning, structure, and visual information when reading an unknown word. 

Goldberg was working with a first-grader named Rodney when he came to a page with a picture of a girl licking an ice cream cone and a dog licking a bone.

The text read: “My little dog likes to eat with me.”

But Rodney said: “My dog likes to lick his bone.”

Rodney glided through it, oblivious to the fact that he hadn’t actually read the page.

Goldberg realized that many of her students didn’t read the words in their books. They were instead memorizing sentence patterns and using the pictures to guess.

When Goldberg decided to teach one group of students with a phonics program and another group with the three-cueing approach, it was clear that the students learning phonics were doing better after only a few months.

Margaret Goldberg

In the video, Mia, on the left, was in the phonics program. Mia says she’s a good reader because she looks at the words and sounds them out. Meanwhile, JaBrea, on the right, was taught the cueing system. She says, “I look at the pictures and then I read the words.”

The approaches that numerous American schools use to teach reading skills, such as sight words and the three-cueing system, are simply not working. If we want results to improve, the curriculum must center more on evidence-supported approaches.

The backers of the phonics approach usually call themselves supporters of the science of reading. The science of reading entails far more than just phonics. The term refers to several decades of gold-standard research about how we learn to read and how reading is effectively taught. 

This includes the Simple View of Reading, which asserts that both the ability to decode words and comprehend language is required to master reading comprehension. Another essential component of the science of reading is Scarborough’s Reading Rope, which provides insight into how various reading skills, such as syntax and vocabulary, weave together to create fluency. 

Applying all of this research to the school environment is vital for improving reading scores nationwide.

Additionally, although it’s true that COVID-19 drastically impacted education and reading skills nationwide, it isn’t likely that reading scores will automatically improve once we move away from the pandemic, as some might think. 

Reading proficiency was already declining before the effects of COVID-19. And currently, we can see that drops in reading proficiency have had a lasting effect on students. If nothing in the school curriculum is modified, then these children will likely be behind in their reading level for the rest of their life. 

This is an urgent matter. Reading is one of the most important foundations of learning. If schools don’t give kids the opportunity to improve their reading skills and reach their full potential through strategies supported by the science of reading, they could be struggling forever in academic environments, in the workplace, and later in life.

For decades, reading instruction and teaching practices in American schools have been rooted in a flawed theory about how reading works. And although their methods have been disproved for years by cognitive scientists, children continue to learn strategies that lead them to become struggling readers.

Schools need to utilize evidence-based approaches that will help beginning readers thrive, setting them up for success in the future.

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About the Contributor
Isabella Zarzar
Isabella Zarzar, Highlander Editor
Isabella Zarzar is a junior at Carlmont High School and in her second year of journalism. She enjoys reporting on a variety of topics and is thrilled to be editing for the Highlander magazine this year. In her free time, Isabella enjoys reading, photography, soccer, and spending time with her friends and family.

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The student news site of Carlmont High School in Belmont, California.
Opinion: Schools are failing young readers