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How Ignorance Has Fueled Our Children’s Reading Crisis

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously declared all Americans have a right to life, liberty, and “the pursuit of happiness.” What is not as widely known, however, is what Jefferson considered the essential ingredient to successfully fulfilling this mandate.

“Literacy is fundamental to that pursuit,” Jefferson wrote. “So many doors are closed to those who cannot read. Everyone in this world has a right to happiness and with that comes the right to read.” Frederick Douglass, whose only path to literacy was secretly learning the alphabet from his slave master’s wife, put it much more succinctly: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

A2i students from the Anaheim Elementary School District are learning to read through small group instruction.

There is a temptation to believe these are merely lofty thoughts from lofty minds. Can literacy actually be that important? Take a look at these statistics and it becomes quickly obvious reading proficiency is actually more crucial to a successful life than even Jefferson and Douglass could have imagined:

  • Two-thirds of students who can’t read by the end of 4th grade end up in jail or on welfare. (U.S. Department of Justice)  

  • 20% of Americans read below the level needed to earn a living wage.  (National Institute for Literacy)

  • High school dropouts earn 48% less than those with a high school education. (National Center for Education Statistics)

Frankly, low literacy has a negative impact on all our lives. For example, according to the American Journal of Public Health, it’s connected to over $230 billion a year in health care costs, simply because almost half of Americans can’t read well enough to understand health information. And yet in recent years, educators have been unable to significantly move the needle on improving our kids’ literacy skills. The stubborn statistic which continues to resist improvement is the fact that only 37% of fourth grade students have achieved the necessary level of reading proficiency.

As a recent Education Week commentary put it, “If your district isn’t having an ‘uh oh’ moment around reading instruction, it probably should be.” The opinion piece, written by three prominent school district leaders, laments the fact most teachers aren’t exposed to effective reading training until years into their careers — which leaves too many students struggling to master reading without the proper programs in place.

A New York Times op-ed by Emily Hanford, a senior education researcher and reporter, reinforces this nationwide dilemma. Hanford reveals that over 100 deans and faculty members of schools were interviewed as part of a study of teacher preparation programs. Result? “Most of them could not explain basic scientific principles about how children learn to read.”

It’s not the teachers’ fault that they are in this situation — the failure is a systemic one. Unbelievably, most educators are taught children will naturally begin reading as long as they have access to books. In other words, get kids excited about reading and they’ll just somehow…read. What’s left unsaid is just how they learn to do that reading.

We don’t assume students will automatically learn how to do math problems if we throw some numbers their way. Nor do we assume they’ll realize important scientific principles just by observation of the natural world. Why then do we assume reading is a skill they’re somehow born with?

At Learning Ovations, our research has consistently shown that literacy is nothing our classrooms should ever take for granted. We’ve put our K-3 literacy system, which combines technology and professional development, through 13 years of rigorously tested research and development, years that include more than 2,000 hours of classroom observation. And we firmly believe every teacher should have access to this kind of scientific Professional Support System sooner, rather than later.  

Unless we truly understand and aggressively implement effective systems to improve student literacy, we’re expecting our kids to hit a bullseye in pitch black darkness. Jefferson believed every American should have access to the pursuit of happiness. As he knew even back in the 18th Century, that access requires the ability to read.

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