According to the National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP) Reading Assessment—also known as the nation’s report card—average reading scores for both fourth and eighth graders were lower in 2019 than 2017. In addition, there have been no significant improvements for grade 8 students since 2009.
The good news? Literacy experts aren’t shying away from having meaningful conversations about how to reverse this trend. And there are things we can do about it.
NAEP’s data, released in October 2019, created fodder for an ongoing national conversation among literacy experts and practitioners about the science of reading instruction and its implementation, or lack thereof, in schools. So in late January, both the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and NWEA hosted panels of esteemed reading experts.
How can we reach children not primed for reading and in need of more explicit instruction and interventions once they’ve reached higher grades?”
Among them was Emily Hanford, a reporter who has worked to shed light on how our schools are failing kids with dyslexia, communicate the facts about the role of cognition in learning to read, and debunk the myths behind disproven theories of reading instruction. Sue Pimentel, founding partner of Student Achievement Partners (SAP), attended the NWEA panel. She was recently interviewed about SAP’s new report on popular US early literacy curricula for an episode of the Educate podcast.
At both panels, we had transparent dialogue about strategies to overcome the misconceptions surrounding flawed theories of reading instruction and move toward a robust national implementation of literacy practices grounded in the science of reading and cognition. Many important questions came up during all of these conversations, but the one that stuck with me the most is this one: How can we reach children in need of more explicit instruction and interventions once they’ve reached higher grades?
The case for a different approach
How to meet struggling older readers where they are is an underdiscussed and misunderstood challenge facing school improvement leaders and literacy coaches.
Research indicates that phonological awareness and phonics typically continue to develop in readers beyond first grade. We don’t usually teach those skills much past first grade, however, and students often move on to subsequent grades whether they’ve mastered phonological awareness and phonics or not. In fact, a recent national survey of educators released by EdWeek elucidated a common misconception about the role phonics plays in becoming a fluent reader: “More than half of survey respondents say it is possible for students to understand written texts with unfamiliar words even if they do not have a good grasp of phonics.”
How to meet struggling older readers where they are is an underdiscussed and misunderstood challenge facing school improvement leaders and literacy coaches.”
The science of reading disagrees. It suggests that learning to read fluently requires attention to letters and letter sounds and how they connect in text.
Students become fluent readers, including attention to their rate, pace, and prosody, by practicing reading without stopping frequently to sound out words. If students are challenged with on-grade-level texts even when they’re not ready for them, per many of the curriculum shifts in the CCSS and related state standards, older readers who haven’t mastered phonological awareness and phonics will almost certainly be faced with difficulty.
Expert David Kilpatrick explains that these students will “struggle to connect parts of spoken language to their alphabetic forms” when they encounter multisyllabic words in more complex texts. Traditional phonics instruction simply won’t prepare them to access longer words that require more complex decoding strategies.
[O]ur current system for teaching reading […] is designed to serve students who come from homes filled with books and family members who have the time and resources to prioritize reading at home.”
To address this issue there are two areas of phonics-related instruction that can help older students: multisyllabic word reading and structural analysis. Education leaders, reading specialists, and upper elementary and middle school teachers need to apply strategies like these into reading interventions to better help older struggling readers.
Make multisyllabic reading and structural analysis part of your practice
Multisyllabic decoding is a reading strategy in which students break words into syllables and identify the vowel patterns in each syllable to read the word. Structural analysis is similar, but instead of breaking words into syllables, students focus on specific word parts, like prefixes, stems, and suffixes.
The step-by-step process for teaching using these methods can be found in many online instructional resources. Here are some useful strategies that will help you tackle these lessons:
- Work in small groups so you can give students as much explicit instruction as necessary
- Make tools like whiteboards, sticky notes, markers, and highlighters available so students can truly work with words
- Double-check understanding of syllables by having students count the number of syllables in words
- Make the common syllabic vowel patterns visible so students can use them when decoding and blending syllables
- Read and repeat each word aloud to students and have them read it back to you
- Follow the order of operations to decode a word: Underline each vowel that makes a sound. Chunk the word into syllables. Circle prefixes and suffixes. Read each syllable independently. Scoop each syllable with a pencil and blend. Check for accuracy
Shift the paradigm
In so many ways, our current system for teaching reading—from teacher preparation to curriculum and assessment—is designed to serve students who come from homes filled with books and family members who have the time and resources to prioritize reading at home. The reality is that many underserved students can’t reap the benefits of homes like these. And when serious reading challenges, like dyslexia, develop, their families are much less likely to be able to afford the additional support that is needed.
Let’s use the science available to us to approach reading instruction in a more equitable way: a way that meets struggling readers where they are, no matter their age or background, and makes it easier for all students to become confident, competent, lifelong readers.