Are We Teaching Children How To Read Correctly?

By David Lariviere

When most Americans think about the burning issues facing our country today, very few think that the lack of reading proficiency, particularly among children, is a top priority. But ETS Research Scientists John Sabatini and Tenaha O’Reilly do.

“We believe it’s a national problem. Five to 15 percent of kids have language-based reading difficulties including dyslexia. But some empirical studies show that upwards of 25 percent may have foundational reading skill difficulties. It’s hard to believe there’s that huge a prevalence of clinical cases of reading impairment. Our research shows that a lot of kids are slipping through the cracks at school,” says Sabatini.

Early this year, a scathing article in Education Week argued that the primary reason U.S. children aren’t learning to read is because of the teachers’ lack of training on the best instructional practices.

Heather Lieberman, the K–5 ELA and Library Curriculum Supervisor in the Hamilton (N.J.) Township schools, believes not having high-quality reading instruction in schools is “a very serious problem with long-reaching consequences.” She added, “I would go so far as to say that in some places the lack of adequate reading instruction is a dire and even dangerous problem.”

At the crux of the instructional issue, according to the EdWeek article, is a lack of attention teaching phonics, which includes sounding out words. “I think it is absolutely fair to say there is widespread agreement that systematic phonics instruction is beneficial and should be part of all programs for beginning literacy,” says ETS’s Managing Senior Research Scientist Geoff Phelps. “Being able to have the understanding to sound out words and have the precision to do that is critically important.”

However, Assessment Specialist for the ETS® Professional Educator Programs (PEP) Jennifer Rivelli Anderson says, “We see test takers consistently scoring lower in the categories of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Some of our committee members have discussed this lack of knowledge in new hires. Maybe it’s not being covered as deeply as needed in teacher prep programs. Poor phonics instruction is a result. Early learners, especially those who struggle, are not getting the tools they need to decode text and it’s creating a problem.”

I think it is absolutely fair to say there is widespread agreement that systematic phonics instruction is beneficial and should be part of all programs for beginning literacy. Being able to have the understanding to sound out words and have the precision to do that is critically important.

~ Geoff Phelps

A recent shift to states wanting teachers who demonstrate a broad range of teaching competencies, more than their command of the content, could also be a factor, according to PEP Assessment Specialist David Dickerman. “I think with the shift to more instructional decision making in assessment, we may be losing some of the content aspects that play such an important role in that process.”

Rivelli Anderson and Dickerman were recently part of an ETS team that provided input on an amendment to a bill in Alabama about third-grade retention that also involved implementing foundational reading test requirements in teacher licensure.

The cost of not stressing phonics is especially significant for the underrepresented, says Lieberman. “It really leaves specific groups of young children at a deficit. If, for example, you are a struggling learner or a second-language learner, this lack of direct instruction is detrimental to you acquiring the necessary reading skills. It’s really an issue of equity.”

The best practice for parents and caretakers is “read to your kids routinely when they are young, value reading in the home and encourage kids to read often with a variety of texts,” says O’Reilly.

If there are early signs of a reading problem in school, action should be taken, as waiting to address the problem only compounds the issue over time. Foundational skills should be measured after grade 5 to ensure weaknesses don’t go unnoticed and untreated.

~ Tenaha O’Reilly

According to Sabatini and O’Reilly, ETS has made numerous strides in improving the Praxis® teacher test in the last 15 years to address how teachers handle students’ reading difficulties. But more can always be done. “Improving students’ literacy needs to be a national priority. We neglect it at our own peril,” said O’Reilly.

Phelps explained that the research on early reading is sound and conclusive — it’s simply a matter of making sure teachers know it. “There’s a huge amount of technical knowledge and skill involved in teaching early reading and this unique knowledge base needs to be addressed in teacher education.”

Lieberman, who has seen a shift back to stressing phonics instruction at her schools, says elementary teachers need all the help they can get. “School districts should provide ongoing teacher professional training in this area using embedded reading specialists or literacy coaches.”

O’Reilly stressed, “If there are early signs of a reading problem in school, action should be taken, as waiting to address the problem only compounds the issue over time. Foundational skills should be measured after grade 5 to ensure weaknesses don’t go unnoticed and untreated.”