A white paper by Kathy Barclay, EdD, and Laura Stewart
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The data are in and, for the third year in a row, the reading scores for third- and fourth-grade students are not where school principal Marti H. knows they need to be if her students are going to succeed in middle and high school. Her first inclination is to set up a meeting with the third- and fourth-grade teachers to review their reading and language arts curriculum. She opens her calendar, then pauses, wondering, “Is the problem really with the third- and fourth-grade curriculum?”
Reading is the single most important skill—the foundation—for all future learning. Failure to read on level by third grade impacts negatively upon future academic success as well as on social and emotional development. This principal is not alone in her concern about third- and fourth-grade reading scores. Our most recent national report card shows that nearly two-thirds of our fourth graders are not reading proficiently, and the rate of reading failure in high-poverty, minority populations is much higher (NCES, 2019). Children who enter third grade without proficient reading abilities are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time (Hernandez, 2012, p. 6). In fact, research shows that children who do not learn to read by the end of second grade will likely struggle with reading throughout their lives (Vaughn & Linan-Thompson, 2003).
Although it was once thought that learning to read was as natural as learning to speak, an extensive and rigorous body of research has proven otherwise. We now know how children learn to read; the skills they must master in kindergarten, first, and second grade; and what constitutes effective reading instruction.
“How children are taught matters a great deal: it can affect whether they become readers or not, their level of reading skill, and the extent to which they enjoy and seek out the experience. In order to teach children effectively and make this essential skill available to as many people as possible, we need to know how reading works.”
—Seidenberg, 2017, p. 13
Decades of research has resulted in clear, scientifically based approaches to early reading. To build the neural connections necessary for reading, beginning readers first need to be taught the relationship between letters and sounds—phonics—explicitly and systematically. Research has demonstrated that phonics is an essential component of skilled reading in every language and writing system (Seidenberg, 2017; Yoncheva, Wise, & McCandless, 2015; Taylor, Davis, & Rastle, 2017). Yet the gulf between science and education persists, and methods commonly used to teach children to read are incompatible with what we now know about how the brain learns to read.
“…the phonological pathway develops more rapidly in beginning readers and…learning proceeds much more slowly if the use of phonology is discouraged (as when phonics instruction is superficial or withheld).”
—Seidenberg, 2017, p. 126
Research has also shown that phonics instruction has the greatest impact when taught in the early grades and when accompanied by extensive application to meaningful (Heibert, 2017), decodable text (Jenkins et al., 2004; Cheatham & Allor, 2012; Mesmer, 2001). It is essential for struggling readers, students with learning disabilities, and students for whom English is a second language (Allor et al., 2014; Fredrick et al., 2013; Lemons et al., 2012; Nishanimut et al., 2013; Vadasy & Sanders, 2012). Finally, research findings support the conclusion that systematic phonics is most effective when it is integrated with all the language arts, not taught as a separate subject or add-on to an existing program (Moats, 2011).
Is playing catch-up in third grade and beyond the answer? Is it even possible? A longitudinal study by McNamara and colleagues (2011) concluded, “As children progressed from kindergarten to Grade 3…at each progressing data collection point struggling readers fell further behind their grade-level reading peers” (p. 421). Each year, the variance between strong and struggling readers increased significantly. “Interventions for struggling readers after third grade are seldom as effective as those in the early years” (Hernandez, 2012, p. 6). According to an ACT report, only one in ten students scoring below the benchmark in reading who were “far off track” in reading in fourth grade were ever able to catch up (Doughtery & Fleming, 2012).
The real, long-term solution is not intervention. The answer lies in prevention: effectively teaching the fundamentals of reading and writing in the first three years of school. The evidence is clear that with research-based instruction, the percentage of first graders below the 30th percentile can be reduced to 4–6% (Mathes et al., 2005; Vellutino et al., 2007; Torgesen, 2002).
“The high percentage of students who are below college and career readiness achievement targets at all grade levels—and the difficulty of catching them up—should lead educators and policymakers to focus on the importance of an early start and an emphasis on prevention over remediation.”
—Doughtery & Fleming, 2012, p. 28
The impact initial reading instruction has on future reading achievement should not be underestimated. Putting scientific reading research evidence into practice—and doing so in K–2—is the key. A critical task of administrators is to ensure that teachers are knowledgeable and motivated to choose the best instructional materials and methods to get it right the first time.
To ensure that all of your students get the best possible first instruction:
Like Marti H., many principals faced with similar drops in scores at the third- and fourth-grade levels look to the teachers and programs of those grades for answers. Much time and many valuable resources are devoted to solving a problem whose roots lie elsewhere.
Research has demonstrated the most effective components of early reading instruction. If these components were consistently employed in all classrooms, far fewer students would become reading casualties. Thousands of studies have been published in academic journals, and many large-scale reports have been compiled. The result? Similar findings across different educational settings and even countries yielding consensus about the essential components of reading instruction. And what are those components? What constitutes a highly effective reading program? Reflect on this statement from Dr. Sally Shaywitz, neuroscientist at Yale University and author of the best-selling text Overcoming Dyslexia.
“Highly effective prevention programs…are now a reality. Common threads run through each of these programs…. Systematic and direct instruction in phonemic awareness—noticing, identifying, and manipulating the sounds of spoken language; phonics—how letters and letter groups represent the sounds of spoken language, sounding out words (decoding), spelling, reading sight words, vocabulary and concepts, and reading comprehension strategies; practice in applying these skills in reading and in writing…. Powerful and proven reading programs incorporating these features are now bringing cutting-edge science directly into the classroom…. My recommendations are for total ‘off-the-shelf’ comprehensive programs rather than so-called eclectic ones that are stitched together by a child’s teachers…. I would not want to take such a risk with my child; rather, I would want to stay with a proven, cohesive program that leaves nothing to chance” (Shaywitz, 2003, p. 262–263).
Kathy Barclay, EdD, is professor emeritus of reading and early childhood and former department chair at Western Illinois University. She is a former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and supervisor of reading for the Louisiana Department of Education. While at WIU, she worked closely with the Illinois State Board of Education, serving as co-author of the Illinois Reading First Professional Development Academies and lead consultant for the Language and Literacy section of the 2013 Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards. For ten years, Dr. Barclay served as the editor of the Illinois Reading Council Journal. In October of 2015, she was inducted into the Illinois Reading Council’s Hall of Fame for her contributions to education and literacy. Dr. Barclay is a frequent presenter at professional conferences and has authored over 80 publications. Her more recent book, co-authored with Laura Stewart, is The Everything Guide to Informational Literature, K–2: Best Texts, Best Practices (Corwin Press, 2014).
Laura Stewart is the chief academic officer for professional development for the Highlights Education Group. Laura has been in education for more than 25 years, working as a classroom teacher, building and district administrator, adjunct professor, and director of numerous professional development initiatives. In addition to directing the professional development for Reading First in Wisconsin, Laura directed long-term projects in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Milwaukee, and El Paso on topics from PreK literacy to differentiated instruction. She presents throughout the United States and internationally and is the author of 12 children’s books, numerous teacher’s guides, journal articles, and dozens of training workshops. Laura is co-author of the book The Everything Guide to Informational Literature, K–2: Best Texts, Best Practices (Corwin Press, 2014).