Why Aren't American Reading Scores Higher?

  • 19 January, 2019

Teacher question:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress says that only 37% of 4th graders are reaching reading proficiency. Why is it so low?

Shanahan response:

Why do so few American kids read well?

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around. Parents? Society? Too much screen time? Poverty? Immigration? You and me?

Lots of possibilities; some truth to each of these explanations. We’re all responsible, none of us are responsible. Yada, yada.

Poverty is a big problem, of course. The correlations between test performance and family income (or family security) are high. Childhood poverty can affect the brain—making it less able to learn (Noble, 2017)—and, SES includes not just income but also parents’ education. Parents who are less likely to read and to read well are less likely to raise children who thrive in school. Poverty also contributes to poor nutrition, school-interrupting illnesses, and stress. There are exceptions, of course, but the patterns are strong. American schools serve a lot of children who live in poverty and that contributes big time to low achievement (high income schools score well, high poverty schools do not).

It is true that children from low income schools have a higher likelihood of struggling in school, but it is also true that some schools manage to address these children’s educational needs better than others. At least some other countries manage to deliver more effective education to their poor kids (Darling-Hammond, 2014).

I suspect that one of the things that makes explanations like poverty or uncaring parents or high screen time so attractive to so many educators is that none of those are problem that we can address.

It’s the equivalent of the waiter who tells you, “Not my table,” when you ask for help and your own waiter has gone missing.

“I could teach these children successfully if they weren’t poor or if dad hadn’t walked out or mom spoke English or if the kids weren’t already so far behind by the time that they reach my class…” Sounds committed and hopeful and positive—if someone would just fix these kids, I’d be able to teach them…. But, obviously, schools can’t “fix” the kids, so the hopefulness deteriorates into so few children reading proficiently.

I have no doubt that those with different expertise than mine should be trying to address issues of poverty and racism and child health and anything else that makes learning harder. But these are the children we have, and they are at our table. Our job is to serve their needs as well as possible. 

What can educators do to raise achievement?

It’s complicated but I think that it has to do with opportunity to learn. We simply don’t spend enough time on those things that make a difference in making kids proficient. Most American elementary schools these days pride themselves on their 90-minute reading blocks… but much of that time gets devoted to things that do little to promote children’s reading ability:  the kids are supposedly reading on their own or doing keep-busy-but-keep-quiet sheets while the teachers are working with other kids.

I’d love it if instead of a 90-minute block, we’d commit to providing 90 minutes of teaching and guided practice to each child each day. That might take more than 90 minutes to accomplish, but it would sure give kids a better chance to become proficient. (The 90-minute block is often a myth anyway; watch closely and you’ll see that reading lessons don’t actually begin at the beginning of the school day and yet those school opening minutes are counted as literacy block time.)

In my schools, I required 120-180 minutes per day of reading and writing instruction. I know that’s a lot, but it is accomplishable in most schools (and if you get rid of test prep and extended specific skills teaching in reading comprehension and other things that don’t enable students to read better, meeting those times can even be easier).

This instructional time should be devoted to explicit teaching and guided practice aimed at developing knowledge of words (including phonemic awareness, phonics, letter names, spelling, morphology, vocabulary); oral reading fluency; reading comprehension; and writing. And, for English learners (and perhaps poverty kids too)—explicit oral language teaching.

Too many American teachers have bought into the idea that kids would be better off reading on their own than working with the teacher because reading is learned by reading. I agree with the idea that reading matters in learning to read, but such reading is better included in the reading lessons than pushed away from the lessons. I’ve argued that at least half of the instructional time (perhaps more) should be spent reading and writing.

That means in a reading comprehension lesson, there will be teacher-led demonstrations and explanations, and guided discussions, and so on—but the kids would be reading throughout these activities. The same is true for decoding instruction; a big chunk of that time should involve the kids in decoding and encoding words.

Second- and third-graders spend too much time working only with books they can already read reasonably well—and that idea has been spreading up the grades. Despite the claims of some educators and marketers, there is no such thing as an instructional level in reading (at least beyond the very beginnings of reading). Teaching kids at their supposed “reading levels” hasn’t been found to facilitate learning, but it does lower the sophistication and complexity of the content and language kids are working with.

I suspect that most teachers do little to support or extend students’ reading stamina. Oh, I know that some are proud that they use books instead of short stories to teach reading, or that many assign extended silent reading. But those tend to be sink-or-swim propositions. To make extended reads successful many students walk the kids through the texts round robin-style or have the kids read short sections of text interspersed with discussion or teacher explanation. Kids would be better prepared for tests (and many real reading situations) if there was an intentional regimen of stretching how long they can persist in making sense of texts. For a lot of kids, when they have to read an entire fourth-grade selection silently to answer questions about it as on the NAEP assessment, it doesn’t go so well since they’ve never done anything that demanding before.

Lack of a knowledge-focused curriculum is an important culprit, too. Science and social studies aren’t given enough time in elementary school (and the value of the literature may be suspect, too). We need to provide daily teaching in these other subject areas, and those lessons should include the reading of rich content text. Such texts also should be able to find a place within reading instruction, too. I’m a big fan of including content learning objectives in reading programs.

(Note to Educational Policymakers: This statement is aimed at teachers. But that does not get you off the hook. Providing policies and resources that ensure that teachers have sufficient professional development and support and sufficient amounts of teaching time are on you.)

Nothing very exciting here, right?

If we want to more of our kids to be reading proficient at the levels needed in the 21st century, it will take a lot of dedicated teaching of the key things that matter in learning. Nothing sexy about it, and yet too few kids get those things and placing blame doesn’t help. Focus like a laser on what works rather than on what you like to do and these kids are likely to do better. 



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Why Aren't American Reading Scores Higher?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.