Why Aren't American Reading Scores Higher?

  • 19 January, 2019
  • 39 Comments

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 we do. 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 the most effective reading is included in the reading lessons, rather than pushed away from teaching. 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 the increase in 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 teachers walk 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. 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 proficiently 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 won'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.  

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Izabela Bardy
Jan 20, 2019 08:49 AM

Agreed!

Hope Shirey
Jan 20, 2019 04:03 PM

Agreed. I wish I knew how to get my state educational leaders to understand what you are saying. The push in my state is accountability through time on computerized reading programs in elementary schools and that does not equate it effective reading instruction.

linda schutz
Jan 20, 2019 04:59 PM

Although I agree with you, you are forgetting one important thing. Teachers don't decide how or what they can teach, but it is decided for them by administration. The curriculum director along with the superintendent has decided how best practices are going to be carried out with their purchased curriculum material. The latest fades and endless revolving door "solutions" to fix the problem, not to mention the abundance of testing which data is never used effectively is the problem. The district wants cookie cutter classrooms with all of us using the same terminology at the same time and expects us to have results instantaneously.

Lissette Read
Jan 20, 2019 05:30 PM

Amen! To every point.

Chandra
Jan 20, 2019 06:25 PM

I agree!! As an instructional coach, often working with title I schools who need to make big gains rather quickly, I’ve begun telling them about increasing the amount of time that ALL students are actually reading complex texts. My speech starts like this, “What I’m about to tell you is going to go against everything you’ve probably heard or done in the last 10 years as far as reading instruction goes… But if you do what I’m telling you, you’ll see the improvement you want.” Education fads, “cute” programs with catchy names, the obsession with Tech integration for the sake of saying we did it, and the attempt to “teacher proof” teaching are ruining education, and often for the most underserved students. What else can be done to spread the word that we’re doing it all wrong??

Chris
Jan 20, 2019 07:18 PM

Administrative demands are preventing some of us from doing what research has shown to improve reading proficiency in our students. We are told what to teach, how to teach it, and how long to spend doing it. We are told the exact language to use, and then are ‘reprimanded’ If we do not do it in the exact way. I am a first grade teacher with 31 students in my class, about 1/2 of my students reading below level, and several with behaviors that adversely impact the entire class. Can you provide a sample of what you would recommend a first grade schedule (for one day) might look like, along with a sample of lessons/activities that would lead to more success? We are told to provide small group instruction and interventions for all the students that are performing “below level” on district assessments. Yet, I don’t know how to do this when 1/2 are below proficiency. PLEASE offer me some suggestions that would be specific to kindergarten/first grade that would lead to more growth and success for my students!

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 21, 2019 02:50 PM

Sorry Mr. Zurinskas, no ads on my site.

Jessica
Jan 21, 2019 02:58 PM

"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"

YES. As a parent of a child with dyslexia, your point is well-taken that all that independent silent-reading time is not serving students who will not intuitively learn to read through mere exposure. Much more explicit instruction is needed both in reading and writing education if outcomes are to improve. The correlation between poverty and educational outcomes is undeniable, and I can't help but wonder what role learning disabilities play in that cycle as well? Students whose educational needs are not being met (due to identified or unidentified LDs) may only eek through school or drop-out...leading to lesser economic prospects in adulthood. They become parents of children who don't read for pleasure and find it no surprise that the next generation also struggles in school. Dyslexia, for example, is passed from generation to generation; I certainly see that in my extended family.

Perhaps something that would help break this cycle is more in-depth education about learning disabilities for the general ed classroom teachers...so they can notice the red flags sooner.

Jim Ellis
Jan 20, 2019 08:34 PM

This post is nuts in the worst way. Flossing over the causes of below grade level student ms and some inappropriate assumptions.

It would be amazingly nice and easy if you were correct, but no.

Sorry.

Maria
Jan 20, 2019 08:47 PM

If you could choose 2 books for Grade 3-6 teachers to read, what would they be? Which books best make your points come to life?

Jeanette
Jan 20, 2019 09:12 PM

Well done! Great information for teachers. Thank you.

Lauren
Jan 20, 2019 10:05 PM

Agreed! Loved the analogy to the waiter and restaurant. Spot on!

Julia Serrano
Jan 21, 2019 01:34 AM

I must agree with most of what you posit in this article. I work in a small cyber school and I have some freedom with my practices and curriculum to fulfill the standards. I have been deeply involved with intense word study with my students to affect their reading comprehension. We are an urban school with 100% povtery rate.

Rhonda Dion
Jan 21, 2019 01:41 AM

At the risk of sounding dumb, what do you mean by “...extended specific skills teaching in reading comprehension and other things that don’t enable students to read better” ? Just trying to really understand what you are saying. Thanks!

Tim Shanahan
Jan 21, 2019 02:39 PM

Chris—
You are definitely correct that in too many schools administrative dictates block teachers from doing some of these things. In others it is teacher choice. The point remains that we could and should do better.

Thanks.

Tim

Tim Shanahan
Jan 21, 2019 02:42 PM

Jim—
Actually not. Teaching works and withholding teaching from kids because of other problems in society is unconscionable. I was responsible for the Reading lives of the 437,000 children in Chicago and our teachers showed what could be done. Or we could do as you recommend and sit on our hands since there are other problems.

Tim

Tim Shanahan
Jan 21, 2019 02:44 PM

Rhonda—
I’m talking about teaching aimed at teaching kids to answer certain kinds of reading comprehension questions (e.g., main idea, specific details, drawing conclusions, inferencing).

Cynthia
Jan 21, 2019 03:39 PM

I agree that students should be taught reading specific strategies during reading block time. All too often students are just filling in worksheets or being asked to read and answer questions to a text independently. I saw this with my own son in a 2nd grade ESE reading class. The teacher justified this practice by saying we have to prepare him to take the standardized test independently.

Jessica
Jan 21, 2019 04:00 PM

"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"

YES. As a parent of a child with dyslexia, your point is well-taken that all that independent silent-reading time is not serving students who will not intuitively learn to read through mere exposure. Much more explicit instruction is needed both in reading and writing education if outcomes are to improve. The correlation between poverty and educational outcomes is undeniable, and I can't help but wonder what role learning disabilities play in that cycle as well? Students whose educational needs are not being met (due to identified or unidentified LDs) may only eek through school or drop-out...leading to lesser economic prospects in adulthood. They become parents of children who don't read for pleasure and find it no surprise that the next generation also struggles in school. Dyslexia, for example, is passed from generation to generation; I certainly see that in my extended family.

Perhaps something that would help break this cycle is more in-depth education about learning disabilities for the general ed classroom teachers...so they can notice the red flags sooner.

Laura Wallin
Jan 21, 2019 04:49 PM

This is such a great answer to the teacher's question. If I had a dime for every time a colleague has said, "If only my student's parent would read with them at home" or "They have such a bad home life, they just can't learn." My job is to provide the best reading instruction I can while my students are with me. The things I can't control, poverty, etc., I can't use as an excuse as to why they are not reading.

mg
Jan 21, 2019 05:25 PM

My school's Literacy course, added years ago to help students learn how to read better, too often adds a listening component so the kids don't actually have to read.

Kids were also able to listen to the screening test for reading suggesting it wasn't actually measuring reading and that any increase in scores reported was meaningless.

Terry
Jan 21, 2019 08:09 PM

I totally agree with each of your points and with the sad truth that good teachers, who know that more direct instruction is beneficial, are often not allowed to do so by the system in which they are employed.

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 28, 2019 01:58 AM

Danna--

This may be of use. https://shanahanonliteracy.com/blog/comprehension-skills-or-strategies-is-there-a-difference-and-does-it-matter

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 28, 2019 01:59 AM

Tricia-- Your question (and that of several other educators) is answered in my blog of January 26, 2019.

thanks.

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 28, 2019 02:01 AM

Dolores--

The concept of "reading level" is a made up idea. The original thought was that there was a level that would allow students to learn. That has turned out not to make sense. Historically, the "reading level" or the "instructional level" meant the youngster could answer 75-90% of the questions about such a text and could read it with 95-98% accuracy (in terms of oral reading).

tim

Beverly
Jan 28, 2019 10:50 PM

Learning to read and comprehend what is being read is certainly lacking today. Kids are in a fast paced world where so much information is available but they are not able to process that information. I found that this https://bit.ly/2UIcxi4 really works for my boy. It’s helped him focus and read successfully!!

Cindy Matthews
Jan 22, 2019 06:35 PM

Dear Dr. Shanahan, I have been a teacher, reading specialist, literacy coach, and literacy supervisor in American public schools in Maine, Massachusetts, NH, Connecticut and New York over a 30+ career. I have been trained in everything. I have tried everything. What you say here is SPOT ON. Currently, I am the lIteracy supervisor in a gigantic inner-city Massachusetts K-7 school. Our little tiny ones have what my special ed colleague and I are calling "digital autism." Our middle elementary kids are being taught with large Promethean boards which offer them "drive-in movie" education (my new favorite term) and our big kids write very poorly even when given scads of time, provocative new realistic fiction to write about and young enthusiastic teachers. I can even say that few of my teachers are readers in their personal lives and even fewer of them write. It's a culture shift. Can we maintain that essayist literacy is still what we are after? Thanks for your blog. Dr. Cindy Matthews

Joan Sedita
Jan 22, 2019 08:52 PM

Once again, you have written a piece that I believe every educator and administrator should read! Your lines "We simply don't spend enough time on those things that make a difference in making kids proficient" and "it will take a lot of dedicated teaching of the key things that matter in learning" are two of many that are spot on. These lines remind me of the message in Emily Hanford's American Public Media podcast/article and her related opinion piece in the NY Times about the need for teachers to know and apply instructional practices that are based on science, especially as it relates to the need for explicit, systematic phonics instruction in early grades. This, along with explicit instruction in close reading strategies are the things that make a difference in making kids proficient! Here are links to the Hanford pieces: https://www.apmreports.org/story/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read and https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/26/opinion/sunday/phonics-teaching-reading-wrong-way.html

Danna
Jan 23, 2019 05:49 PM

Could you elaborate on the alternative to teaching specific skills? Do you have any resources that delve into this idea a bit more?

Tricia Christopher
Jan 23, 2019 06:21 PM

What would an "ideal" literacy block look like, in your opinion, at the various grade levels K-5? I work with several schools who are taking a hard look at "re-balancing" their literacy blocks.

Dolores Cowart
Jan 24, 2019 03:08 AM

I just want to know what exactly is grade level reading. For example, when we test students using Star Reading, they test proficient and on grade level, then we click a button for the same test to calibrate it to ACT ASPIRE testing and they fall two to three grade levels.

Melinda Pye
Jan 24, 2019 09:15 PM

I am not a teacher - I am a parent of a child who just started attending school this year as a kindergartner. I found your article because I have a sneaking suspicion that my boy is struggling with reading because his well meaning teachers are not teaching the basics in class often enough to click. Even though they still evaluate the kids on the skills that they need to learn how to read, they appear to be getting very little direct instruction at school. I keep asking myself - how is my child supposed to learn this if the teachers aren't teaching it? Osmosis? I see a huge deficit in the scatter shot lessons they provide. Believe it or not, I can vividly remember learning how to read myself 40 years ago. I can still see the little three ring bound cardboard book that contained the lessons for each day. The systematic drills - learning the alphabet, learning the sounds of the consonants, then learning the sounds the vowels make and how they layered upon each other until one day - it just all clicked. I still have my first report card where my mother commented that she was amazed at the fact that I had gone from knowing absolutely nothing to reading seemingly overnight. But it wasn't by accident or a natural occurrence. And as my mother revealed in her comment - she had nothing to do with my learning how to read - I did not go to pre-school or to kindergarten. I started in first grade with no prior knowledge. My parents, while not poor, were abusive and did not read to me and they certainly never helped me with any homework and I didn't even know what flash cards were! All of the instruction I received was in the classroom and I thrived despite a very difficult home life. So, placing the blame for low achievement on poverty or low parental involvement is simply not accurate. What has changed is what is going on or not going on in the classroom. I love my school, I love my son's teacher but the system and the prescribed curriculum, as a whole, is short changing our kids.

Timothy Shanahan
Jan 24, 2019 09:23 PM

Melinda-
Talk to the teacher and the principal and do whatever teaching you feel comfortable providing to your son. Don’t let him slip through the cracks. Some kids do fine without much teaching but many kids don’t. Look at the resources section of my website—there might be helpful supports for you there.

Harriett Janetos
Jan 25, 2019 01:06 AM

There's a word for what Melinda describes: dysteachia.

Harriett Janetos
Jan 25, 2019 03:38 AM

I would also add that we need more parents like Melinda who identify the gaps in their child's instruction and communicate those gaps precisely and passionately. But our profession shouldn't need to rely on parent concerns to improve our practice. This state of affairs continues to be most disheartening.

Harriett Janetos
Jan 25, 2019 03:46 AM

A good resource for parents is the GraphoGame: Kids Learn to Read app ($8.99), which was developed at the University of Finland and has a large body of research behind it.

Margaret
Jan 31, 2019 06:03 PM

I’m a grandparent who helps homeschool my grandchild. That wasn’t planned, but happened because my grandson was placed in a self-contained “autistic” classroom where very little teaching instruction took place. No reading instruction was given, no books assigned, pretty much nothing was taught or expected academically. His reading instructIon was an hour of computer time a day. The boredom for my grandson was overwhelming and when we pushed for more the answer was pretty much that he didn’t have the ability to understand phonics or ability to learn to read, or that the teacher was stretched too thin to teach. They refused to test for learning disabilities so how could they know this? They resisted putting him in a mainstream class although he had zero behavior problems and had become friendly and independent.

So we faced a choice. Retain an education attorney to force them to give him an education in the mainstream class (time consuming and expensive) or home school. It was daunting but we chose home school. Having no prior teaching knowledge I read the academic research on reading instruction and picked a curriculum based in research (phonics, phonemic awareness, ect.) and started him over from Kindergarden even though he should have been in the second grade. The teaching in this curriculum is mostly direct instruction and he understood everything I taught. He began decoding words, then sentences and then books and understanding what was read. I realized everything the school told us was a BS excuse not to teach.

Fast forward a few years to now, and I started after school sitting for two neighborhood kids. The older one is in the grade my grandson should be in (fourth grade) the younger one is in the grade I’m currently teaching to my grandson (second). I figured I’d include the kids in some of the lessons/ book reading since they’d be at or above his level. To my shock, these kids can’t read at all. They have no idea how to decode a word. They seem to have never been taught much of anything in reading, yet I see them go to school everyday. They hate reading and are frustrated. I asked what they do when they come to a word they don’t know. They shrugged their shoulders and said “skip it”. They now ask my grandson to read the text in a video game and he had to read the signs for them when they went to the zoo. They aren’t poor, their parents both have degrees. They are simply missing effective reading instruction at school and it absolutely blows my mind. I’ve tried to talk to their parents about it, but what do they do? You can’t change an entire school district. We really dodged a bullet, my grandson should have been at the same school and in the same classes they are. I tried to find out what curriculum they use and they only say it’s “balanced literacy” which seems to include no phonics instruction and little direct instruction. It really doesn’t have to be this way.

Brittany Bennett
Feb 10, 2019 03:03 PM


What can educators do to raise achievement? I work in a Title 1 district where a large percentage of students are of poverty and African American. I have 65 minutes a day to teach my students the 7th grade Georgia Standards of Excellence for ELA. 120-180 minutes to teach reading and writing would be a dream. To make the most out of my time, I have to select topics that are of interest to my students. It is evident that they lack prior knowledge on a lot, so in order to teach them the skills they need to learn, they will need the motivation to even read the text. This is where high interest topics come into play. After selecting the topic, I will need to consider the text complexity. Is the text just right for their skill level, or will I need to scaffold? This will also determine the complexity of the task assigned. I believe the most effective educators are the ones who are purposeful with every single aspect of the curriculum. This includes being customized for EVERY student.

I also believe that educators should accept the fact that the teaching of reading needs to occur in every subject. It seems there’s a huge misconception that teaching a text structure or reading strategy is just an ELA thing. If teachers of every subject want their students to access the texts they provide, they will need to teach the strategies necessary to achieve comprehension.

Karen Jones
Feb 19, 2019 02:31 AM

Do you have a piece that elaborates on your comments of instructional levels and how teaching on reading levels does not facilitate learning?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Why Aren't American Reading Scores Higher?

39 comments

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