Part I of a Three-Part Series

America’s reading failures are school induced. Beginning in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) steered beginning reading education down the wrong path by implementing a poor model of beginning reading instruction. It was a disastrous decision. Today, NCLB’s flawed reading model can boast about 10 years of huge government spending, chaos in the classroom over high-stakes testing, stagnant reading scores, and kids being traumatized and failed in 3rd grade to no avail. America is not yet achieving the NCLB goal that all students read with proficiency on grade level.

 The good news is that widespread grade-level reading proficiency is doable even earlier than 3rd grade, but not with the NCLB model. Had schools adopted a different model when No Child Left Behind was signed into law, we would now be celebrating a decade of success and most American kids could now be reading on grade level. Children would be at the proficient level on state testing. Where did we go wrong and how can we fix the failed model? Most important, does a new initiative called Common Core State Standards give us hope?

 Where we went wrong

One really misguided set of reading guidelines established in 1997 set our kids up for failure. That year, in response to poor 4th-grade reading scores, the United States Congress established a National Reading Panel (NRP) of a few prominent researchers with a few administrators, parents, and a couple of teachers thrown in for good measure (remarkably, only 14 in all!). This panel was tasked with determining why children in America were not being taught to read as well as they should be, and “what worked,” allowing the federal government to endorse these research-based practices and provide millions of dollars to school districts that complied with them.

The National Reading Panel came out with “five big reading ideas”: Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension. America adopted this model for beginning reading, which I call the “Isolated Skills Floating Around in Space” model. The “big five” are indeed researched based, but they are like amorphous matter, gases, and dust drifting in space with no cohesive plan to integrate them into a viable model of beginning reading instruction. These five big ideas have impacted almost every aspect of reading education including textbook development, testing, and educational spending for ten years.

Conspicuously missing from the “big five” are other equally important “big ideas” such as the importance of teaching writing for reading, and the importance of spelling for reading, which both have robust empirical support. The five big ideas inspired by the National Reading Panel are often depicted in a graphic similar to the one below.

Why the “Isolated Skills Floating Around in Space” model doesn’t work for beginning reading

This beautifully depicted model of the “five big reading ideas,” adapted from a major publisher, demonstrates the crux of the problem: there is no depiction of how these research-based skills come together to create “Reading Proficiency” for beginning readers!

Image of Isolated Skills Floating in Space

Here you see Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, and Comprehension skills as five disconnected entities. Kindergarten and 1st-grade teachers know these are important, but they don’t know how all these remnants of reading are supposed to fit together. How do they interrelate, connect, and synergize? In this depiction, the skills are like space dust. Zoom in on the cluster that includes Letter Sound Knowledge, Sounding Out & Blending, Regular Word Recognition, High-Frequency Word Recognition, Letter Combination Knowledge, and Advanced Phonics, and one might wonder how these remnants of reading are somehow all clumped into “Phonics” with no ordered internal structure. What’s the gravitational pull that eventually forms “Reading Proficiency”? Is it high-stakes testing? This model of cosmic confusion begs reading educators to go back to the drawing board. Amorphous reading skills floating around in space do not coalesce and form reading proficiency through the gravitational pull of high-stakes testing.

The Department of Education is correct to insist upon “using data to inform instruction.” We need not question whether each of these skills is research-based or even whether or not they need to be taught. The problem is that this beginning reading model was imposed on teachers, publishers, test designers, and schools with no logic for when to teach the skills, what strategies to use to teach them, or how they all come together into proficient grade-level reading. Using data to inform instruction is useful, but good science is based on a good theoretical model. Teachers of beginning reading deserve a model that shows how the skills components fit together and when and how to teach them.

 In my next post I will present a Spiral Staircase Model for beginning reading that is highly consistent with standards-based education, including measurable goals, teacher and student friendly classroom-based standards assessments, and data driven outcomes. It’s the model that should be adapted for the new Common Core State Standards that is replacing No Child Left Behind as the driving force behind education reform in America.

(Dr. J. Richard Gentry is the author of Raising Confident Readers, How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write–From Baby to Age 7. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn and find out more information about his work on his website.)

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