THE BLOG

Reading Instruction and the Achievement Gap

02/02/2015 01:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2015

One of the schisms dividing the education field is the differing opinions about "reading" and "reading instruction."

To those outside the field, this might seem a little -- shall we say -- arcane. Reading is what you're doing right now, right? No mystery there. And reading instruction -- that's what kindergarten and first-grade teachers do. They sing the alphabet song, point to the letters, and read Frog and Toad a bunch of times, and that's reading instruction, right?

If only.

It turns out that reading instruction is one of the most complex tasks our schools undertake. You can get a sense of its difficulty from the fact that 52 percent of eighth-graders whose parents graduated from college can't read at the proficient level as measured by the Nation's Report Card. Fourteen percent can't read at a basic level. Although this is a problem that hits every demographic group you can name, the numbers are much worse for kids whose parents didn't finish high school, for kids who live in poverty, and for kids of color. Those numbers constitute a huge part of what we know of as the achievement gap.

Achievement gaps are often blamed on the personal attributes that kids bring with them to school -- whether they live in poverty, whether they come from single-family homes, and so forth.

But anyone who has looked at this issue also has to say that a contributing factor has been that, too often, reading instruction has been hit-or-miss or, sometimes, completely wrong-headed.

For example, for years much of the field of education was dominated by a theory that reading is a more or less natural act, and that children will be able to make meaning from text if they are surrounded by good literature and reading is made to be a pleasant activity. In many ways, that philosophy -- known as whole language -- provided an important balance to older ways of teaching reading that didn't focus enough on keeping students interested and engaged in what they were reading.

But the underlying theory -- that reading will come naturally if students are motivated enough -- has been tested extensively and found to be simply untrue. Things are said to come naturally if people don't need instruction in them -- for example, crawling or speaking. The human brain evolved in ways that require language. But reading has only been around for about 5,000 years, most of which time it was the province of priests and scribes. In other words, most children need careful instruction in how to read.

If you are a teacher or a parent who hears about whole-language philosophy, then you might be interested in the new book Why Kids Can't Read: Continuing to Challenge the Status Quo in Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), edited by Patrick R. Riccards, Phyllis Blaunstein, and Reid Lyon. The second edition to an earlier volume, Why Kids Can't Read marshals the evidence against whole language, explaining exactly why kids need to learn what is known as the alphabetic code -- that is, the 44 or 45 sounds that make up the English language and how to map those sounds onto the 26 letters. This kind of instruction -- known as systematic phonics instruction -- was devalued by whole-language advocates as unnecessary and tedious, but extensive research has demonstrated that most kids need it, and some won't ever be able to read accurately and fluently without it. And there is plenty of evidence that, when done with verve and skill, it doesn't have to take a long time and doesn't have to be boring.

As important as the information in Why Kids Can't Read is, however, it felt stuck in the 1990s. I haven't heard the term "whole language" in a school in a long time, and most early elementary teachers know that they need to teach kids phonics in some kind of systematic way. The fact that fourth-grade reading has improved over the last decade indicates schools have at least begun to figure out early reading instruction.

But that still leaves those awful numbers at the eighth-grade level. What is that about?

That's where another new book about reading is timely and important. Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham has brought together decades of research about reading and reading instruction in one sensible, readable volume, Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (Wiley, 2015).

He goes through the research on early reading instruction and the need for instruction in the alphabetic code, but he also talks a great deal about the topic that energized the whole language movement -- the need for kids to be motivated to read. He cites research and lots of parental observations that kids who are eager to read in kindergarten are deflated by fourth grade and, sometimes, actively hostile by high school. He devotes a good amount of time to helping parents and teachers understand the elements of motivation, and how to keep from discouraging kids.

Part of his advice is to ensure that they are learning enough vocabulary and background knowledge through conversation, daily experiences, and high-quality literature to be able to understand what they read.

And that's where another wrong-headed trend comes into play. In the last decade or so, schools have so focused on building the skill of early reading that too many have ignored the need for students to know a great deal of content in order to understand what they are reading. Too many have undervalued the role instruction in science, history, and the arts play in reading instruction -- which is, I suspect, at least part of why so many eighth-graders don't read at a proficient level.

Willingham, who has spent the last decade or so translating complex cognitive science into clear prose for educators (see, for example, his "Ask the Cognitive Scientist" column in The American Educator), has drawn on decades of cognitive research to make the case that schools need to focus on all aspects of reading instruction -- decoding, building a knowledge base, and keeping kids engaged and interested, and all at the same time, not just in the early years of school but throughout their school lives.

It can be done, and Willingham shows how, with some important ways that families can help. If you are someone -- a parent, a teacher, a principal, or a concerned community member -- who wants to understand the issue of reading, Willingham's book is a great start.