Why Reading Skills Are Declining
Despite all the money we're investing in our schools, it seems as though
children's reading ability is getting worse, not better. What is wrong?
to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), people's reading ability
has declined, despite increasing costs of schooling and increasing percentages
of people making it all the way through high school generation, vs. generations
50% of United States adults were categorized as having the lowest two of five
levels of literacy, the 2003 government survey reported.
survey measured literacy along three dimensions: prose literacy, document literacy, and quantitative literacy. (See
The bottom line: people are not spending much time at all reading any more,
especially young people.
When people don't read for pleasure, they can't read for
information because their brains haven't been developed by the mental processes
that go on when you read a lot. And that's a problem. If you want to be able to
think in the abstract - to imagine things - to invent things - to create things
- you have to put in a lot of time reading. If you want to be able to handle
complex ideas and complex words, you have to work your way up to being
competent with complex text. If you want to be a person who can see all sides
of a story, and have a multiplicity of viewpoints, you have to be a reader. And
if you want to have concentration power, to be able to sit still and study or
think for a long period of time, how do you get that way? By reading!
So the decline in reading skills is a serious threat to our
nation's future. How can this be happening? It's a combination of factors:
spending less quality time with young children
much exposure to TV and video games
explosion of other leisure-time activities that steal time away from solitary reading
that seek to teach reading with the wrong instructional philosophy and methods.
All of these combine to produce students who are deficient
in "The Big Five" of reading. They are:
The vast majority of teachers and schools believe that Whole
Language is the way to teach reading, not phonics. In the "whole word" or
"holistic" philosophy, children are exposed to lots of illustrated books and
taught sight-reading skills and various "context cues," with only a smattering
of phonics skills taught on the side.
problem is, it doesn't work. There isn't a shred of solid, empirical evidence
that kids learn to read by inference and intuition. In fact the research shows
that phonics is best.
colleges of education, state education departments and school boards allow
Whole Language programs, anyway, and the poor reading comprehension, bad
spelling, illegible handwriting and weak writing that come with it, through the
K-12 system and into the workplace.
Most teachers don't even realize what's wrong, because the
vast majority of them have never had so much as a minute's training in the
proper way to teach reading, which is systematic, intensive, explicit phonics.
They can't teach what they don't know.
There may not be a single teachers' college in the nation
which even offers a class on systematic, intensive, explicit phonics, although
training is available through groups such as the Riggs Institute (www.riggsinst.org) or Spalding Phonics
teachers (www.spalding.org) associated
with the Writing Road to Reading.
Training a teacher in proper phonics instruction takes about
40 hours, plus a year or two of mentoring to put the skills in place in the
classroom. That's the key to fighting the national reading crisis. It wouldn't
cost much. But oh, would it help.
classic book, Why Johnny Can't Read
by Rudolf Flesch.