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Why Reading Skills Are Declining


Q. 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?


According 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 ago.


Approximately 50% of United States adults were categorized as having the lowest two of five levels of literacy, the 2003 government survey reported.


The 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:


   parents spending less quality time with young children


   too much exposure to TV and video games


   an explosion of other leisure-time activities that steal time away from solitary reading


   schools 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:


   Phonemic awareness










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.


The 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.


But 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 ( or Spalding Phonics teachers ( 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.


Homework: The classic book, Why Johnny Can't Read by Rudolf Flesch.


By Susan Darst Williams Reading 01 2008


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