Readership Leadership

It’s ironic that in the focus on math and science, the education acronym (STEM) is synonymous with the shaft of a flower.

Staying true to the metaphor, there must be a stem before there’s a blossom. But there must be a good seed before there’s a stem.

In learning, the seed is literacy.

Strong reading skills among students make every other aspect of education better. The act of reading itself is a skill of multidimensional magnitude.

It builds a complex vocabulary—not only the meaning of words but also their context and nuance. It teaches grammar and spelling by example, without preaching mechanics. It demonstrates communications organization and rhetorical technique–how to tell a story effectively, dramatically and imaginatively.

It’s not a wholly ridiculous argument to contend that if the only thing we taught early elementary kids in the first few years was reading, it would improve their later learning of all other subjects. Once a student has mastered reading—not merely practiced it—he or she is armed with the skill to learn everything else more quickly and comprehensively.

The Nation’s Report Card, published biennially by the National Assessment of Education Progress, has been tracking American students’ proficiency in math and reading since 1992.

The line chart showing mathematics progress reflects a definite incline. Average math scores increased 10 percent and 8 percent respectively for fourth- and eighth-graders between 1992 and 2013 (the 2015 report will be out later this year).

Gains in reading were much flatter. Average test scores for fourth-graders only improved 2 percent in 20 years; eighth-grader scores improved only 3 percent. Arkansas began below the national average in reading scores, and is still slightly below, but has made decent progress—especially in reducing the percentage of students who fall below basic proficiency.

The report offers no explanation why math gains are five times greater than reading gains, but the disparity demands attention, and one area of scrutiny is the methodology associated with how reading is taught and learned.

Historically, phonics figured prominently in teaching children to read. If you can remember being taught to “sound it out” when confronted with an unfamiliar word, you were a pupil of phonics. With 20th Century progressive education reforms came the “whole language” approach, in which speaking, listening, reading and writing are combined to create a literacy-rich environment.

Progressive reforms were based on what’s called a constructivist theory to learning, the foundational idea being that children learn by connecting new knowledge with previously learned knowledge. In constructivism, the teacher’s role is considered to be the “guide on the side” as opposed to the “sage on the stage” more commonly associated in behaviorist learning theory.

As often occurs in bureaucracies, assumptions are too broadly made about the two dueling theories of learning. In certain subjects, it may well be that student-centered experiential interaction improves learning. But we shouldn’t enthrone constructivism as universally superior when two decades of flat test scores in reading are literally begging for instructional revision.

For what we spend on education, the return on investment in reading is exceedingly low. Even after four years of 180 days of daily classroom instruction to teach reading, two out of three Arkansas students on average can’t read at a proficient level.

Apologists are quick to point out that many things beyond the classroom and the teacher’s reach affect reading scores, which is true. However, that truth is no excuse for not pursuing the most effective learning methods, which give all students a better opportunity.

The nation of England recently required all public schools to return to a phonics-primary curriculum, after an extensive review of early reading teaching methods concluded that the phonics approach “offers the vast majority of young children the best and most direct route to becoming skilled readers and writers.”

Evidence is indisputable that children who learn to read from phonics acquire foundational word recognition and language-comprehension skills that enable them to more readily tackle advanced reading assignments.

Current Arkansas standards include some phonics, but not to the same degree as was used in the past or is now statutorily required in England.

It’s time to make readership an education leadership priority in Arkansas. If we assume good readers become better at everything else, then pouring more resources into teaching students to read will deliver additional residual benefits in all those areas.

We might start with a state declaration of reading supremacy, specifically establishing reading as the primary requirement for an adequate education.

Like England, we ought to also declare phonics as the path to superior reading—and not limit it to early elementary education. A true commitment to reading would keep teaching it up through middle and junior high.

If Arkansas would focus on becoming the best state at teaching reading, we’d raise our state ranking on a lot more things than just test scores.


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