Proficient Reading Remains Elusive for U.S. Kids

Published January 31, 2014

Although U.S. kids have made progress in decoding words, leading to a slight uptick in elementary-grade reading scores over the past two decades, they’re still shaky at the second part of reading—understanding what they sound out.

That’s crucial to upper-level reading, where scores have remained stagnant since national tests began. Improving that element of reading may be an even bigger challenge than revitalizing phonics, because understanding requires background knowledge gained in a variety of life experiences that families, rather than educators, probably have to provide.

“Decoding, vocabulary, and background knowledge are key requirements for reading comprehension,” said Sheida White, a literacy and writing statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics.

NCES’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides long-term measurement of U.S. students, and the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the achievement of 15-year-olds every three years.

“Over the past decade,” said Lisa Hansel, spokeswoman for the Core Knowledge Foundation, “particularly since the National Reading Panel Report, our elementary schools have gotten much better at doing research-based decoding instruction, and they’re to be congratulated for that. But if we look at the long term NAEP results for 17 year olds and if we look at the recent PISA results for 15 year olds, we see that there is a problem—that our students who are getting close to graduating from high school have been stagnant, that their reading has not improved.”

‘A Two-Lock Box’
“We have figured out how to teach kids how to decode print on the page,” said Russ Whitehurst, director of education policy at the Brookings Institution, “that is, to see a group of letters and to sound them out into words.”

Even so, he said, a child who can decode can still be functionally illiterate because they don’t understand the words they decode:  “That understanding … requires a lot of background knowledge, not just the ability to define words.”

“We sum up the reading research by describing reading as a two-lock box—a box that takes two keys to open,” Hansel said. “Explicit decoding instruction is essential for translating those symbols on the page into words in your mind. So that’s the first key. The second key is vocabulary and background knowledge. Once you’ve decoded the text, you need to know what it means.”

Why Kids Can’t Understand
Although E. D. Hirsch, a researcher who founded the Core Knowledge Foundation, pointed out this deficiency in the 1980s, schools still do not provide children the background knowledge necessary for literacy, Whitehurst said.

Many children don’t have that knowledge “because in their homes, before they were reading, they weren’t … engaged in conversations in ways that you have to get the difference between what’s formally stated and what’s implied,” he said. Reading, with parents and alone, also generates this background knowledge, he said.

“So you have this negative loop in which children struggle to read,” Whitehurst explained. “They don’t understand what they’re reading on the page, because they have a reading disability or they don’t have background knowledge, so they don’t read a lot. It’s effortful for them, so they don’t learn a lot. And because they don’t learn a lot, as they get older it becomes even more of this negative feedback. They can’t understand, so they don’t do it.”

Wider Curriculum Needed
The obvious solution, Hansel said, is for schools to focus on building kids’ core knowledge and vocabulary, particularly when children are very young.

“I’m heartened to see that there are many initiatives along these lines now,” she said.

Whitehurst said many efforts are a waste of time because researchers don’t definitively know how to provide background knowledge. As with decoding research, it will likely take decades to learn how to effectively teach vocabulary and background knowledge, he said.

“We also have to figure out how to get kids to read more, since that’s the self-healing way of growing that knowledge,” he said.

“Let’s resist the narrowing of the curriculum that’s happened since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed,” offered Hansel. “Let’s bring more science, and social studies, and art and music instruction back into the elementary grades, and let’s enjoy with our kids the great wonder of the world.”

Image by Denise Krebs.