Why So Many Children Struggle to Read

Published July 6, 2013

Federal, state, and school district efforts to address struggling readers expend a great deal of time and fortune, yet our reading woes continue. Second-language learners in Latino communities, in particular, consistently show high rates of reading deficiencies. James Popham, an emeritus professor of education at UCLA and authority on assessment research, argues standardized assessments do not bring relevant information to where change can take place: Teachers in the classroom.

Students in Latino communities have a dual challenge. In addition to learning a second language, they have low literacy, or even illiteracy, in their primary language. This deficiency, which stems from the home environment, prompts the achievement gap early, and it widens through the grades.

Teachers need better understanding of illiteracy, along with better training and cognitive development tutorials that address basic literacy skills. A child speaking only Spanish, and with low literacy skills in his own language, arrives in first grade and is handed a text in English. This doesn’t make sense.

Parenting Is Key
The problem stems from a gap in cognitive development before first grade. The critical ages for building the basics for literacy are three, four, and five. Without this training at home, a child is unprepared for first grade, and the achievement gap widens as textbooks become more complex through the grades. Efforts to improve reading at higher grade levels will be ineffective because the child lacks the foundation skills for reading.

Symptoms of this problem begin to appear after third grade, when readers begin to develop the reading proficiency that leads to higher thinking skills. If students do not develop basic, pre-reading skills, their reading skills do not develop beyond the third grade. Researchers such as E. D. Hirsch have reported this for years.

What is Illiteracy?
Therefore, in addition to literacy, we must also address illiteracy. The confusion occurs when the question arises, “What can we do about it?” Curriculum frequently does not include instruction in the cognitive development process of reading. Every year, teachers introduce reading curricula that expand in breadth and depth, and students continue to receive texts for other core areas which they cannot read. English-speaking students often cannot read critically or express themselves adequately in writing.

More than a dozen states have introduced legislation to retain third-graders who can barely read, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is becoming clear there is a persistent problem, and it becomes evident in the early elementary grades. Although states focus efforts on third grade, the problem happens because language development didn’t occur at the second and first grades and even before that. We have to address the problem, not the symptoms.

Building Literacy Skills
Several states are now committing funds to third grade literacy programs. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, for example, has called for interventions such as 90 minutes of reading instruction per session. These interventions should also include instruction in the learning process that leads to reading skill. But the students in intervention programs usually receive another book to read, which is exactly what they can’t do.

A phonics program is a critical first step, but the teacher must be aware of the cognitive process involved and what constitutes proficiency. Phonics is part of an area that is also known as “alphabetics.” This involves several skills, beginning with mastering the inventory of sounds that exist in a language. The learner grasps that a series of sounds represents a word and then expands to form a group of words that compose a thought. Next, the child must convert those sounds into writing. To do this, learners must master both.

The next skill is converting written language into fluent speech. Speech should reproduce the language’s sounds correctly and fluently, along with proper word stress, intonation, etc. This is commonly called “decoding,” and it is critical to reading. However, developing this skill depends on mastering the more basic skills. Curricula often do not take this progression into account. Thus the classroom teacher tackles decoding when the learner does not have the skills required to perform the task.

The third element in reading development is vocabulary. As simple as this sounds, it is a highly complex instructional and learning process. Vocabulary is often taught in lists of random words with a single meaning per word.  However, context often changes a connotation or an entire meaning.

Vocabulary can be grouped as discrete or conceptual. The former refers to words that can be visualized. These are easily learned. The latter represents concepts that cannot be visualized, such as frugal, economy, negotiate, etc. Such difficult concepts must be approached via discrete vocabulary.

Before a reader begins a text, there must be a high level of comprehension of the vocabulary in that text. If a reader is unfamiliar with as little as 10-15 percent of the vocabulary in a text, reading it will be difficult. Reading strategies such as cognates, discerning meaning through context, word families, etc, are fine for readers who are much more accomplished, but early readers can’t apply these strategies.

If a reader keeps pausing to link a sound to its corresponding written letter(s), decode, or reflect on a word’s meaning, comprehension is lost.

Addressing reading deficiencies must be done through teachers, with training and appropriate curriculum. Legislating performance requirements won’t solve this complex problem.

Patrick Herrera ([email protected]) is a faculty member at Chapman University and founder of ESL Phonics to LiteracyImage by Judy Baxter.