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America is facing a literacy problem: according to surveys, fewer than 50% of American schoolchildren are highly proficient readers. But solving the dilemma isn’t easy: why are so many students struggling and how can we fix it? We talk to several experts who suggest that we may simply be teaching the skill incorrectly. They address the fallacies many of us believe to be true and the balance our education system needs to strike in order to best cure the societal illness of illiteracy.

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  • Dr. Mark Seidenberg, research professor in the department of psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Language at the Speed of Sight: How we read, why so many can’t and what can be done about it
  • Dr. Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy development at New York University
  • Dr. Marie Ann Donovan, associate professor of teacher education, DePaul University

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Teaching Kids To Read

Karen Hand: We can send astronauts to the moon and land equipment on Mars, but we still haven’t figured out the best way to teach reading. According to statistics, one-third of children in the United States graduate eighth grade with below basic reading skills.

Seidenberg: Many people are able to read some, but not at a level that would allow them to fully participate in the work force or in educating their children or in their own healthcare, for example. So it’s not that there are a lot of people who don’t read anything in the sense of being totally illiterate, but there are many people whose literacy skills are very, very low.

Hand: That’s Dr. Mark Seidenberg (“sigh-den-berg”), research professor in the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and author of the new book “Language at the Speed of Sight, How We Read, Why So Many Can’t and What Can Be Done About It.” He says when it comes to best practices for teaching reading, teachers and researchers are often at odds.

Seidenberg: On the education side the concerns are what are we going to do in classrooms, what kind of practices are going to work? On the science side there’s an international community of people who’ve studied how reading works. That means that they are mostly researchers in psychology and language and neuroscience who look at the way that children learn, the brain mechanisms that support reading, the kinds of experiences that go into becoming a good skilled reader and also the kinds of obstacles that many kids face. These are two cultures; they think about there same thing – reading and how kids become readers, but they don’t have much contact with one another and on the science side we see practices that are very deeply entrenched in education that really are not consistent with all the things that we’ve learned.

Hand: Seidenberg says many teachers have been taught something that the research side fundamentally disagrees with.

Seidenberg: Which is that every kid is different and that what they do in the classroom has to be tailored to the particular needs of the child. That’s not really true. In fact, the research suggests that skilled reading basically people converge on the same sort of neuro- systems and behaviors across not just speakers of English, but across speakers of different languages that use different kinds of writing systems. So, yes, children’s levels of development differ, their experiences differ, how much they were read to in the home differs, their vocabulary differs, yes, those are ways in which children differ. But if you look at how they learn and how reading works, and what they need to learn in order to be a skilled reader, that doesn’t differ as much as advertised.

Hand: Seidenberg says all kids enter school knowing a spoken language. The challenge is teaching students how to translate that spoken language into the printed word.

Seidenberg: A beginning reader has to learn how this new kind of code – print — relates to something they already know – language. What that means is they need to connect those two codes. If they can figure out how those symbols on the page correspond to this language they already know, they will be able to read. So in the beginning the problem is to make that connection. Already know spoken language? Here’s a new way of representing it. How does this new code work? In the early grades emphasis on making that connection is very important. It’s one that has been the focus of a lot of controversy because the methods that are used to try to connect print and spoken language are usually called phonics. Many teachers have been led to believe that an emphasis on phonics will turn the child into a poor reader and extinguish their interest in reading.

Hand: This is a troubling trend other researchers say they’ve seen as well.

Neuman: A lot of teachers and a lot of schools are being taught from a different perspective, a language rich perspective that argues that if we engage kids in lots of opportunities to hear language and words then they will pick it up and they’ll pick it up in a way that’s more interesting to them.

Hand: That’s Dr. Susan B. Neuman, professor of childhood and literacy development at New York University.

Neuman: There’s a belief system that children can learn words in the context of being read to or in the context of hearing interesting stories, and that’s simply not true.

Hand: Neuman says that what children really need are decoding skills.

Neuman: A decoding skill is understanding first thing that letters can have sounds. So a child can look at the letter ‘B’ and understand that the ‘B’ makes the ‘buh’ sound. And once they begin to unlock or understand that letters can stand for sounds, they can begin to combine those letters in ways that enable them to be an independent reader.

Hand: However, some experts caution that we can’t simply say our schools need more phonics across the board, because too much reliance on phonics can also be dangerous.

Donovan: I see in some schools there’s less time being given to specific phonics instruction everyday beyond the late first grade, early second grade level. And yet in other schools I see an over reliance upon phonics, especially schools where you have larger numbers in the student population who are children whose home languages aren’t English and you are responsible for teaching them how to read and write and such in English.

Hand: That’s Dr. Marie Ann Donovan, associate professor of teacher education at DePaul University in Chicago.

Donovan: People say well, there’s either phonics or there’s balanced literacy. Well, balanced literacy should technically have in it a phonics instructional component. The balance is struck from looking at how do we across the instructional day engage children in analyzing words, identifying spelling and sound patterns that occur in the language, how do we use that knowledge in the service of, again, learning what words mean, recognizing them and then how do we put all those words together and/or look at words altogether in sentences and paragraphs and chapters and comprehend what the message is that the author wants us to get? There should be that happening everyday. And depending upon what your children, what your students need most of, that’s where you shift the balance around instructionally rather than saying, okay, no phonics, we’re just going to dive right into this text. No, no. no — you have to be able to break the code.

Hand: Seidenberg agrees that we need to strike that balance. He says unfortunately many parents have been led to believe simply reading to their children will teach them to read.

Seidenberg: Reading to children is really important and it’s something that’s entered into the cultural awareness now because of public service announcements and so on. Everyone has gotten the idea, I think, that reading to children is important, but it’s important for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious one, which is it gets the kid interested in books and what books are about and starts getting them motivated to learn to read themselves. But the mantra about read to your children/reading to children is important can be mistaken for the idea that if you do that, that’s all that’s required. Usually reading to children is not the same as teaching them to read. It prepares the way in a lot of ways, it’s very important, it expands their vocabulary, it expands their knowledge of language. It’s very motivating. In some rare cases there are kids who learn to read sitting with someone who is reading to them on a regular basis, but that’s pretty much the exception.

Hand: So most experts seem to agree that phonics are important and should be incorporated into the curriculum. But Neuman and Donovan say it’s no simple task to change a curriculum.

Neuman: One of the problems is what we teach at the university, then these kids go out and they’re in a classroom that is very much whole language or not teaching the skills, so one of the things you know about training teachers is you can’t just train them in the university setting and then have them go into a setting totally different and follow what you originally taught; it doesn’t work that way. Teachers enter systems in schools and there are certain ways that schools are doing things. It’s very hard to work against the grain.

Donovan: Once you earn your degree, your teaching license, you’re out there with veteran teachers and they have their ways of doing things, and since it’s such a complex process, there’s bound to be variations in how people perceive it works. It happens for themselves as readers, never mind how do you then go about teaching others to do this thing called reading. And so in turn researchers at universities, we see clearly what it takes, but once we finish training and educating our students to go out there, they are going into a variety of situations that don’t match what the research has been showing and telling us about how to teach reading.

Hand: Seidenberg says no matter how difficult the process, it’s very important to get every child to the point where they can read at a level that’s beneficial to themselves, their families and society.

Seidenberg: That’s where we really are leaving lots of children behind, and there are many reasons that people don’t get to become skilled readers. But the one that we really can do something about now is, what are the practices, what are teachers taught, do the teachers have all the tools available to work with? Can we give them more to work with; can we disabuse them of some of the fictions about reading and how children learn that they’ve been exposed to? And that’s a place where there are specific things that we can do and there are connections that we can make with a lot of good science and that connecting the education and science sides would be beneficial.

Hand: To learn more about all of our guests and Mark Seidenberg’s book “Language at the Speed of Sight, How We Read, Why So Many Can’t and What Can Be Done About It,” visit viewpoints online.net. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook and Polly Hansen. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Karen Hand.