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The Teaching of Reading: Why Structured Literacy Matters

by John Alexander, M.Ed. on Feb 23, 2022

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For decades, issues surrounding literacy instruction and poor literacy test scores have been discussed by researchers, professors of education, teachers, administrators, and parents.  Research strongly recommends teachers provide explicit, systematic reading instruction. Not doing so puts too many emerging and struggling readers at risk. Many studies reveal that students who do not learn to read by the end of third grade are three times more likely to drop out of high school than readers at the start of fourth grade. Not surprisingly, students who don’t learn to read also have a greater likelihood of developing mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, than students who learn to read.

Unfortunately, the inability to read follows a child throughout life. According to the National Institute for Literacy, 43% of Americans with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty, and 70% have no job or a part-time job. Conversely, only 5% of Americans with strong literacy skills live in poverty. Therefore, improving the literacy rates in this country will raise literacy in individuals and society. 

Society suffers as well. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Our criminal justice system is flooded with inmates who struggled in school, many because they never moved from learning to read to reading to learn. This places greater pressure on society’s social welfare programs, which, in turn, affects the tax rates of every working American. Rather than paying for critical care—the cost of jailing inmates and the emotional and fiscal costs associated with mental health illness for illiterate people—wouldn’t it be more effective to spend a fraction of this money in prevention by providing evidence-based literacy instruction for all students? 

To be well adjusted socially and emotionally, students require basic school skills—reading, writing, and arithmetic. School administrators and teachers can ensure that reading and writing skills can be addressed through evidence-based reading instruction that includes highly knowledgeable teachers who use a curriculum like LANGUAGE! Live®, which has an appropriate scope and sequence of skills taught explicitly and systematically. Progress monitoring using normed-based assessments should happen weekly for students with a reading disability or who are not making adequate progress. The data collected from progress monitoring is then used to make informed instructional decisions. Students not making sufficient progress receive more intense (smaller group) instruction until they realize their potential. Finally, teachers need time to meet to discuss specific students, and they need to have ample professional development opportunities so they can realize their potential as teachers of reading. 

Education is changing. No longer are teachers solely the conductors of the orchestras; they have become facilitators and partners in their students’ learning. Teaching with a program that uses a Structured Literacy approach, like LANGUAGE! Live, helps teachers engage students because the curriculum is highly interactive. There is time dedicated to group work and students help one another build skills which also results in students’ social and emotional learning. Connecting and engaging with work is particularly important during the middle and high school years. Dr. Louisa Moats, author of LANGUAGE! Live, understands the importance of group learning and student engagement, and she developed the curriculum accordingly. When students feel connected to their learning, they discover that their participation and effort lead to results. 

While many educators feel that learning to read happens primarily during the kindergarten years, all students should be learning reading strategies throughout their school experiences.  Structured Literacy should be used in all language teaching, and LANGUAGE! Live allows this to happen for middle school- and high school-aged students. 

When school administrators and teachers embrace an evidence-based reading approach, magic can happen as reflected in a literacy program which was implemented in a Minneapolis charter school with a significant population (70%+) of at-risk students. LANGUAGE! Live was introduced to teachers through a series of professional development workshops in spring 2018. That fall, LANGUAGE! Live was used for middle and high school students. In spring 2019, teachers reported more student engagement in language arts activities than in previous years. Initial test data were positive with a five-point average increase in reading fluency on normed assessments. 

Unlike some perplexing mysteries of science, we have the answer for the literacy issues our nation faces. It is imperative that we employ evidence-based literacy instruction so that all students may benefit. Not only do our youth deserve to become readers, but democracy also demands a literate population.

John Alexander, M.Ed., has spent 32 years helping emerging and struggling readers become proficient. He is a graduate of Harvard University, and has been a reading teacher, head of school, and reading coach. Dr. Alexander is passionate about democratizing evidence-based literacy instruction for all students. In 2019, he left school administration to create an educational consulting business, Lexia Consulting Services, which focuses on literacy instruction. Through his business, Dr. Alexander works with individual families and schools, bringing a wide and deep experience in assessment, curriculum design and implementation, professional development, and teacher coaching in literacy instruction.

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