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Teaching Reading: Why the "HOW" Is Critical

Updated on
Modified on June 2, 2023


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When we teach reading, it is imperative that we get it right the first time. If we fail to do so, our students—and, ultimately, society—will suffer. Unfortunately, according to National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2019 test scores, there is significant room for improvement. In Minnesota, 40% of fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level (i.e., they cannot identify words in print) and almost 70% cannot read proficiently (i.e., with good comprehension). Sadly, the state I call home has the country’s biggest achievement gap between students who can and cannot read.

Across the board, 10% of children who do not read at grade level are dyslexic; in other words, there is a neurological reason for their difficulty with the printed word. This means that the other 90% of students reading below grade level are instructional casualties who haven’t been taught properly, largely because their teachers haven’t been trained properly.

At the end of third grade, schools switch from teaching students to read to requiring that students read to learn. If students have not learned to read by this point, they will hit the proverbial “brick wall” in fourth grade and beyond. Similarly, it is imperative that students with reading disabilities be identified by or before the start of third grade, at which point proper forms of intervention should be provided—otherwise, there is only a 25% chance that these students will read at grade level during their next nine years of school. Unfortunately, these students are typically not identified until fourth grade or later.

No secret ingredients

What makes reading failure so frustrating is that we know how to teach reading to all students; there are no secret ingredients. Specifically, students need:

  • Phonemic awareness (the ability to sequence and segment sounds found within words)
  • An understanding of symbol-sound associations and/or word parts (syllables and morphemes)
  • Reading fluency (the ability to read with accuracy at an appropriate rate)
  • The vocabulary to comprehend what they read
  • Familiarity with question types and how to derive meaning from different types of writing

Ultimately, we know that students will learn to read better and faster when these components of reading are taught explicitly and systematically by a skilled, knowledgeable teacher.

Turning on the lightbulb

Although reading researchers have conducted a multitude of studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are reading “experts” who favor a child-centered, constructivist approach in which the student directs their own learning and the teacher is merely the facilitator. If a student is not reading to their potential or is not at the same reading level as their classmates, adherents of this approach will say, “Don’t worry, they’ll read when they’re ready. The light bulb will turn on.” 

However, using this approach does a great disservice to emerging and struggling readers. We know how to teach them to read, and it is our responsibility to leverage evidence-based practices to do just that. Anything less impedes not only the individual child but society at large.

A year of change

On August 5th, I will be sharing a personal story of literacy culture change at the school where I was headmaster. During my tenure at Venture Academy—a school for students who struggle with learning disabilities in St. Louis Park, Minnesota—we were able to make the shift from viewing the teaching of reading through a whole-language lens to a lens of evidence and science. I hope you’ll register and join me as I describe how the school made a systematic change in reading philosophy and adopted the components of an effective literacy program, LANGUAGE! Live®, in just one year. The discussion will include an in-depth examination of student outcomes before and after the year of change.

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About the Author
John Alexander
Dr. John Alexander
Educator and Literacy Expert
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.
Learn more about Dr. John Alexander