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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Johnny can't read, and he's not in K-3 any more

One-third of middle and high school teachers are spending time teaching reading fundamentals, according to a new RAND report, writes Elizabeth Heubeck on Education Week.

Nearly 3 in 10 eighth-graders lack basic mastery in reading, national tests show, and others are not proficient. This is not new, but pandemic disruptions have made everything worse.

Students with poor decoding skills have trouble understanding what they read, says Rebecca Kockler of Reading Reimagined, a research nonprofit focusing on students in third grade and beyond. “We think about 40 to 50 percent of middle and high school students in America cannot perform this skill at the rate they need in order to be able to access reading comprehension,” said Kockler, who helped reform reading instruction when she worked in Louisiana’s education department.

A 2019 study of students in 5th through 10th grade found that those who were "unable to decode grade-level text automatically, with accuracy and efficiency . . . made no significant growth in their reading comprehension ability over the next three years."

“The idea of an incredibly stark decoding threshold, that when kids fall below it they show zero growth in reading comprehension, was pretty astounding,” Kockler said.

Older students don't need "the cat sat on the mat." They need practice with multisyllabic words to learn how to read "education." (As a reading tutor, I once spent nearly a year working with a first grader who could read "cat" all the time, "sat" some of the time and "mat" never. It looked like a rug in the picture.)

When students in fourth grade and up read poorly, they rarely get effective help, writes

Natalie Wexler, who looks at efforts to help older students improve their reading. 

Students get practice in comprehension skills, such as "finding the main idea," rather than help in reading the words. But their brains are so busy trying to decode, they can't focus on meaning. That insight -- known as "cognitive load" -- is behind new efforts to help struggling readers.

Readable English, developed by reading specialist, Ann Fitts, uses technology to mark up text to "make complex words easier to read," she writes. "A dot appears between syllables, silent letters are greyed out, and diacritical marks—or “glyphs”—are inserted over certain letters to indicate they’re making a particular sound."

The word technique, for example, would be marked up like this:

Credit: Readable English

Students learn phonics patterns and the glyphs showing non-standard letter sounds, then "practice reading marked-up text and converting text from standard English to the Readable English version," writes Wexler.

Studies of Readable English with older elementary students, another with middle school students, and a third with high school students found reading comprehension improved significantly -- when assessed with regular text, she reports. Researchers compared Readable English mark-ups to learning to ride a bike using training wheels.

Middle-schoolers gained an average of two grade levels in reading comprehension in less than six months, while the control group experienced a one-month loss.

The high school study, which was small, involved students in alternative schools who'd been diagnosed with reading disabilities. Readable English students grew by more than one grade level in reading comprehension, and all 14 students passed state tests. The control group, which got tutoring in phonics and “sight words,” lost three months, and only one of 11 students was expected to pass the state tests by year's end.

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May 25

It's been known for nearly 70 years that the Look-Say Whole Word approach works poorly at best. Subsequent tweakings and reworkings have done no better, because it does not teach how to work out unfamiliar new words. IMO, it a national scandal that Whole Word was not @#$%-canned by 1960.

On another tack I think Kindergarten is too early for many kids to do much more than learn letters, and some are not really ready in 1st Grade. Our one-size-fits-all approach to classroom schools compounds this problem. Students who don't "get it" before their class moves on in 2nd or 3rd Grade may not find a way to catch up. 8 or 10 years of being lost at a very…


May 21

Interesting experimental results, but the small size makes it less than conclusive. Replication, please!

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