Reading Together

Something has changed. Somehow the formula for succeeding in America shifted in ways that are easy to feel but hard to discern even for experts. And for us, the professionals who educate our K-12 children, the pathways we use to guide children toward that success—curriculum frameworks—have become more focused on reading, writing, math and science, and pushed the arts and physical education, recess and extra-curriculars to the side. Political opinion about how to fix this crisis has continued to divide us in the 40 years since the report called, “A Nation At Risk” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Since then our best efforts at addressing this nation at risk by narrowing our curriculums has only widened our divisions and failed to change the performance outcomes for our children—and the performances are getting worse.

The Need

In some elementary schools, 4 out of 5 children in third grade cannot read proficiently. In some high schools, graduation rates are slipping, and in some middle schools the lack of reading proficiency makes it impossible to teach new content without remediating for reading proficiency. Employers have to help new hires attain a business level of literacy by teaching them how to write a memo. All over the internet and all over the world, supposedly educated people produce content that is incorrect and illiterate. On most measures of achievement, especially internationally, we are failing to educate most of our students well, and the level of educational proficiency here in the United States is declining, especially in reading.


The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) compares almost 80 countries on measures of reading, math and science. The United States continues to slip just as some other countries are showing signs of weakening academic achievement. In the meantime, China and Singapore continue to flourish.

“The OECD’s PISA 2018 tested around 600,000 15-year-old students in 79 countries and economies on reading, science and mathematics. The main focus was on reading, with most students doing the test on computers. One in four students in OECD countries are unable to complete even the most basic reading tasks, meaning they are likely to struggle to find their way through life in an increasingly volatile, digital world. This is one of the findings of the OECD’s latest PISA global education test, which evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems.”

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2019

“The latest PISA findings also reveal the extent to which digital technologies are transforming the world outside of school. More students today consider reading a waste of time (+ 5 percentage points) and fewer boys and girls read for pleasure (- 5 percentage points) than their counterparts did in 2009. They also spend about 3 hours outside of school online on weekdays, an increase of an hour since 2012, and 3.5 hours on weekends.”

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2019

How could most students consider reading a waste of time? How are we to structure school and remediate reading when the very pathway we have all considered to be the most helpful, gaining reading proficiency, is either thought of as a waste of time or simply not achieved?


The most common measure of reading performance in the United States is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. In the chart below, for fourth graders, the reading proficiency is only around 34% and that means that 66% of students are not reading on a fourth grade level.


About NAEP

“The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the only assessment that measures what U.S. students know and can do in various subjects across the nation, states, and in some urban districts. Also known as The Nation’s Report Card, NAEP has provided important information about how students are performing academically since 1969.NAEP is a congressionally mandated project administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES)” (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2020).

National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2020

“NAEP is given to a representative sample of students across the country. Results are reported for groups of students with similar characteristics (e.g., gender, race and ethnicity, school location), not individual students. National results are available for all subjects assessed by NAEP. State and selected urban district results are available for mathematics, reading, and (in some assessment years) science and writing.” (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2020)

National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2020

Solutions? Coordinate the Adults

One solution is to address reading proficiency at the student’s home, in their Pre-K settings and from 1-3 grade levels with better curriculum, effective diagnostics and more individual reading interventions based on those diagnostics. But what if we coordinated all of the adults in this intervention? Research shows that children who learn to read were read to three times per week. Am I ringing a bell for a revolution? If reading to children is important, and we can help students learn from an early age, perhaps we have the revolution we need. Previous reading interventions have failed to move the scores on standardized testing at grade 3 in America, grade 4 internationally, and by graduation all over the world, so proposed revolutions might be welcome.

Ready for School!

What if we helped children to get ready to learn much earlier? Let’s start with parents and ways we might not just help them, but partner with them. Sesame Street has a new curriculum book out for parents called, “Ready For School! A Parent’s Guide to Playful Learning for Children Ages 2 to 5” (Truglio, 2019). What Sesame Street, or more formally, Sesame Workshop have done, is use their Vice President for Research to write a parent’s guide for a deeper dive on what parents can notice and emphasize that would be helpful to their children. For example, the sections of the book are divided into Listening and Speaking, Early Reading and Writing, Early Math, Early Science, Problem Solving and other Skills for Learning, Feelings and Friendship, Strong Bodies and Smart Choices, and Creating and Appreciating the Arts. These categories map nicely to curriculum domains that all children will encounter and the idea here is to notice all of the wonderful learning moments in the parent’s normal play and learn development time. All kids play, and more adults would play, if we could harness the use of play as Sesame Street’s “Ready for School!” book suggests.

Network of Playful Learning

And what if we ask all adults to coordinate their efforts around these early ideas for developing healthy minds? What if we developed parenting supports that lead to partnerships? What if parents were involved because we made it possible for them to join the education professionals, the Pre-K caregivers, the after-school leaders and the medical community in supporting their children to thrive in their new lives? What if when a child was born, many adults were waiting for him or her, in a coordinated network of playful learning? What if those adults helped construct the healthy choices and safer neighborhoods we all need to learn, with the goal of reaching reading proficiency? What if we all read to all of our kids in a coordinated way so that our children start their lives ready to learn? Ready?

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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