Can We Accomplish This Educational Mission: To Teach Everyone to Read?

I seem to be asking myself large questions about how our country will teach everyone these days. We educators cannot do it in the way we have been doing it, so this is really a question about our country’s will to teach everyone by providing a national strategy to improve reading.

It is no surprise that those who are willing to learn can perform well in our schools, but I have always been interested in the disadvantaged students and the assessment of their skills in order to help them achieve at grade level. Those students who suffer from poverty, racism, and/or language acquisition for example fill more than half of our 52 million seats in K-12 schools, so why can’t we teach everyone to learn to read?

National Assessment of Educational Progress

We seem to be stuck in measuring their test scores rather than diagnosing their educational needs. For example, The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has tested a random sample of students in reading since 1992 at fourth and eighth grades. Although there is some slight fluctuation in test scores, the scores have remained relatively flat over the last 27 years.

At grade 4, the average reading score in 2019 (220) was lower than the score in 2017 (222), when the assessment was last administered, but it was higher than the score in 1992 (217). Similarly, at grade 8 the average reading score in 2019
(263) was lower than the score in 2017 (267), but it was higher than the score in 1992 (260).


I know this sounds like a simple question, but what has happened to our ability to improve our children’s reading scores? And my even more nuanced question is why have we not used these standardized test score data to improve those scores? And my challenge question is why not design and implement a new set of assessments—performance assessments in reading—to help us move every child to proficiency on grade level reading? The promise of performance assessments is that they can be more revealing of the data teachers need to improve reading scores.

The Science of Reading

I would argue that the current NAEP measurement of reading scores is not a robust measure of how students learn to read and therefore does not give teachers enough data to instructionally intervene and improve student learning. The new science of reading describes a much more complicated instructional picture for why and how complicated it is to teach reading.

Amanda Goodwin, co-editor of Reading Research Quarterly, talks with Kappan about the research findings presented in two special issues of journal focused on the science of reading. The science of reading is a broad body of research, she explains, that includes not just alphabetics, phonics, and word reading, which receive the most attention in the media. Actual science of reading research also incorporates findings related to motivation, dyslexia, digital texts, and multilingualism. In addition, effective reading instruction does not follow a simple prescription but leaves room for teacher discretion.


So the reading wars between those who believe in phonics instruction vs. whole language instruction is a very superficial discussion given the depth and complexity implied by the science of reading domain. Phonics and whole language approaches need to be accurately implemented in any classroom, for sure, but the effects of motivation on students learning to read should be taught to teachers. Teachers should also gain instructional help from performance assessments that measure the effects of challenges like the impediment of dyslexia, the technical challenge of digital texts and the overlapping translations in multilingualism. If we address the mitigating factors by educating teachers to overcome reading deficiencies we might be able to achieve the goal of getting every child to read well.

Teacher Discretion

Given the depth and complexity of the science of reading, we need to develop a national strategy for educating and supporting every teacher in a more professional approach to teaching reading to, and being successful with, every child. Again we find ourselves relying on the professional implementation of reading strategies by teachers and their discretion of when to apply those strategies. Instead of blaming those very same teachers for not being successful in teaching reading why not design a national education policy that builds the capacity of teachers to teach every child well? It is up to us to make the hard choices that cost money and time to accomplish. Do we want to accomplish this educational mission?

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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