It’s been years since I was a Los Angeles middle school teacher, but I still remember my students as if they were in my classroom yesterday.
There was sweet Alberto with the mischievous grin that made me wonder how sweet he really was, and shy Sara who stuffed notes of appreciation into my hands and ran away before I’d have the chance to thank her. There was please-let-me-help Milena, who always wanted to sweep, pass out papers or put books away. (I changed the names of my students to protect their identities.)
Lately, I’ve been thinking about another student. Francisco was a big kid. He was bigger than most of the other sixth graders, since he was a year older. His personality was equally large. You always knew when Francisco had entered the classroom.
Wise beyond his years, he refused to participate in my request for information on who had tortured the substitute while I was out sick. “I ain’t no narc, Ms. Coleman,” he said.
When Francisco crosses my mind today, this unintentionally humorous declaration isn’t what keeps him stuck there. It’s the trouble he had with reading.
Low literacy plagued Francisco back then, like it does most American middle and high schoolers today. We can change this by giving upper-grade teachers the reading-instruction training that they need, and which most, myself included, never got.
Although Francisco was 12 or 13 years old, he read and wrote at an early elementary level. I had many students who were below-grade-level readers, but he was among the weakest. The contrasts between his reading ability and his maturity and intelligence were stark. During class, charm and wit masked his literacy struggles; but when I collected independent written classwork or asked pointed reading comprehension questions, his gaps had nowhere to hide.
Francisco isn’t unique. Pre-pandemic, only 18 percent of Los Angeles Unified School District eighth grade students were at or above grade-level reading proficiency. The largest share, 42 percent, only reached the lowest reading level, known as “Below NAEP Basic,” on The Nation’s Report Card.
Reliable post-pandemic reading data for middle and high schoolers isn’t here yet, but with the challenges of remote learning and increased absenteeism, these numbers have certainly gotten worse. And not just in LA, this is a nationwide issue. Older students are failing as readers, and there’s little support to change this.
So why aren’t the big kids getting the reading help they need?
Literacy advocates have long argued that to raise reading levels, we need to focus our efforts on improving reading instruction in the early grades. In theory, this makes sense. Studies document that weak readers in elementary school are less likely to make it to high school graduation, and they’re also more likely to struggle academically in upper grades.
Educator prep programs and even administrators and teachers themselves have long believed there’s no need to teach older students to read.
This is because of the so-called “Matthew Effect” in reading; strong elementary school readers continue to practice and advance, while weaker young readers don’t get opportunities to catch up and fall further and further behind in reading and school. The way we teach (and don’t teach) reading fosters this troubling paradigm. Literacy instruction ends in third grade; thereafter, students need to shift to a “reading to learn” model. This often leaves those who lack grade-level literacy skills unable to access content — or literacy help — so they drop further behind their on-grade-level reading peers.
There are many “Matthew Effect” casualties in our upper schools today. That’s why simply focusing on fixing early years’ reading instruction won’t work. That approach ignores the roughly two-thirds of middle and high school students, about 17 million kids, who haven’t yet reached so-called proficiency. According to NAEP, in 2019, only 37 percent of American high school seniors had reached reading “proficiency” — a rate that hasn’t edged above 40 percent since NAEP started measuring it in 1992.
This is not the fault of individual educators, who try to help but lack the tools and training needed. Administrators invest in and mandate costly reading-intervention programs, but those programs can only do so much.
Something is broken. Since recent reports that early elementary reading instruction is deeply flawed and has been relying on methods that don’t work, things have begun to shift. Many districts have started giving elementary school teachers “science of reading” training they never had in teacher-prep programs.
Such professional development is a great start, but on its own won’t solve our reading problems, since it neglects sixth-to-12th-grade students who need guidance on reading secondary-level texts and sixth-to-12th-grade teachers who need direction on how to deliver that instruction.
With the exception of “reading specialists,” “literacy coaches” and the like, secondary-school teachers receive little to no training on how to support struggling readers. That’s because educator prep programs and even administrators and teachers themselves have long believed there’s no need to teach older students to read.
If children arrive at their middle or high school classrooms with low literacy, the assumed cause is ineffective teachers from earlier grades. This logic is flawed. Even the best early elementary teachers with impeccable literacy instruction can’t reach every single kid.
Not all students are developmentally ready for phonics instruction at the same time. Just as some babies walk at eight months while others don’t make that leap until they’re well over a year old, students’ brains are ready for reading milestones at different ages.
And just as the toddler who takes their first steps at a year-and-a-half is as likely to be an Olympic sprinter as the early walker, kids who aren’t ready for decoding in early elementary school can become accomplished readers — if they’re given the chance to learn this skill in later grades, when their brains are ready for it.
K-12 schools recently received an unprecedented influx of cash, $122 billion, from the American Rescue Plan, and many administrators have announced that they’re prioritizing using these funds to offer additional professional development on teaching literacy for their early elementary educators to address the post-pandemic reading crisis.
This is a good plan, but it would be a lot better if they also give their middle and high school teachers the reading-instruction training and time that they need before it is too late for students like Francisco.
Colette Coleman is a former teacher now leading strategy at Zinc Learning Labs. She’s a freelance writer working on a memoir about her experiences in K-12 education.
This story about teaching reading proficiency was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.