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There’s no shortage of “solutions” to mend the cracks in our broken education system. Pay disinterested kids to learn. Pay exceptional teachers to stay. Incorporate more technology. Incorporate less technology. Change educator prep programs. Change district administration.

We’ve tried so hard but still fail too many of our students. As educators, we dig deep and find optimism. Despite our fixes’ poor track record, we keep faith that the right combination may yet work.

And it might — but only if it also addresses the silent crisis at the heart of most academic struggles and student apathy: reading.

Only 37 percent of U.S. 12th graders reach our modest reading “proficiency” benchmark, and subsequently most American adults read below a sixth grade level. I am a lifelong educator and former New York City public high school English teacher, so these statistics have faces for me.

Thinking of U.S. students’ stagnant reading levels — they haven’t budged in at least 30 years — pains me, especially since over my 35 years as an educator, I have uncovered straightforward antidotes to literacy struggles.

Put simply, reading instruction needs to start later and continue much, much longer.

We mistakenly equate speedy achievement of literacy milestones with skill.

“My son learned to read his first word at two,” a mom proudly professes. “My kid read a whole book at three,” a dad says, beaming.

These parents should feel great about their kids’ accomplishments, but they should also know that an early start indicates little about future literacy achievement.

When it comes to reading, it isn’t where you start, it’s where you finish. And schools start too early, when a significant portion of kids aren’t developmentally ready to learn crucial reading skills like decoding (converting letters into sounds).

For this reason, in many countries, school, and formal reading instruction, doesn’t begin until age six or seven. This strategy allows more kids to start mid-elementary school with the reading skills they need to succeed and creates a more positive reading culture, with fewer students needing extra support and feeling stigmatized after teachers and parents label them as “behind.”

Delaying reading instruction will get many kids off to a better start, but they have so much further to go. We must continue teaching reading throughout all grades.

Students are never “done” learning to read. In fact, even we adult readers can continue to push our capabilities and grow with advanced texts that take us into unfamiliar subjects.

Related: OPINION: The pandemic will leave struggling readers even further behind

In school, we spiral math instruction; elementary school kids learn how to multiply single-digit numbers one year, double- and triple-digit numbers the next. Later, they multiply with decimals.

In secondary school their understanding of multiplication expands to exponents and solving complex algebraic equations. This continuous revisiting of multiplication gives teachers ample opportunities to support kids who missed mastery in previous years and catch them up.

The same needs to happen with reading. Learn to decode “pulp” in first grade, and we’ll teach you how to sound out “pulchritudinous” in 10th. Decoding instruction should be a standard, if minor, part of English class every year.

Relegating decoding to reading interventions after early elementary school breeds shame in kids who struggle with word pronunciation. Teachers need to create environments where they model the normalcy of struggling with sounding out big words and instruct kids on how to do so successfully, syllable by syllable.

Delaying reading instruction will get many kids off to a better start, but they have so much further to go. We must continue teaching reading throughout all grades.

This practice will get many more students attuned to the first crucial step in comprehension: turning letters into sounds in our brains.

Adolescent reading instruction must also extend far beyond decoding refreshers. Researchers have long asserted that reading isn’t a natural process like speaking, so practice alone will only get a small minority to comprehend complex syntax.

Most students need guidance on how to get from reading the words in a complex text to putting those words together and making meaning out of them. Secondary school teachers should address this by teaching “explicit comprehension strategies.”

That means making sure students have the vocabulary and background knowledge that they need and teaching them to turn words and phrases into images, ideas and experiences in their minds, while picking up authors’ clues so that they can track information continuously and sustain focus as they read.

When writers provide vivid imagery, teachers must guide students to actively engage with it. They must coach students to look for and train their minds to fully imagine the sights, sounds and other sensory imagery in a text; to seek out and enjoy the thoughts and feelings those sensations conjure in their minds.

Next, get them tracking these experiences over time so as to stay with the writer’s ideas. The author used a transition word like “but,” which signals that what comes next will contrast with what came before. The author used a comma or semicolon; there will be a continuation of the thought.

When there’s a pronoun, teach students to connect it back to its antecedent. Advanced reading success will only happen with a concerted effort to give such instruction and ample practice, ideally with plenty of variety and choice in texts.

Related: Four things you need to know about the new reading wars

Giving developing readers more ownership over what they read and letting them pick books and articles that interest them is crucial. One enduring trend throughout my years has been hearing students say they hate reading.

This hatred stems from not comprehending what we teachers assign — not understanding even the best work of art makes it boring — and from rarely reading about topics that are personally relevant and interesting.

Sure, students need to be prepared to read something as dry as a mortgage contract, but English class must also acquaint them with the beauty of well-constructed language and the pleasure of immersing oneself in it.

If we could give our students a love of reading, bolstered by a vast vocabulary, broad background knowledge, proficient decoding skills and instruction on how to navigate complex syntax, American education would change drastically.

 Our country, then populated with critical readers, would change too.

Matt Bardin is a tutor and the founder and CEO of Zinc Learning Labs. He is a former New York City public school teacher.

This story about reading instruction was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Matt Bardin is the founder and CEO of Zinc Learning Labs. He is a former New York City public school teacher and a founding director of Teach for America.

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

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  1. To the Editor:

    In “Opinion: We need reading instruction that begins later and lasts far, far longer,” Matt Barlin makes an important point about beginning formal reading instruction later. However, he misses the most important impediment to reading.

    While most children learn to read, some struggle into the middle school years when students need to transition from learning to read to reading to learn. To make the task even more challenging for those youngsters, we begin departmentalizing education, so that one hour has nothing to do with the next, and the only people who need to make sense of this fragmented curriculum are the kids themselves. Here are several suggestions to ensure that all children learn to read and can read to learn:

    1. Establish interdisciplinary teams that work with manageable numbers of students for at least two years. For example, team an English, history, math and science teacher to implement a full day interdisciplinary program with 100 or fewer students. Subjects should be linked thematically, and every member of the teaching team needs to be responsible and accountable for student learning outcomes across the curriculum.

    2. Assume that students will learn different things at different rates because that’s the nature of how we learn. However, insist that all need to learn to read, write, compute, formulate good questions about themselves and the world, and have the capacity to answer those inquiries by researching different sources.

    3. Literacy skills are acquired through the learning of content and content study further develops literacy.

    4. Children learn best from each other while working together in small groups on projects snd activities.

    3. However you decide how to evaluate students, use multiple performance assessments. And do it in ways similar to how you evaluate their teachers and want to be evaluated yourself.

    While teaching reading is complex, learning to read doesn’t have to be. In schools where the primary learning methodology provides children the opportunity to work in small groups on interdisciplinary activities and projects designed to strengthen literacy skills, further knowledge, and deepen inquiry skills, all youngsters can progress to their full potential. In such classrooms, teachers guide and support rather than transmit and lecture. They understand that literacy skills and content study are inextricably linked, and that in the final analysis, learning is talking and teaching is listening.

    Submitted by,

    Eric Nadelstern
    Former Deputy Chancellor of NYC Public Schools and Retired Professor of Education Leadership at Teachers College

  2. This is the most ridiculous thing I ever read! Since both of my children were born, I was reading to them. In addition I would show pictures of letters and repeat its sounds. I did this maybe 5 minutes a day twice a day.

    By the time they were twelve months old, they were able to recognize all the letters and their sounds.

    You don’t need kids to start later. They need to start while they are babies, when their brain is absorbing a large amount of information, like a sponge. Guaranteed you will have children who will read early and continue strong, but only if they are read to every day since they are babies and if you start showing them pictures of letters and teaching them letter sounds with those letters (of course that assumes no learning disabilities).

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