Millions of schoolchildren in the USA cannot read: what is the shortcoming of the American education system - ForumDaily
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Millions of schoolchildren in the USA cannot read: what is the shortcoming of the American education system

Some students learn to read easily and effortlessly, while for others it is a painful process that, if left unaddressed, can lead to long-term learning problems. Millions of children have difficulty reading, a problem that has plagued the United States for decades. The publication told in more detail ABC News.

Photo: IStock

Ask D'Mekeus Cook Jr., a fourth-grader from Louisiana who was reading at a kindergarten level two years ago when he entered second grade.

Or Jurney, another fourth-grader from Ohio, who says that when she encounters an unfamiliar word, she feels “sad.” Both of these students struggle with reading—and they're not alone.

Insufficient school funding, teacher shortages, inadequate teacher training and months lost due to school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have all led to renewed concerns about children's reading ability. However, data from the Department of Education shows that reading has been a problem in America for decades.

According to the Department of Education's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), about one-third of American fourth graders read at or below a basic level. This picture has been observed since 1992.

With age, the rates increase slightly, but not significantly. In eighth grade, about a quarter of students do not read at what is considered a basic level. For high school students, this percentage remains about the same.

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To document America's reading crisis, ABC News visited schools in several states, met with families of children struggling with basic reading skills and spoke with educators who are trying to help their students learn to read before they become adults.

“The older a child gets, the harder it is to teach,” said Carla Pleasant, a 33-year veteran of teaching at Ohio State. “It can be done, but it is difficult work.”

Reading is the basis of everything

Pleasant is a teacher in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, about 20 minutes from Cleveland. In that school district, reporters met with dozens of students who were attending summer school trying to develop basic reading skills—a task that some described as particularly challenging.

“Sometimes I get upset when I read,” said fourth-grade student Raven. “It brings tears to my eyes because I think I won’t be able to read because it’s so difficult.”

In the summer, intensive reading classes were held in her class using the so-called phonics.

Essentially, it's a more rigorous version of "vocalizing the word" (sounding out the sounds of letters and parts of words), a long-used teaching method that, for one reason or another, has fallen out of favor in some school districts around the country.

“It helps them crack the reading code,” explained reading specialist Chantelle Barhorst, who taught the class in Ohio. “We don’t want students to guess the word, we want to give them the tools they need to be able to say the word.”

But reading wasn't always taught this way in Warrensville Heights.

Approximately ten years ago, to work with students with reading difficulties, they used a teaching method called “balanced literacy”, which is still popular in many schools around the country. This method is aimed at developing a love of reading and comfortable communication with books. It may involve asking students to guess certain words and even looking at pictures to unscramble the words on the page, a technique that has come to be called "picture power" by educators.

Pleasant, who argues that reading is the foundation of everything, disagrees with the idea of ​​balanced literacy and prefers to teach phonics—away from the eyes of administrators.

She says: “I kept it a secret from my bosses, but I was successful in class because I knew it worked. I knew that memorizing and simply teaching children would not lead to them loving reading.”

The new administration followed Pleasant's lead, and Warrensville Heights went from falling reading scores and a looming state takeover of the district's schools to the highest ranking in Ohio.

Reading War

The campaign to reform reading education has not gone unchallenged.

Critics argue that the "science of reading" is an educational fad and there is no universal solution to the country's reading problem, which is exacerbated by underfunded schools, poverty and other social problems.

Proponents of balanced literacy education argue that their approach does indeed involve teaching phonics. They argue that students who are repeatedly trained in deciphering words do not get the proper result, because they do not have a passion for books.

Dr. Kaymiona Bourke is the former Literacy Director for the State of Mississippi. She currently works for ExcelinEd, an educational nonprofit founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

She stated that “these are the strategies that readers use,” and cited specific balanced literacy lessons that included word guessing and picture looking as examples.

These disagreements led to many years of bitter debate among educators, often referred to as "reader wars".

“Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing,” said Dr. David Pearson, an education expert and professor at the Berkeley School of Education. “They are convinced that they are doing exactly what is best for the children.” They just read research differently, they understand what it means to read differently.”

Pearson cautioned that while the NAEP results provide an accurate picture of the country's reading problems, the number of students reading below a basic level should not be seen as an indictment of balanced literacy or any other teaching style due to non-academic variables affecting students.

Mississippi miracle

The Warrensville Heights (Ohio) school's success was modeled after a marvelous institution that education experts once considered the most inept place: Mississippi.

Ten years ago, the state's fourth-grade students ranked last in reading - 50th out of 50 states. Today, Mississippi has risen to 21st in the nation in literacy rates. Some school districts call this seemingly impossible turnaround the “Mississippi Miracle.”

In her first interview, Bourque explained how she and her colleagues were able to improve the situation in Mississippi by using teaching methods such as phonics, which she said were largely absent from Mississippi schools.

Mississippi schools were turning out children who couldn't read, Bourque said.

“It’s happening all over the country,” she said.

Bourque is pushing for other schools to follow Mississippi's lead.

By the start of this school year, at least 30 states, including Washington and New York, the nation's largest school district, were calling for phonics-based "science of reading" policies to address declining scores, according to ExcelinEd.

That includes Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine is backing legislation that would require teaching the “science of reading” and encourage schools to take a page from Warrensville Heights.

Reading is the key to life

The pandemic and homeschooling have created a reading dilemma for students.

“There have been moments when parents are sitting at the dinner table with their children and realize for the first time that their child is struggling,” Bourke noted.

That's when D'Mekeus and Kezne' Cook discovered that their son, D'Mekeus Jr., was falling behind.

They wondered, “Is our child the only one going through this? Reading opens the door to everything we do in life. Reading is the key to life."

Louisiana, where the Cookies live, is another state that recently overhauled its reading curriculum. In an attempt to help hundreds of thousands of struggling students, experts have emphasized phonics and other methods of teaching the “science of reading.”

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“We needed a reading revitalization in our state,” explained Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Dr. Cade Brumley. “Perhaps at some point the education system lost its way. Convoluted tactics were used to teach children to read.”

The Louisiana Reading Initiative, among other things, created a program that gave students a $1000 voucher for private tutoring, helping D'Mequeus Jr. to attend regular classes at the Sylvan Learning Center near his home in Lafayette.

“Students and parents are so happy that they cry in my office because it changes lives,” said Christy Sharon, who has owned the learning center for more than 25 years.

The program in Louisiana is still new and it is not clear whether it will be successful in Warrensville Heights or Mississippi. Dr. Broomley says early results have been promising, but the state has a long way to go.

Sharon said schools across the country were faced with the dilemma of how to help children master reading at an early age. But, she says, there is still hope.

“If we can get these kids into reading at an early age and teach them to read, then they can do anything,” she said.

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