What Are the Real Problems with Teaching Reading and Reading Achievement among Students in the U.S.?

We are now in Year 4 of the “science of reading” (SoR) movement.

The SoR movement has directly influenced many states introducing new or revising existing reading legislation. However, the SoR movement is characterized by mostly misinformed, misleading, and over-simplified claims.

Similar to the larger accountability movement begun in the 1980s, the SoR influence on reading legislation and instruction is doomed to fail because it misidentifies the problems with teaching reading and learning to read.

Here, then, briefly, I outline the real problems with teaching reading and reading achievement among students in the U.S.:

  • The greatest barriers to all formal learning are out-of-school (OOS) factors such as household poverty, parental job security, food security, access to healthcare, and access to books/texts in the home. Decades of research have shown that about 60%-80+% of measurable student achievement is casually related to OOS factors; this holds true for reading achievement as well.
  • In-school barriers to reading achievement include teaching/learning conditions (class size, teacher expertise and experience) and inequitable access to learning (tracking, gate-keeping for so-called advanced programs—gifted and talented, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, etc.).
  • Teacher education being bound to accountability mandates for accreditation and then teachers being held accountable for standards and high-stakes test scores are powerful barriers to individual student reading achievement.
  • The most important negative instructional barrier to reading achievement is holding teachers accountable for implementing reading programs instead of providing teachers support for addressing individual student needs.
  • Because of many of the barriers noted above, reading instruction is standards- and program-centered, not student-centered, and thus, many unique and complex needs of students are not addressed (special needs such as dyslexia, for example).
  • A significant cultural barrier to reading achievement is the ahistorical “crisis” rhetoric around student reading achievement; for well over a century, media, public, and political narratives have claimed that students are failing to read. We have never paused to ask why there is not one single year in which we declared reading achievement adequate.
  • Another conceptual barrier to reading achievement is a blind faith in grade-level reading. We have failed to recognize that decades of flat high-stakes test scores and a wide variety of rates among students for reading development refute a narrow technocratic view of reading development occurring in a prescribed sequence and conforming to biological age.

Similar to several Reading War movements reaching back to the 1940s, the current SoR movement is misidentifying barrier to teaching reading and reading achievement, and thus, the proposed changes to instruction and legislation are misguided, ultimately causing far more harm than good.