As we discussed in a recent post, only a third of U.S. schoolchildren read at grade level. For our Abound partners in Canada, it’s estimated that at least 30 percent of third graders lack basic literacy skills. For our partners in Latin America, it’s at least 25% who don’t reach a minimum proficiency in reading skills. And in all of these places, many more readers struggle to get to advanced levels.
There are all kinds of reasons why children don’t reach their potential as readers, but one major reason, and one we worry a lot about, is the focus of a recent book, Language at the Speed of Sight, by cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg. What reason does he focus on? The way many children are taught to read words, an essential skill, doesn’t actually reflect what research tells us about how that teaching should be done to match children’s developing brains.
Seidenberg reminds us that teaching a young child to read words is fundamentally about teaching them the sounds that letters make, then teaching them how to link sounds to letters, and then to link sounds to the many different letter combinations in the words on the page. Even though it might seem like it must be really straightforward to teach these skills, the science actually tells us that because of the way language is still developing in the brain, there needs to be a lot of precision involved. The teaching should follow a very careful progression, especially around how the letter-sounds are taught and which combinations at which time, from kindergarten through the second grade. When this systematic approach is used in classrooms, there are two really important consequences: 1) it boosts the skills of those children who learn to read relatively easily; and 2) it prevents difficulties in children who are otherwise at-risk for difficulties in learning to read.
But Seidenberg explains that despite this science and the benefits for children, this instructional model is not in place in many schools—the science hasn’t actually had much effect on educational practice. Most teacher training programs and professional development opportunities for teachers don’t make sure that every educator grasps the science of learning how to read. For many teachers, that lack of training means they aren’t specialists in teaching one of the most critical skills for academic and life success. And for many children, it means the teaching is eclectic and inconsistent from one grade to the next, and it doesn’t give them the foundation they need for reading success.
Click here for an interview with Seidenberg about Language at the Speed of Sight, and his observations about how reading works, how children develop these skills, and why so many readers don’t reach their potential.