Why We Need to Teach Reading Differently
by Nora Chahbazi
In this post I focus on a profoundly disturbing issue that is negatively affecting millions: the majority of children and adults in the US are not proficient at reading, writing, and spelling.
Click on the above link and take the quiz to test your knowledge about literacy. The answers – some may surprise you – are explained in more detail throughout this post.
For the words in the quiz, click on each word below
to get an explanation of the answer
Of course, it is true that some children and adults learned to read, write, and spell quite easily and well. However, they are the minority.
Check out these statistics about reading in the United States:
- In America, only 14% of adults are proficient in reading. Proficiency is defined as the ability to perform complex literacy activities.
- In what many call the greatest country on earth, only 35% of 4th graders are proficient in reading.
- More than 60% of prison inmates and 85% of juveniles in the court system are illiterate. Over 70% of inmates read below a 4th grade level.
- The opportunity cost associated with illiteracy in our country is $300 billion EVERY YEAR.
These statistics are appalling. You know many people who struggle with literacy though you may not be aware of their struggles. Literacy difficulties do not discriminate. I've taught people with PhDs, medical and law students, executives, and business owners who were reading far below their potential. They compensate well and are clever at hiding their difficulties. One millionaire business owner I taught told me that throughout his life he'd amassed money to show his worth and make up for what he saw as his 'dumbness' with reading and spelling.
How It Happened (And Continues to Happen)
Initiated by my daughter's struggles with reading and spelling almost 2 decades ago, much of my life consists of teaching reading, teaching people how to teach reading, and learning more about how to best teach reading. Over the years I have learned that teachers work very, very hard teaching the literacy instruction they were taught to teach.
Teachers are often blamed for students' literacy difficulties. This is totally unfair. Often, they haven’t been given the necessary instruction, information, and tools to teach students to read and read well.
Students are given labels to explain their illiteracy or sub-literacy. They often are blamed, through these labels, because they have not been taught how to read in a way that makes sense to them.
Unfortunately, much of what teachers are taught to do to teach literacy is largely ineffective and can be detrimental to student’s progress with reading, writing, and spelling. Only 15% of Colleges of Education actually reference in their curriculum the scientifically proven 5 essential components of reading. Even when teachers are taught research-based theory, they are rarely taught how to systematically and effectively implement these practices with students.
Many teachers who have been EBLI trained lament the fact that they were not previously taught how to teach reading. Wendy Crick, an EBLI trained 6th grade teacher, shares her story in this video. Her daughter previously struggled with reading and received years of instruction at the Dyslexia Institute before she was taught with EBLI.
Of course, teachers are not aware that some teaching practices they have learned can be harmful to students. That would be akin to a doctor being taught a common procedure that was, unbeknownst to them, harmful to their patients. Teachers continue to work diligently, implementing everything they have learned, and still have struggling readers in their classrooms. This makes it impossible for them to effectively teach – and students to effectively learn – content from their curriculum.
Teachers and parents can become frustrated when their students/children are not becoming accurate readers, writers, or spellers. The following are some strategies commonly taught that can make reading, spelling, and writing more difficult for many students:
Guessing words This typically involves some variation of students looking at the first letter and flinging out a word that starts with that letter. It does not lead to reading. Reading “the beautiful butterfly” when “the bouncing basketball” is written will not result in understanding a story about a basketball game.
Memorizing words This results in misreading of words from 2nd – 3rd grade on, when the student’s memory has maxed out. This is why most students in Special Education are reading at a 3rd grade level.
Using inventive spelling This refers to allowing students to spell however they want without consistent correction. This does not lead to a student waking up one day and magically being able to spell accurately. Though spelling and reading use the same English alphabetic code, spelling is more challenging than reading. If you are a poor speller, you are not reading to your potential. Reversing the habit of misspelling words takes longer that reversing the habit of inaccurate reading. Most current instructional writing practices create poor spellers.
Memorizing sight words on flash cards Many of these words – what/want, when/went, where/were, thought/though – are very similar looking. Once the memory is maxed out (typically about 3rd grade) students will usually say any word that has a similar shape as the word on the page, which turns into a “flinging free-for-all.” This practice also really messes with comprehension.
Emphasizing comprehension during literacy instruction before students are accurate readers If students can’t comprehend or understand the text, they are not really reading. Most likely they have memorized words and their memory is maxed out; pulling words from the “filing cabinet” in one’s brain does not allow for space to understand what is being read. Otherwise they are probably guessing words and not reading what is written on the page. Once in a blue moon they may have visualization difficulty (trouble making a picture or movie in their head) though that is rare, especially if they can read.
Asking students to read independently when they are unable to read accurately This allows time to practice misreading. Practice making mistakes results in one getting better at making mistakes.
Putting more focus on the letter names instead of the sounds Sounds are what we typically access to read. Putting the focus on the letter names (especially consonants) can cause confusion to students. They will say /d/ for the letter w because the first sound in the letter name (d-ou-b-le-y-ou) is /d/. They will say /w/ for the letter y because the first sound in the letter name (wh-y) is /w/.
Awareness is a great first step. In order for the situation to begin
turning around, effective action needs to follow.
You may be unaware that your child, student, spouse, employee, or co-worker has literacy difficulty. Here are some traits we’ve found to be common with those struggling with reading, spelling, and writing:
- May do well on spelling tests but cannot spell the same words when writing
- Gets good grades - even all A's - but does poorly on tests, especially timed tests
- Can memorize stories from school but can’t read well or accurately beyond that
- Does not read for fun
- Tells an explicit story but uses only a few simple words when writing about the story
- Seemed to be a good reader until about 3rd grade
- Becomes distracted when asked to read or write
- Doesn’t read their birthday cards
- Reads slowly
- Choppy or robotic reader
- Misreads a lot of the sight words
- Reverses letters in reading and spelling such as b/d, p/q, u/n, and w/m
- Panics when there are not pictures in the book to look at
- Seems to be able to read alright but is a poor speller
- Guesses/makes up a lot of words when reading
- Poor/slow handwriting
- Struggles following 3 directions or commands in a row
- Resists doing homework that requires reading, writing, or spelling
- Behavior problems cropping up at school or around homework
- Stomach aches, anxiety, or crying around going to school
- Math is their favorite subject
- Hands-on learner
- Likes putting things together and/or taking them apart
- Enjoys doing artistic and creative projects
- Creates elaborate Lego structures, dramatic plays, and imaginative stories
Adults may also do the following:
- Ask others to read or write things for them – often saying they don’t have their glasses
- Order the same thing, the specials, or an item that has a picture from the menu at a restaurant
- Avoid writing checks, lists, or any activity that involves reading or writing
If you want to educate yourself further, here are a few books that are among my favorite resources. Click on the book to learn more about it.
If you want to teach a beginning reader of any age how to read, click here to get information on the EBLI iPad Apps.
At Ounce of Prevention Reading Center, it has been our experience that if a person can talk, they can learn to read. If they aren’t learning then there is only one question anyone should ask: What do we need to do differently or learn more about so that they will learn?
Of course, all people are unique and will require different amounts of instruction. However, quality literacy instruction will produce a competent reader in hours, not years. Literacy difficulties need not be permanent if they are addressed with effective, efficient, research-based instruction that has been proven to work.
Check out our previous Amazing EBLI Schools blog posts to learn about the results that are possible with instruction that works:
If you have any questions or input about this blog, please share a comment below and I will answer personally.
Sign up for our mailing list to receive our future posts in your inbox.
As always, THANK YOU for being an integral part of our mission to Teach the World to Read.
P.S. Please share this post if you found the information enlightening!