How the U.S. is Reeling From Reading Failures

February 21, 2023

Reading Failures

The reading statistics in the U.S. are somber. According to the Literacy Project, one out of three children in fourth grade reads at a proficient level. By the time students are graduating from high school, Reading is Fundamental reports that less than half of high school graduates (37 percent) read at or beyond a proficient level.

Educators and advocates have addressed the literacy issues in their states and what changes could be and should be made. There have been calls to embrace the ‘science of reading’ and to move back to the basics. The U.S. is reeling from reading failures, but how can educators turn deficiencies into proficiency?

Reading Failures

Something Isn’t Working

Half of U.S. adults can’t read a book that is at a level that correlates to eighth grade. Somehow a country devoted to leaving no child behind has failed to meet its promise. Children are abandoned in a system that leaves them at the place that they couldn’t move beyond, and they grow into adults who are academically ill-prepared to read beyond a middle school understanding.

Something isn’t working when less than half adults can decode and understand a book written at a high school level. Something isn’t working when the problem has already become apparent in the fourth grade.

What can educators do to boost reading proficiency? The problem doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. While reading statistics reflect which students are reading proficiently and how many are left behind, other statistics matter, too.

Children in low-income households might have less access to books and other reading materials. In addition, children in lower income households also might be read to less frequently, and this can set the tone for reading readiness.

Some children also suffer from undiagnosed learning disorders. Other children are diagnosed with reading disorders and don’t receive the help they need.

There are many reasons why and how a child might fall behind and stay behind. Yet, it takes a village to raise a child and it might take a village to educate a child, too.

Reading Failures

The Science of Reading

How schools are teaching literacy and reading skills also could impact a child’s success. Some children can decode easily and learn sounds and blend quickly. Other children have trouble grasping phonics and decoding.

If the science of reading isn’t being taught, children who struggle with phonics might learn to read by looking at the pictures and guessing. Unfortunately, pictures don’t tell an accurate story. They also don’t help children learn to read; those photos simply help children visualize a story and its plot. A photo of a boy doesn’t teach a child how to pronounce the name Charlie, nor does a photo of a panther teach the child that the word is panther (the child might simply call it a lion).

How educators teach reading matters; decoding skills are important. Phonics is crucial to reading. Without phonics, without decoding, could archaeologists and historians have ever used the Rosetta Stone to decode the hieroglyphics? After all, a bird in Egyptian hieroglyphics is not simply just a bird. The meaning is so much more.

If children are reading below grade-level expectations, what can parents do? No parent wants their child to become a statistic. Unfortunately, many children are falling through the cracks of the education system.

Early Readers: How Parents Can Help at Home

Helping a child gain reading proficiency and confidence can start at home. If a school or school district isn’t teaching the science of reading, parents can help their child learn the basics at home. Parents can focus on teaching sounds and sound blends if children haven’t mastered these skills.

For early readers or emerging readers, parents can introduce children to decoding skills by simply helping them learn the code of decoding. Teach the alphabet at home using games or even apps on smartphones. There are many apps that can help children learn to identify the letters and the sounds of each letter.

Sing the alphabet song at home. Play match games by making two cards of each letter of the alphabet. Have children say the letter for every card they choose. Ask them to make the sound, too.

Once children have mastered their letters and the sounds, parents can begin to help them learn to read easy books. Local libraries offer books for early readers—including preschoolers. Choose books that help children learn to read simple words that they can easily sound out (like cat, at, etc.).

How Parents Can Guide Older Children

Children who have fallen behind their peers in reading might continue to fall behind without intervention. Every child could have unique learning needs; some children have been diagnosed with a learning disorder like dyslexia that might require specialized reading instruction. 

For children who need more intervention, parents might reach out to their child’s teacher or pediatrician for advice and/or resources. There also are organizations that are focused on specific learning disorders; these organizations also could provide resources for parents.

When a child is struggling to read proficiently and doesn’t qualify for additional intervention at school, parents might take on the role of instructor at home. A child could struggle with decoding skills, comprehension or both issues.

For children who struggle with decoding, parents might focus on phonics skills and lessons at home. Children who struggle with comprehension might need help from parents related to learning how to infer meaning from the text and make predictions. Parents can talk to children about the book as the child reads to help gauge and monitor what the child understands (and what they might be missing).

Reading Failures

Reading Programs: Can Apps Bridge the Learning Gap?

Children who need more help than parents can provide at home might benefit from using a lesson-based reading app. These apps are designed to help children gain reading fluency and proficiency by moving them through leveled reading lessons as they progress their reading skills.

Reading apps or programs can be used as an instructional tool at home. These apps are designed to be used by children independently, and parents don’t need to monitor lessons (unless they wish to monitor lessons).

With Readability, parents can set their child’s baseline reading level and this level is where the instruction will begin. If parents are unsure about which reading level is ideal for their child’s baseline, Readability can work with the child to determine the best beginning level.

Readability is designed with a built-in AI reading tutor that is programmed with voice-recognition software. Each reading level in the program has a library of books for the level’s lessons; children read these stories aloud. As the child reads, the AI tutor learns their voice; if a child is confused about a word, the tutor identifies the struggle and provides help.

The tutor also measures the child’s reading fluency as they read. The reading fluency is the number of words read per minute (less any errors). In addition, the tutor also helps gauge a child’s reading comprehension; at the end of each story, the tutor asks questions about the book. If a child answers the question incorrectly, the tutor will show the child the section of the story that provides clues. The tutor also reads the section aloud, and the child is given another opportunity to answer the question.

Readability also encourages children to explore words that are new to them. Every story includes a vocabulary word list to help children grow their word knowledge. In addition, children can tap any word in the story to hear the definition or hear the word used in a sentence.

A reading program should help struggling readers gain proficiency and advance to higher reading levels. When parents identify that their child is struggling to read at grade-level, they don’t have to wait for their child to fall further behind. Explore reading programs that can help children catch up to grade-level expectations and benchmarks and focus on programs that teach the science of reading. While the U.S. might be reeling from reading struggles, parents can use reading programs to transform reading deficiencies into proficiency and confidence.