We know of many variables that help children learn to read. But well-designed peer-reviewed research continues to be ignored when it comes to these variables. At the same time, states and school districts continue to promote destructive school policies. We know such policies fail. So, why are they still being used?
Here’s why some children might not read and learn well.
- Large Class Sizes: We’ve known for years that lowering class sizes in K-3rd helps children learn. Project STAR, a study done in Tennessee, found that students in smaller K-4th grade classes had better long-term learning outcomes in grades four, six, and eight. For more information about the importance of lowering class size check out Class Size Matters. Smaller class sizes, especially for young children are what’s needed. Teachers learn more about students and tailor reading instruction to their needs. Teachers get to know students and parents and can better address any reading difficulties that arise.
- Inappropriate Reading Expectations: Since NCLB, kindergarten has become the new first grade. Parents and educators have been led to believe children must read earlier than ever before! Developmental researchers like Jean Piaget, Maria Montessori, Erik Erickson, Lev Vygotsky, and others emphasize the importance of play. But worksheets and testing have replaced play at this critical stage. Children start school under severe pressure to read. Pushing young children to read before they’re developmentally ready must end. It can damage a child’s love for reading. Check out Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood.
- Retention: The research surrounding retention is clear. It doesn’t work! It could lead to students dropping out later. It’s damaging to a child. So why do states like Florida and Michigan keep promoting it, or debating it like it does work? Instead of putting money into holding children back, fund smaller class sizes, multi-age grouping, and looping for children who would benefit.
- Loss of Libraries and Librarians: Some schools no longer have school libraries, or they have old books, no librarians, and share space with the maker movement. Yet schools with great libraries have students who do well. We know this. Why would any child believe reading is important if adults give them little access to books? Books still rule! Every student should have access to qualified librarians and libraries updated with the latest picture books and teen titles that students enjoy.
- Common Core State Standards: How has CCSS done making better readers? No one mentions Common Core in the phonics debates that I read, but it has been a big influencer in English Language Arts programs since 2013. How has the restrictive close reading worked? What about the push for nonfiction? Standards are restrictive. Children are creative learners and teachers deserve to be able to teach the way they professionally see fit. I’d like to see more written about the connection between reading difficulties and Common Core.
- Lead in the Water: Lead exposure has been removed from many of the sources where we used to find it, like gasoline. Lead poisoning in a child can cause learning disabilities. The children in Flint, Michigan should be followed carefully in their schooling and given support and assistance if learning disabilities are found. Water fountains in all schools should be tested regularly, and old schools and homes should be inspected for loose leaded paint and dust that could get in the air.
- Children’s Health: The lack of health care for the poor in this country affects how children learn in school. Recent teacher marches included crying out for school nurses. What health screenings do children get? Do they have access to dental, sight, hearing, and general wellness check-ups? No child is going to care about reading if they have a toothache. You can’t expect young children to care about learning if they’re sick. The same goes for nutrition. A child can’t learn well if they’re hungry.
- School Counselors: Sometimes children come to school with mental health problems. They need access to a school counselor who will be able to analyze their difficulty, give them the support they need, work with the teachers and parents, and recommend outside help when required. The mental health challenges a child brings to school might be transitory or long-lasting, but they cannot be ignored. Children experiencing any kind of mental health problem will have difficulty learning to read. Schools need to hire enough counselors to provide student support.
- Teacher Preparation: How are universities teaching teachers how to teach reading? My colleges did a good job years ago, but colleges today have some of the same corporate pressures as K-12 schools. For example, why do university officials sign on to Deans for Impact funded by the Gates Foundation and other corporate groups? Why is Relay Graduate School of Education gaining traction? Who is monitoring teacher education offered in online for-profit colleges? Teachers should hang their diplomas on the wall for parents to see. Or the PTA should provide a list of teachers and their bios before school starts. Parents need to know who’s teaching their children. Public schools used to care much more about credentials.
- Special Education: The corporate reformers’ goal appears to be to get rid of special education. Universities used to prepare teachers to specifically work with children who have emotional problems, learning disabilities, visual difficulties, and other categories. Many of these programs have been discontinued or blended into a few classes. General education teachers are given one or two special education courses. It might be time to change the title “special education” but there will always be children who will benefit from teachers who have a special understanding of categorical problems they exhibit.
- Overreliance on Technology: Corporate reformers would like us to think that placing a child in front of a computer will correct their problems and provide all they need to learn. But there is no research to show this to be true. Integrating reading instruction with technology might be helpful to teachers and students, but reading and language arts are more all-encompassing when it comes to learning.
Public schools serve ninety percent of America’s children. We need to make sure that every school provides a rich literature environment where children see reading as desirable. Students should get the help they need when they have reading difficulties. Reading should be enjoyable and within their reach.