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Familiar Images and Reading Prowess

The latest entry in the debate over the academic achievement gap between ethnic groups involves the performance of Latino students on tests of reading comprehension. Although these students now constitute a quarter of the nation's public school enrollment, the lack of books with "familiar images" is said by some educators to be the cause of their underperformance ("For Young Latino Readers, an Image Is Missing," The New York Times, Dec. 4).

I'm always open to evidence that illuminates controversial issues, but I find the explanation far from convincing. Asian students, for example, are also given books that do not depict familiar images, and yet they consistently outperform not only Latinos but whites as well ("School Choice vs. 'Familiar Images,' " The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 6). Why is that so? Clearly something else is at work.

There are several reasons usually given. The first is language. Latino students hear Spanish spoken overwhelmingly at home and in their neighborhoods. As a result, they do not have the same opportunity to internalize English as other groups. It's not surprising, therefore, that Latino children start school already seven months on average behind their white classmates in oral language and preliteracy skills. But Asian students also hear languages other than English spoken in the same venues. The second is cultural. Asian parents are known for relentlessly pushing their children to excel academically, perhaps because of the Confucian reverence for education. But Latino parents also value education, although they may manifest it differently. The third is economic. Poverty is more prevalent among Latino families. But Asians are not a monolith. Hmongs, for example, have a high incidence of poverty.

In light of the above, I'm still searching for an explanation based on evidence. During the 28 years I taught high school English, I had countless Latino students from various parts of the world. Like all ethnic groups, they varied widely in ability. I think so much of their achievement was the result of the education of their parents. I wonder how many Latino parents have books or newspapers written in English at home. I also wonder if their parents read to them from books written in English. These factors are reflected in the 2011 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 18 percent of Latino fourth graders were proficient in reading. This compares with 44 percent of white fourth graders.

I remain skeptical that giving Latino students books with stories and characters having a familiar bent will significantly change reading outcomes. What these students need more than anything else is exposure to standard English on a daily basis. Their parents certainly want them to learn, but very often lack sufficient formal education themselves to reinforce what takes place in school.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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