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Reading Is Harder to Teach Than Math

I don't doubt that every subject presents unique instructional challenges. But I still always assumed that science, technology, engineering and math were the hardest to teach. However, based on test scores, teaching reading is even harder ("In Raising Scores, 1 2 3 Is Easier Than A B C," The New York Times, May 30). For example, from 2009 to 2011, six large public urban school districts raised math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, while only one did so in reading.

I'm not at all surprised. So much of a student's reading ability is the result of factors in the home. According to psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the number of words toddlers hear is dependent on the socioeconomic background of their parents. They found that pre-schoolers from professional families are typically exposed to 2,150 words. This compares with 1,250 words for pre-schoolers from working class families and 620 words for pre-schoolers from families on welfare. Education Department data confirm that the disparity does not materially improve over time.

Critics of public schools argue that the persistent deficits prove that teachers are not doing their job. But the truth is that the ability of even the best teachers to overcome the deficits is more limited in reading than in math because the latter is culturally neutral. Teachers in schools with large numbers of students from different countries have to adjust their lessons to take into account cultural, social and historical references. Moreover, so much of language acquisition is the direct result of exposure to the language in question. If students don't hear standard English spoken at home or in the neighborhood, school lessons are not reinforced.

When I was growing up in suburbia, my father would put me on his lap after dinner and read parts of the newspaper to me. Occasionally, he would stop in mid-sentence to ask me to continue. My parents also frequently had guests over for dinner. I remember hearing words for the first time that were central to understanding the ongoing discussion. When I asked my parents the next day what the particular words meant, their answer was to look them up in the dictionary. I doubt that children in the inner cities have that invaluable dinner table experience as a motivation. Furthermore, I question whether they have a house filled with books, magazines and newspapers, as I did.

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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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