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A Nation of Readers

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Most experts agree that students should have command of basic reading skills by the time they leave the elementary grades. However, writes English teacher Peter Gow, the fact is that many need much more practice and immersion to become truly confident, engaged readers. In this Education Week Commentary, Gow proposes that the entire 4th grade year be devoted exclusively to teaching reading.

Reading is the most important skill students must acquire in school and, Gow argues, this intense focus on reading is necessary to ensure that students fully master it. Subsequently, fourth grade teachers would become personal reading coaches and classrooms would be transformed into giant libraries with shelves of books and lots of comfortable, well-lighted places to flop down and read.

Does Gow's proposal sound like a pipe dream—or is he on to something? What do you think?

47 Comments

Sounds like an interesting proposal. It would make more sense to drop this concept down to 3rd grade, since the first 3 grades are primarily to learn to read and after that children read in order to learn.

Interesting but seven hours a day, five days a week for a whole year would be a little too much for one subject. A half of day seems more productive. Research studies would be beneficial.

I think it has merit; I'd suggest 3rd grade and include a normal section of daily math and english.

There would be no need to extend the amount of reading instruction given in grade 4 if reading teaching conducted in grades K-3 was based upon relevant experimental evidence on this tuition. The pertinent empirical findings suggest that direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive instruction of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete reading skills and knowledge is the most effectice kind.

There would be no need to extend the amount of reading instruction given in grade 4 if reading teaching conducted in grades K-3 was based upon relevant experimental evidence on this tuition. The pertinent empirical findings suggest that direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive instruction of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete reading skills and knowledge is the most effective kind.

I love the idea and believe that it does have merit. Teaching reading for sometimes as little as 40 minutes a day just does not cut it for many of our students. Introduce some difficulty with decoding, fluency and/or comprehension and that 40 minutes is far too short. We want our students to independently interact with material, narrative and expository. We want them to apply higher level thinking skills. We expect them to be equally competent and teach with those expectations. The reality is, many students are not ready to independently apply or develop those reading skills without intensive direct reading instruction. Trying to fit it all into 40 minutes (or even 80 minutes) a day removes the thrill of reading for pleasure, remediating observable reading difficulties and exploring the world of print and the knowledge it enriches us with. I'm all for a year of reading instruction and because we can cover any content area we want with our reading instruction (science, social studies, art, even math!) - nothing really has to be lost.

Before becoming a 5th grade teacher I taught 1st grade for 15 years. I often felt that if we could concentrate exclusively on reading and math concepts in the early grades we wouldn't have the literacy issues in the higher grades. Forget formal science, social studies, art etc. curriculum and instead build awareness of these subjects through immersion in reading instruction through literature (both fiction and non-fiction). The school day is so filled with other requirements that even at the 1st grade level you are lucky to find 1 hour per day for reading/LA instruction.

Before becoming a 5th grade teacher I taught 1st grade for 15 years. I often felt that if we could concentrate exclusively on reading and math concepts in the early grades we wouldn't have the literacy issues in the higher grades. Forget formal science, social studies, art etc. curriculum and instead build awareness of these subjects through immersion in reading instruction through literature-based acitvities (both fiction and non-fiction). The school day is so filled with other requirements that even at the 1st grade level you are lucky to find 1 hour per day for reading/LA instruction.

Intuitively, I like it. I don't really know anything about primary pedagogy or curriculum, but I know that my high school students are not good readers and it affects everything they do in school. Are there charter or independent schools that implement a similar policy we could study?

I agree with allowing--and encouraging--K-2 teachers to concentrate on reading, writing, and math for their day. Our state, Missouri, has high stakes testing at third grade in science as well as language arts. We would be way ahead if we concentrated on teaching students to read the material before we make them responsible for it in assessment. We teachers in k-2 say "I don't have time to spend so much time on reading. I have to teach science and social studies." I tell them their students don't have time for them NOT to spend so much time on reading. Someday our educational system will get it all together!?!

I think that reading and writng need to be stressed together throughout elementary school, along with math computation and concepts. Wouldn't that be nice if teachers only had those subjects to focus on??? We become parents, friends,nurses,doctors,psychologists/psychiatrists,health educators, providers, etc. for so many children today. Societal issues enter the classroom on a daily basis. Many elementary children think they're invincible and that rules don't apply to them. Positive role models in society are few and far between. Teachers are hard-pressed to make up for everything that is wrong in a child's life. Many families are in survival mode; forget stressing reading, writing, and math at home! I believe that children in grades preschool through second need to be immersed in reading all day - along with writing and math.... the basics that can be built on as these same children enter intermediate school.

Patrick Groff wrote: The pertinent empirical findings suggest that direct, intensive, systematic, early, and comprehensive instruction of a prearranged hierarchy of discrete reading skills and knowledge is the most effectice kind.

Claudine's response: You believe this is avhieved in 40 minutes a day?

I once taught 1st grade and also saw that there needed to be more time spent on reading. Teachers are pressured to switch around subjects but most know full well more time is needed on reading. Gow might be on to something, but I agree with other posters who say it can start in 3rd grade and include half a day of math.

As a 1st grade teacher at an "Improvement" school with mostly English Language learners, I have been part of the Reading First program. Because of a directive from above, my colleagues and I spend 3 1/2 hours on language arts per day (all morning). This includes the instruction that Professor Groff mentioned, and the so-called Universal Access for the students that need additional focused instruction.
In the afternoon 1 hour of math, and the rest of the time is spent on ELD/Social Studies (more language). I try to embed music/movement and art within this last block, but the powers-that-be frown on it.That would be too much fun, you see?

I think every year should be spent learning to read, write, compute, and think deeply about our world and all the subjects within it. Reading is a means to learning in all subject areas and so should be the basis of all learning across each of them.

I work with small reading intervention groups in grades 1-4 daily. While working on decoding and comprehension skills, the students read all kinds of literature from fictional folktales to current events articles, and charts and graphs It can be so simple to integrate the teaching of all reading skills with our other subjects. As teachers, we must be creative.

I think the focus in elementary school should be on reading, writing, and computation skills. If you saw the recent 20/20 program titled Stupid in America. Where Students in Belgium have far surpassed us in reading. The program states that even smaller countries have surpassed us in reading. Why not bring phonics back into the classroom?

I think the focus in elementary school should be on reading, writing, and computation skills. If you saw the recent 20/20 program titled Stupid in America. Where Students in Belgium have far surpassed us in reading. The program states that even smaller countries have surpassed us in reading. Why not bring phonics back into the classroom?

If every first grader went thru the www.headsprout.com program of 80 lessons that take a student from prephonics thru early reading learning to read would be far less of an issue and we could focus the appropriate amount of time on math education. Given the program is web based, low cost ($160 retail), but does not have to be used in the class room it is unlikley many public schools will adopt it's use.

As a teacher in the state of Texas, I see far too many standards being pushed on kids today. I think if we were allowed to teach reading, writing, and math, everything else would fall into place. Reading is too important to fall by the wayside but reading is being pushed aside to help students pass the TAKS test. We are teaching how to take a test; not how to read, think, and comprehend. Reading, thinking, and comprehending are what kids need in order to survive and thrive in this world. I disagree with the full day of reading instruction in 4th grade but I do think that we need to focus on reading, writing, and math skills more. Why not spend more time on reading instruction in the earlier grades when kids are excited and eager to learn? If we do that, then students will be prepared for school and for life.

I think only drastic action like this will make a difference in our sociey. Though besides aquiring the skills to read they must also develop an enthusiasm for reading.

Although I agree that reading is the most important skill students must acquire in school, I think the focus to learn to read must be in the K-2 grades. Educators often wait too long to identify concerns and inadvertantly set students up for failure. By the time the child reaches the 4th grade and they have difficulty reading, they're doomed for failure, they have a poor self-image, they 'hate' to read and there's no motivation. We can't set kids up for failure! Kindergarten teachers must identify concerns and use effective strategies to teach reading. One size does not fit all. Often students need a systamatic phonetic approach to learn to read while other students learn to read in spite of the teacher. By the 4th grade students should love to read and become confident readers. I also think parents or other adults should play a critical role in the child's education and support the learning (reading) process. It's all about 'learning to read to enable reading to learn'.

K-3 should teach students how to read and write; how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide; how to speak a foreign language, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, or Arabic; and the social skills and character traits needed to get along in society and survive in school. Grade 4 should expand math to include fractions, algebraic functions, and geometric terms; should devote at least three hours (90 minutes at start of day and 90 minutes at the close of day) to reading (fiction and nonfiction) and writing (journaling, summarizing, predicting, and comparing) and talking about what was read; and the remaining time devoted to playing with the arts and foreign language. Grade 5 should reduce the reading to 2 hours and add science. Grade 6 should change reading to language arts with required reading as an out of school assignment (100 pages minimum per week) and increase foreign language. Grade 7 should change geography to civics. Grade 8 should change civic to a world history of ideas course and introduce extensive use of comparative timelines. Grade s 9-12 should be redesigned along a Physics First model with science and math leading and language arts (200 pages minimum of out of school reading per week), social studies, health, the arts, and technology following and supporting.

Charlene wrote: "Though besides aquiring the skills to read they must also develop an enthusiasm for reading."

And how would requiring 9 year olds (or even 6, 7, or 8 year olds) to sit and read all day long get them excited about reading? I'm a writer and editor and after all day of reading and writing, I'm exhausted but it's something I love to do. If kids are reluctant readers or not ready to read, then forcing them to do it won't get them to enjoy it and will result in the problems later on that were mentioned earlier.

Emphasize reading but do not eliminate science, mathematics, social studies etc. Some reading can be in different contexts and reading is important, but eliminating other subjects will not help the child.

The quantity of hours or days or years focused on teaching reading is not the main issue of importance at this time; although I agree that our entire curriculum is suffering from trying to "cover" curricula that are "a mile wide and an inch deep". Modern life is complex and a great variety of skills and knowledge are needed. However, when politicians and their generous lobbyists, along with media hounds seeking a story, control curriculum and assessment in ways that dictate approaches, students long to be "left behind". I see the effect of obsessive attention to teaching to specific standards which are regularly tested for specified ways of thinking reflected in specified types of responses in the young "millenium" students who have come through the acronym testing culture during their elementary and secondary school years. They have passed the tests, but they neither remember nor can make use of all the “tested skills and knowledge” they mastered momentarily. We prep them, they pass and their minds perform the only possible psychologically healthy action in response to so much coercion and "pressure cooker" learning---they "delete, delete, delete". These are bright kids, from good homes, whose teachers worked very hard; but when I work with them as young adults I have to show them how to read and interpret information for everyday purposes. And when they need to create and use a simple data table, collect information and interpret it using percentages---I have to show them how to get from
"7 of 50 responses" to "14% of this population...."
Doing that sort of useful real world task doesn't fit well into a multiple choice test item and Goodness knows we have to use what testing companies want to sell, even if it destroys our global competitiveness by diminishing the desire of our youth to participate in organized education.

People should visit the site, Children of the Code, to understand the process of learning to read. It should be taught directly and, as any skill you want to master, you must practice. If we taught reading correctly in K-3, we would not have the deficits we have in 4+. Schools must move away from the whole language/balanced literacy they practice if more than just the elite are going to succeed in reading. The writing programs are even worse. My school uses Basic Writing Skills by Dr. Judith Hochman and the program is directly taught and expository. Even Kindergarten children love to write about things like spiders! This builds background knowledge and, thus, improves reading comprehension. 90% of all upper level academic writing, and writing in life, is expository. Why do we spend years having students write in journals that are very personal, basically unmonitored, and hard to correct? Additionally, everything in reading and writing in mainstream schools is directed to the reader when comprehension of text is not about the reader but the author's intent. Teachers invariably ask questions like, "What would you do if..." or "How would you feel if..." when what they should be asking is, "What do you think the author meant when.." or "Who do you think the main character is going to turn to in order to solve this issue?" We wonder why our children can't read or write and are so self-centered??

Dr.Groff (San Diego)is correct. Early Intervention (intense) is the key.
At some point school districts will recognize the need for massive amounts of trained support for K-1 students. Then we will begin to see a major reduction in referrals for Special Education.

My first thought was, "wow, what a great idea!" And immediately after that, doubt set in. Would gains in other subjects be lost? Is fourth grade too late for such an intervention? What approaches would be used? (My daughter is in 5th grade and still can't sound out words because her school didn't use phonics.) Discussions like these are interesting but, I fear, ultimately fruitless. Our country has become virulently anti-intellectual and terrified of new ideas. Until we live in a culture which values education as a tool for broadening minds rather than as a tool for passing standardized tests, there will be no true literacy.

There are many admirable suggestions made on how schools can or should implement a more intense focus on reading throughout the school day. However, I do not recall reading anything mentioned above on the importance of parents/guardians being involved in their child's reading. I understand the need of schools teaching the fundamentals of reading, but parents/guardians should be a supplemental aid to what is happening in their child's school. I met with a parent the other day who was complaining about how her child was failing reading. I asked her what she was doing about it, and her reply, "Nothing, I'm waiting to see what the school is going to do." So, maybe the schools have to pull the weight to achieve high reading scores, to make sure every student is a proficient reading, but I am convinced that a child's love for reading starts, not with a top of the line curriculum, but at a bedtime story, in the lap of a Grandma, or in a treehouse under a cover with only a flashlight and a copy of his/her favorite book.

All teachers are teachers of reading/literacy. Teachers aren't teaching science or social studies anymore; they are teaching students how to read in their content areas. Science, math, social studies and other texts require reading skills far beyond what is taught in the third and fourth grades. That's why our students can't read or comprehend their reading in middle and high school. If every teacher believed this philosophy, we wouldn't have to devote a whole year for reading at the expense of science and math which (along with reading) are much more necessary for the success of our students. The idea is ludicrous for year long reading. We need to empower all of our teachers to become better skilled at teaching reading through their content. This way they learn the content and they learn how to read science, math, social studies and other technical reading materials, too.

I teach in a small school in rural india .unfortunately there are so many rules dictating what one does in a class. but this is the kind of approach required to make sure that children are able to cope with other subjects. reading is basic and everything else automatically follows . i would love to do it in my class .

I love this concept and would love a job that this entailed but once again we are trying to do the job that is not being done at home. First, we try to teach behavior issues all day that parents are neglecting to teach. Now,we want them to get all this broad exposure to reading that if parents were reading daily at home with their children and taking them to the public library we wouldn't have catch them up in school so much.

It seems pointless to complain about HOW parents are falling short in what they do with students at home. Since we know that most students do not have the benefit of effective mentoring in acadenic behaviors, we would be off addressing solutions that are pragmatic and direct. Reading is the basis of all learning. A concentrated effort to improve student reading skills by investing more effort and time is a good idea. The earlier we invest in the effort, the benefits across the entire academic spectrum should compensate the individual each year after.

Kudos to Mr. Gow for thinking outside the box. This is a practice that business people have been encouraged to do for years. I have found that educators lack the skill or the courage to propose radical reforms such as this one. But look at all the ideas that have been generated as a result. I'm am confident that most of us will incorporate some of what has been said on this discussion board into our own curriculum. On another note, when I was a kid, the world was a safe place for us to explore. We were outside playing games based on our imaginations. We were learning about science by playing in the woods and in the streams. This doesn't happen any more. And, unfortunately, it doesn't happen in school any more. I teach at the college level. My students are terrible readers and writers. I only get them for nine weeks at a time. If I enforced reading, they would all opt to fail the class. It is a crime. I can honestly say I learned more from books and my life experiences and adventures than I did from any teacher I ever had in elementary, middle, and high school. I am now working toward a masters in education. The educational experiences I have in my current school are vastly different. Everything is about discussion and reflection. There are no lectures. It's fantastic.

In response to Rita's commentary I'd like to add that if by listing "whole language/balanced literacy" together you are equating the two as identical philosophies incompatible with the principles you espouse, then I'd recommend that you read Michael Pressley's new 2006 3rd edition of Reading Instruction That Works: The Case for Balanced Teaching for clarification.

Why wait until fourth grade? Aren't we in the business of teaching and supporting reading development from the moment children begin school? I am in favor of innovation, but I feel Mr. Gow is missing the mark. We need to support and devote our energies toward early, consistent instruction before school begins, and continue to nurture this process throughout the brief time children spend in our K-12 schools.

I feel that if more time was devoted to reading when I was about the 4th grade, I would be a more avid reader - and that's saying a lot since I am a lit major. I naturally like to read, but a lot of kids do not because they feel it's boring and hard to concentrate. Trained at a younger age to really understand what words mean opens up a whole world of comprehension and retention.

Fourth grade would be way too late to be teaching reading to many children; second grade might be more appropriate.

Even more important at fourth-grade level, year devoted to reading might be much more valuable than a year devoted to teaching reading.

The idea of focusing on reading in the fourth grade is in interesting proposal.However, I would encourage the nation to focus their efforts with even younger children....perhaps the early childhood years. The fundamental skills to become a successful reader such as language development, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, letter recognition, phonics, text comprehension, etc. actually begin in the early childhood years.

Children’s access to quality early childhood education can be a powerful strategy to strengthen education and close the achievement gap. Research evidence is overwhelming that early childhood education pays financial dividends by reducing future costs for special education and other forms of remediation. In fact, children who participate in high quality early childhood programs make better progress in reading,language, math and social skills in comparison to their peers who did not have the opportunity. Studies also show that the earlier the interventions begin and the longer that children participate, the better the outcomes. As James Heckman, Nobel Laurete, said in his recent Wall Street Article "Cath'em Young".

Some of what Gow is saying has been discussed in depth in the book, "Reading to Learn: Lessons from Exemplary Fourth-grade classrooms." A concern that I have about focusing on reading, it is also important to support writing as well, thus making a full literacy emersion.

For those who have concerns about reading instruction and the loss of science and social studies,... how do you anticipate teaching anything else if your students don't have the skills to decode and process the words on the page. It is all important and should be approached as an intertwined, cross-curricular lesson that be broken down in small groups when necessary. Employing a peer-tutoring program may also be an effective way to work with grade level or higher readers, and the yet emerging readers...

Just a few ideas for those who are struggling with the ideas...

A veteran Connecticut teacher once told me, "I can build a very good case connecting the demise of childhood illnesses and a decline in children's reading scores." Once you examine that concept of children being isolated or quarantined for long periods of time but with access to large amounts of reading time (there was no TV or at least daytime TV in those days), you've got basically what Peter Gow is talking about in his wonderfully insightful essay. You can pursue the idea further if you study the lives of great writers, noting how many were bedridden at some point and discovered the wonder of books in their isolation. How about a kind of "sick bay" in each school, complete with its own library, that children would be entitled to check into several days a month? It's not as good as a whole year, but it's better than the monstrously ineffective thing we now have that produces an adult population in which half the people choose to read not one book a year.

--Jim Trelease

One of the comments on this topic referenced a 20/20 report by John Stossel. For those that haven't seen it, the report shows a very skewed version of education in america and in several places even outright misinforms the public as to the actual results of test scores and performance in school sectors (public, charter, and private). Please don't consider it a reliable source.

As for the topic itself, I think we are running into several issues at once: too much material and not enough time, lack of funding in instruction areas, and federal/state influences with high stakes testing that alter the curiculum in ways that are not always beneficial to students. Simply saying we need to dedicate a full educational year to teaching reading is missing the point to begin with - why are students in general more resistant to learning?

Stephen Krashen's research demonstrates that children who read the most, read the best and that children who can self-select their reading material are more highly motivated to read for fun or pleasure. As Peter Gow points out, these skilled readers reap the rewards of higher education.

Rather than investing in individual classroom libraries for one grade level, however, how about creating an attractive space with lots of books and seating of all kinds that can be shared by the whole school and then allowing ample time for teachers to bring students in to "flop and read" for fun and pleasure? We already have these spaces - they're called school libraries. There are teacher/librarians with M.L.S. degrees in hand that would love to work with teachers and administrators to create pleasure reading spaces that could really make a difference. The fact that school libraries haven't even been mentioned yet in this discussion is sad but perhaps indicative of the anxiety educators feel over simply turning children loose to read. Granted, reading a lot isn't something that automatically appeals to every child, but as Jim Trelease points out, giving children a time and space away from other distractions at least gives them the opportunity to read and discover that it can be a pleasure, not classroom drudgery.

To LD/teacher student

When I referred to whole language/balanced literacy, I was not referring to the model of balanced that M. Pressley supports but the model that is actually in most of our classrooms.Journal writing without supervision, partner reading without supervision or silent reading, the writing of haikus and projects done by parents loosely tied to the comprehension of a book or content area is what goes on in many classrooms masked as instruction. M.Pressley supports direct expicit teaching of real reading and writing skills.

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It is ridicuous to expect a Language Arts teacher to teach reading, writing, literature, poetry, oral presentations,...While they are connected we have been short-changing students for years. It is just too vast and the price we pay is many students left behind,or that never get started because they didn't develop the basic decoding, structual analysis skills,... to read. Reading and writing should be divided into two separate courses.However, within them the two processes should be intertwined. When considering writing, spelling, grammar, narrative writing, expository,... will easily take up two semesters. The same as with reading. Since these skills affect their abilities in all other content areas, we should divide reading and writing from 4--8th grade. It should have always been this way, and with all our literary research, I'm surprised we haven't insisted upon it yet.

Linda-you're right-taking on all those tasks would be too much for just one LA teacher. Integration of literacy into ALL curricular areas is the key and who better to assist with this than one of the best literacy experts in your building-your library media specialist! He or she is (or should be)more than willing to help plan collaborative lessons which embed literacy into the areas of math, science, social studies, art, music,etc. Also,as Maggie B. alluded to in her response, it is great to have literature collections in the classroom but these materials can also be gathered, on a rotating basis from your library media center, allowing the whole school to benefit from the use of these items and saving money at the same time!

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