« Smoke and Mirrors | Main | Summer Slump »

Reading First Puts Reading Last

| 13 Comments

On May 1st, the Department of Education released the preliminary results of Reading First, the federal program which provides grants for initiatives which improve the reading achievement of at-risk elementary school children. The initial findings of the DOE study indicate that students participating in Reading First perform no better on reading achievement tests than their peers in other instructional programs. Instead of re-addressing the flawed premise on which Reading First was built, the 2000 Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, policymakers ask for more money to fund this failing federal program and beg us all to give Reading First more time.

The National Reading Panel left independent reading off of their recommendations for improving reading instruction stating that, “The research suggests that there are more beneficial ways to spend reading instructional time than to have students read independently in the classroom without reading instruction.” However, Stephen Krashen, respected researcher, activist, and the author of The Power of Reading, identifies fifty-three different studies which prove that students in free-reading programs perform better or equal to students in any other type of reading programs, and students’ motivation and interest in reading is higher when they get the opportunity to read in school. In spite of the findings of the NRP, this information sends the message that every other activity used in classrooms to teach reading better get the same results, not just in reading achievement, but in motivation, or it is detrimental to students.

The children cannot wait. They do not have more time. Students, who entered kindergarten in 2000, the year the National Reading Panel report came out, are in high school now. While Washington policymakers fumble to figure out what is best practice in getting children to read and crafting program after program claiming to have the answers, these children are graduating and breathing a sigh of relief that they never have to read a book again.

We have worked so hard to develop systems to teach reading, yet I claim that we had no grounds to systematize an act like reading in the first place. The only groups served by current trends to produce more and more programs for teaching reading are the publishing and testing companies who make billions of dollars from their programs and tests. Last year, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), released a report detailing conflicts of interest at Reading First due to financial connections between several staff members and educational publishers. What agenda was being served? Meanwhile, the people who have the best ability in actually getting children to read—children’s book authors, parents, librarians, and teachers get the least credit (monetarily or otherwise). No hidden agenda exists with this group; they just want children to read.

I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.

And it would take a forklift. Using a bathroom scale, I weighed the ancillary materials that came with our district-adopted literature book. The teacher’s edition, student workbooks, practice tests, lesson plan guides, CD-ROMs, and extension materials weighed twenty-seven pounds. Throwing on several hardcover editions just to even the odds, the forty books I require my students to read each year weigh about twenty-four pounds, and these books cost hundreds of dollars less than a textbook package. We don’t need another reading program; we need to go back to the first reading program—connecting children with books. This should always be our bottom line.

13 Comments

An excellnet commentary on the state of reading in our nation. The most important aspect of teaching a child to read is connecting with the child and motivating her to want to read. Unless the emotional connection exists between student and teacher, the textbooks and other gadgets won't result in any improvement. I, too, feel strongly that textbook publishers are taking advantage of the anxiety surrounding education while administrators are looking for a quick solution in purchasing these materials which often times make no difference to learning.

I read this article and it is timely as I am a special education teacher K-12 who see the differences in those students who has learned to read in early grades. Most of the times these students has the dedicated help of parents and teachers with no hidden agendas.

A Baltimore Sun editorial, agreeing with you and me, proclaimed that Reading First was a failure. But the feds have responded. Below is a letter from the deputy secretary of education, followed by my response, which will appear in the Sun (they tell me) soon:

'Reading First' helps build skills
Baltimore Sun

May 15, 2008
The Sun's editorial on the Reading First program jumped to unfounded conclusions and buried the most important point ("Reading failure," May 7).
While calling for the program to be "overhauled or scrapped," the editorial also noted that Maryland educators say the program has helped students improve - and it clearly has.
Indeed, Maryland's program evaluation for this plan stated that "student achievement is improving in Reading First schools, in all grades and [districts]," and that the program is also helping students with disabilities and those with limited English skills learn to read as well as their peers.
Nationwide, data show that Reading First students of nearly every race and background have made impressive reading gains.
These results are all the more important as the Nation's Report Card shows that 33 percent of American fourth-graders lack basic reading skills.
But thanks to decades of research, we've now developed a solid understanding of how children learn to read and of how to help all children learn to read well.
Reading First represents our first nationwide attempt to translate insights from more than 20 years of independent studies into practical tools for teachers.
Two years ago, my department addressed concerns about Reading First management by putting in place new leadership, strengthening peer review and taking further steps to prevent potential conflicts of interest.
And today we are also paying close attention to the study The Sun's editorial cited.
But the editorial neglected to note that this was an interim report based only on the first two years of the program's implementation.
We are hopeful that the final study, to be published later this year, will help every Reading First school maximize the program's benefits.
And we are confident that Reading First will continue to help students learn the skills they need to be successful readers now and in the future.

Raymond Simon
Washington
The writer is a deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education.

My response:

Not the first failure for Reading First


Raymond Simon, from the US Department of Education, defends Reading First, claiming that the recent study showing no difference between Reading First and comparison students was only an interim report and that nationwide, Reading First students have made “impressive reading gains” (“’Reading First’ helps build skills,” May 15). But the recent report is not the first failure of Reading First.

A number of studies have shown that since Reading First was implemented, there has been no change in the rate of improvement on reading tests given by the states. Members of the administration have repeatedly claimed that national reading scores (NAEP) for fourth graders are at an all-time high, but a brief look at the data shows that nearly all of the improvement in recent years took place before Reading First was implemented. Also, American fourth graders did not improve between 2001 and 2006 on the international PIRLS reading test. In addition, there has been no reduction of the gap in reading achievement between children from high and low-income families on any measure.

The Sun was right when it labeled Reading First as Reading Failure.

Stephen Krashen

This reminds me of a novel I read lately...the "low" kids have to pass the state test to make sure their teacher's not fired...and hatch a plan to "read their way to success".

Wish I remembered the title! Thanks for the blog!

Chris,

Are you thinking of Sixth Grade Nickname Game by Gordon Korman? I read that book with my students every year, no need to explain why!

Great post, Donalyn! I don't know what to do, personally, beyond helping those dedicated parents and teachers to find books that kids connect to. But I do feel like as a country we're just going in the wrong direction - people like you see it, and rail against it, but the government and testing industry just have so much momentum... I don't know what else to do, but I do thank you for speaking out so eloquently.

Very well stated. A teacher in our building opened our book room to her students to choose their own books - talk about motivation! I happened to pass by just after they had made their choices - every one of them was engrossed in a book.

I agree!! The reading series we last adopted has so many extras that I had to get another cabinet for storage. There are things from the series I never touched. From my experience it seems like the company that offers the most bells and whistles with their series is the one adopted. I am not saying all the extra stuff is useless, only that I cannot see the need.

I would love to teach with only novels in my 5th grade class, but must comply and teach from adopted series. I have found a way to use one novel each 6 weeks in the classroom while still using the textbook for most of our reading. I find the students are more engaged and learn more from the use of novels. I either do one novel for the whole class, or have smaller groups with books that challenge without overwhelming students. I also give them time to read silently (usually after playtime) a book of their choice.

I always have my students critique me at the end of the year. They are free to write about anything they feel I need to improve on, they enjoyed, would like to see more of or less of, etc. This year, I found it very rewarding to discover an overwhelming majority of the student critiques wanted more novel reading.

Very well stated. I teach high school, so I seeing the fruits of these reading programs that do nothing about make students loathe the process of reading...because that is what it is to them...a process. I can't say how much PROUD resistance these students have to reading because they do not believe that it has value in their lives.

It is a sad state of affairs.

Hi Donalyn,

Nice post, but I disagree with one of your implied conclusions: you EITHER have your students read what they are motivated to read OR teach them reading strategies. You can, and should, do both. There are plenty of readers, especially once they get to the middle school level, who can turn the page, and even enjoy the book, but can't connect the dots. We are finding that the NRP-identified strategies help these students.

I certainly agree that students should learn comprehension strategies and I do teach them, but what I see in many classrooms is kill and drill-based instruction at the expense of independent reading. When the National Reading Panel left independent reading and background knowledge building (best acquired through wide reading) off its recommendations for reading intervention programs, the implied message was that these vital components do not benefit struggling readers.

It is a shame that some teachers still revert to kill and drill-based instruction at the expense of independent reading. You are right when you state that wide reading builds background knowledge. Just remember children who are struggling to decode and comprehend what they are reading need reading strategy instruction...direct and systematic. Without this know-how struggling readers will read as little as they can. The recommendations for reading intervention programs do benefit struggling readers. These systematic reading programs are targeting struggling readers not fluent readers. Fluent readers have already learned to automatically apply reading strategies to their benefit. Teachers must provide books, magazines, and other appropriate reading materials to read in the student's interest and reading level. Reading First has this as one of it's goals.

It is a shame that some teachers still revert to kill and drill-based instruction at the expense of independent reading. You are right when you state that wide reading builds background knowledge. Just remember children who are struggling to decode and comprehend what they are reading need reading strategy instruction...direct and systematic. Without this know-how struggling readers will read as little as they can. The recommendations for reading intervention programs do benefit struggling readers. These systematic reading programs are targeting struggling readers not fluent readers. Fluent readers have already learned to automatically apply reading strategies to their benefit. Teachers must provide books, magazines, and other appropriate reading materials to read in the student's interest and reading level. Reading First has this as one of it's goals.

Comments are now closed for this post.

Advertisement

Recent Comments

  • emandujano: It is a shame that some teachers still revert to read more
  • emandujano: It is a shame that some teachers still revert to read more
  • Donalyn Miller: I certainly agree that students should learn comprehension strategies and read more
  • dhimes: Hi Donalyn, Nice post, but I disagree with one of read more
  • Mrs CJ: Very well stated. I teach high school, so I seeing read more

Archives

Technorati

Technorati search

» Blogs that link here