When the most recent set of scores from the NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) were released in 2019, the results for Reading were dismal: only 35% of fourth graders were rated Proficient or Advanced, whereas a whopping 65% were rated either Basic or Below Basic (up from 63% in 2017). For eighth graders, the results were slightly worse: 34% percent Proficient/Advanced vs. 66% Basic or Below Basic (up from 64% in 2017).
Obviously, these scores do not paint a particularly encouraging picture of American elementary and middle-school students’ reading skills.
One of the major criticisms the NAEP is that the score ratings do not align—and are not intended to align—with grade levels. For example, a student reading at the Proficient level is actually reading above grade level (has “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter”), whereas one rated Basic is reading somewhat below (“partial mastery of fundamental skills”). And to be fair, the test itself is fairly challenging.
But crude and controversial a snapshot as the NAEP may be, the scores align remarkably well with another set of statistics, namely those released by the International Dyslexia Association in regards to the percentage of children who require particular amounts of explicit, systematic instruction to learn to read. Depicted by the Canadian reading specialist Nancy Young (https://www.nancyyoung.ca) in a popular infographic known as “The Ladder of Reading,” the statistics indicate that approximately:
- 5% of children learn to read without instruction
- 35% need only broad instruction
- 40-50% need a moderate amount of explicit, systematic instruction
- 10-15% need prolonged instruction, with extensive repetition (dyslexia)
Broadly speaking, these four groups can be subdivided into two larger ones: those who need little to no instruction (40%) and those who need more of it (60%)—and that, in turn, runs almost exactly parallel to the NAEP Proficient/Non-Proficient breakdown.
In fact, the NAEP figures over time reflect exactly what one would expect from a (non-)system based largely on the falsehood that reading is a natural process, and that children will “just pick it up on their own” if given enough time: the natural readers learn to read well, and the non-natural readers don’t.
To be clear, this correspondence does not prove cause-and-effect. It is a general correlation, if quite a striking one, and a very large-scale study would be required to establish such a relationship. But given the generally haphazard, unsystematic, and poorly sequenced manner in which American children are taught to read, it does nevertheless suggest that the children who are learning to read well are primarily those who would learn to read more or less regardless of what program they were given.
Worringly, the discrepancy between the two sets of figures runs in the direction of non-proficiency. Assuming the breakdown represented by Young is accurate, around 5% of children who require only broad instruction to become competent decoders still do not comprehend at a particularly high level. Unfortunately, that is hardly surprising either: once children have learned to decode competently, around third or fourth grade, reading proficiency largely becomes a reflection of vocabulary and background knowledge. If schools are de-emphazing subject knowledge in favor of reading-based instruction/test prep centered around the kinds of empty formal skills on which Common Core is based (identifying main ideas; comparing and contrasting; inferencing), then students are being deprived of the knowledge necessary to become strong readers. And the more years students spend in this type of vapid, random non-curricululm, the more pronounced the knowledge gaps become.
As Chalkbeat reported:
A new study, released in April  through a federally funded research center, shows that states that changed their standards most dramatically by adopting the Common Core didn’t outpace other states on federal NAEP exams. By 2017 — seven years after most states had adopted them — the standards appear to have led to modest declines in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math scores.
“It’s rather unexpected,” said researcher Mengli Song of the American Institutes for Research. “The magnitude of the negative effects tend to increase over time. That’s a little troubling.”But the results are not getting better over time, according to Song’s research, so it’s hard to pin the findings on bad implementation.
That leaves Song puzzled. “I don’t have a good hypothesis for why the effects actually grow over time,” she said. “That’s something I didn’t expect.”
Song may be unable to offer a hypothesis, but here’s mine: in a 1986 paper, the researcher Keith Stanovich described the “Matthew effect” in reading, a phenomenon named after the Bible verse stating that the rich become richer while the poor lose what little they have.
Essentially, knowledge is “sticky”: the more you know, the easier it is to assimilate new information (because it can be connected to what is already known), creating a positive feedback loop. On the other hand, the less you know, the harder it is to absorb new information because there is nothing to connect the knowledge to. Thus, gaps that may initially be minor or moderate become larger over time. And that is precisely what is happening now.
Indeed, the Reading-score decline between 2017 (37% Proficient or Advanced in fourth grade; 36% Proficient in eighth) and 2019 (35%/34%) suggests that something on the vocabulary/knowledge side is also going in the wrong direction. Only those in the Advanced category made gains.
As E.D. Hirsch explains in The Knowledge Deficit:
Early oral language enhancement plus the systematic teaching of enabling knowledge are the keys to later gains in all academic areas, and also to narrowing the achievement gap beween demographic groups. It is in early language learning that the Matthew effect begins to take hold. Those who know many words and who possess the knowledge to comprehend what they mean will learn more words and world knowledge later on, while those who know few words in early grades fall further and further behind in later grades.
The key phrase here is “systematic teaching of enabling knowledge.” Simply giving children random passages of so-called “informational text” (penguins one day, George Washington the next, perhaps solar panels the day after that) does nothing to help them develop a solid base for navigating the written world.
If knowledge is to be retained, it must be retrieved, applied, and explicitly connected to other knowledge in a structured way, over an extended period. But what is happening knowledge-wise in the older grades is the equivalent of what all too often happens in the teaching of phonics: “g” may be taught as a hard sound (game) but not a soft one (edge); “ee” and “ea” may be taught incidentally as the long “e” sound in a particular lesson, with no mention of the fact that there are six other ways the sound can be spelled, and without follow-up practice in additional lessons or guided application in writing.
Although the Standards as such have faded from public view, it is important to understand that they are still exerting an enormous influence over American public education. Even states that have nominally moved away from them have in fact just relabeled them in order to avoid controversy while leaving them intact more or less verbatim.” So both today’s fourth and eighth graders have spent their entire school careers in a system dominated by Common Core.
At this point, I’d like to stress that although this site is largely geared toward emphasizing the importance of early-reading skills such as phonics and phonemic awareness, that should not be taken as an indication that I or any of the other writers at Breaking the Code are unaware of the importance of the other, more complex skills involved in reading. Rather, we have chosen to focus on decoding skills because they are the most fundmental basis for understanding the written English code, and because their neglect deprives many children of the opportunity to acquire even the most basic competencies around print.
But please, make no mistake: we are all acutely conscious of the fact that those skills are not by themselves sufficient to produce strong readers in the long term. If vocabulary and general knowledge about the world are not systematically developed—things that allow people to read challenging texts for meaning—then it does not matter how beautifully a child can decode. To be handed the keys to the kingdom but to be unable to enjoy its treasures, or even to realize that there are treasures are at all—now that is a waste and a tragedy, and an entirely avoidable one at that.
Jennifer J Zimmerman
This post is like a gut punch. I failed at a job because I was supposed to be coaching teachers on effective literacy practices – but the practices I was pushing weren’t that effective. And I knew it.