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Why has reading lost its way?

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Experts say new teachers aren't prepared to instruct students who don't grasp the basics.

About a third of Florida's fourth-grade students failed the state's literacy standard on the new FCAT reading test this past school year. That means 278,000 elementary school children can't read fluently, a finding that mirrors nationwide results.

Researchers think they know why so many children can't read: Most teachers lack the know-how to help struggling readers.

"I see very well-meaning, hard-working teachers who just don't know any better," said Patricia Mathes, a special education professor at Florida State University who spent six years watching Florida teachers teach reading.

"I have yet to see a school where teachers are doing a real good job teaching reading."

Mathes conducted her research for the National Institutes of Health, which for a decade has been studying literacy. The NIH conclusions have recently been confirmed by the National Academy of Sciences and the congressionally appointed National Reading Panel.

"I don't want to sound terribly cynical, but not a lot of (new) teachers have a good understanding of how to teach reading," said Paul Tune, a Pasco County elementary teacher who mentors student teachers. "They need more instruction on what to do when a child has trouble learning to read."

Other educators say teaching reading has always been a problem. Whatever the history, the bottom line is this: Children who fail to learn to read fluently by the end of third grade rarely catch up, and the consequences are costly:

Half to three-quarters of the children labeled "learning disabled" aren't, many reading experts say. They end up in special education because they got lousy reading instruction. Schools spend about 25 percent of their budgets on special education.

Reading problems that can be remedied with 30 minutes of daily instruction in first grade take two hours a day to fix in third grade.

Eighty-five percent of the kids tangled in the juvenile justice system can't read fluently.

At a summit of the nation's leading reading experts last year, U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley put it simply: "Nothing less than the future of this country depends on our ability to engage these struggling students."

"Thrown to the sharks'

Amy Younglove just finished her third year of teaching first grade in Pasco County. A graduate of Saint Leo College, she said her studies did little to prepare her for the classroom, especially in reading.

"I was thrown to the sharks my first year," she said.

This year didn't go much better, she said, as 15 of her 25 students at Chester Taylor Elementary needed summer school, primarily because of reading problems. But, Younglove added, her inexperience teaching reading was just one factor. Her students' abilities ranged from one boy who "ate crayons off the floor" to another who read at the fifth-grade level. It was too much to handle, she said.

Younglove said when she first started teaching she was surprised to find that every teacher had a different approach to reading.

Experts say Younglove's observations are accurate. Unlike subjects like math, which tend to follow a structured curriculum, many schools take a scatter-shot approach to teaching reading. Teachers are allowed to use whatever method they think works, even if it doesn't, FSU's Mathes said.

Schools get away with it because most children can grasp the most important reading concepts and have little trouble learning. But reading is a struggle for about one-third of all students, and they are the ones teachers are often helpless to teach, experts say.

Those children often need intensive help understanding a concept most readers understand intuitively: Letters on paper represent spoken sounds. Until they grasp that key concept they will never read fluently, NIH research has found.

For example, the word "bag" contains three sounds, "buh" "ah" and "guh." In normal conversation, "bag" strikes the ear as one smooth sound.

Yet a surprising number of teachers have had little training in how to teach those crucial letter-sound relationships, said FSU's Mathes and veteran teachers around the Tampa Bay area.

Since the early 1980s, most teachers were taught to teach reading using the "whole language" technique, said Joseph Torgesen, an FSU psychologist who has conducted reading research for the NIH. Whole language eschews explicit phonics and instead encourages children to figure out unknown words by guessing or by rooting out clues from surrounding sentences.

Whole language has been largely discredited as an effective reading method for the masses. Even so, whole language is still taught in many teacher colleges.

"Most of us did not have that (phonics) training in college," said Pam Locke, a Hillsborough County school administrator in charge of elementary reading programs. "That's an area where school districts have to pick up the slack."

There are other problems with teacher training as well. Researchers found that teachers are ill-equipped to monitor closely a child's reading, and they don't know how to use their observations to diagnose problems.

With inexperienced teachers missing so much, principals should think twice about putting them in kindergarten, first- or second-grade classrooms where the foundations of reading are taught, experts say.

"First grade is where beginning reading starts, and where a lot of damage can be done," said Pat Nelms, Pinellas' director of elementary reading programs. "First-grade teachers need to have a lot of expertise."

Students in the University of South Florida's elementary education program take two reading classes, and two language arts classes that touch upon reading. That may not sound like much, but it's actually more than most student-teachers get. At FSU, beginning teachers take just one reading class along with two language arts courses. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that, on average, student teachers take only 1.3 reading courses in college.

Professors in USF's reading department say they work hard to make sure teachers are exposed to many different teaching techniques.

"To say that teachers aren't getting instruction in (phonics) just isn't true," said USF professor Jim King.

What do teachers know?

Over the next three years every first-grade teacher in Pinellas County schools will participate in a yearlong program that will teach them how to be better reading teachers. The teachers will meet weekly for two hours to learn, among other things, how to monitor a student's reading and how to teach children to use clues from a sentence's grammar and structure to see if their reading sounds logical.

"Teachers have told us that this is the most effective training they've ever had," Nelms said. "The teachers really become reading experts."

In Pasco, 85 teachers, the vast majority of whom teach in schools with large populations of poor children, have received the training through its version of the same program, which was developed by USF professors.

Debbie Bax said she thinks her son Mikey wasn't getting enough phonics in his Pinellas County elementary school and couldn't read after nearly four years of school.

Teachers at Plumb Elementary School in Clearwater were recommending special education, but Bax had heard about a small private school that specializes in fixing reading problems. She borrowed money from her family and enrolled Mikey in the dePaul School for Dyslexia in Clearwater, even though he doesn't have the disorder. Within months Mikey was reading at a third-grade level.

The secret? dePaul teachers gave Mikey consistent, daily phonics lessons that taught him how to recognize and pronounce the 44 sounds in the English language, and they taught him how to blend those sounds into words. His public school teachers wanted Mikey to simply memorize whole words, his mother said.

"He needed to be taught in a different way," she said.

Scientists with the National Institutes of Health found teachers woefully unprepared to offer diverse reading instruction. Instead, teachers tend to cling to one or two teaching techniques, and when those techniques fail, teachers are lost. Florida teachers are no different, FSU's Torgesen and Mathes said. Local educators agree.

"We tend to have a one-size-fits-all mentality when it comes to reading," said Jan Richardson, an expert who advises Pinellas County schools on reading issues. "What's missing is the one-on-one instruction where we figure out how an individual child learns to read. It's much more than just learning and blending sounds."

But others think America's so-called literacy crisis is nothing more than political spin meant to make public schools look bad. The same national report that found that one-third of children are poor readers also found that reading scores are rising among low-income and minority children.

"Kids are more literate than they have ever been before," said USF's King. "We're educating more children to higher levels than we ever have."

Filling the gap

When children struggle to read, it is often parents and veteran teachers like Cindy Fettig who fix the problem.

It's 5 p.m. on the eve of summer vacation, and Fettig is tutoring a 9-year-old boy named Nolan in how to sound out words.

"The web . . . monster . . . men . . . took . . . get Ken," Nolan says, stumbling through a sentence in a story book.

"You're guessing," Fettig says. "Read it. Look at your letters."

Nolan jams his pencil between his teeth. Sound by sound, the words come out: "The men get Ken."

Fettig, who teaches at Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills, tutors dozens of poor readers after school and on weekends. Almost all of the children had inexperienced teachers, she said.

"If young teachers don't seek out advice about reading, they'll stumble a lot," Fettig said.

Fettig tutors Cindy Campbell's daughter, Laura. Laura's teachers at a Land O'Lakes private school wanted to test her for a learning disability, her mother said. But soon after, Campbell discovered that Laura's young teacher wasn't showing her students how to crack words into their component sounds. With tutoring, Laura mastered the skill. She has since switched to a new private school and is on the honor roll.

"It all had to do with the fact that Laura couldn't decode the words," Campbell said.

FSU's Torgesen has found that children coming to school with poor language skills are, on average, three years behind their classmates by the time they reach fifth grade. He also found that intensive phonics lessons in kindergarten and first grade can all but eliminate that gap.

Principal Ray King put the research to work at Hartsfield Elementary School near Tallahassee.

King instituted a small-group, phonics-based reading program in the early grades that all teachers were required to use. Teachers also began assessing all kindergarteners weekly on how well they knew their sounds. Teachers who didn't like the changes or rebuffed the accompanying training were transferred or asked to retire.

Within three years the number of Hartsfield students scoring in the bottom quarter of national reading tests fell from 32 percent to 5 percent. King said the gap between the reading research and what is taught to teachers-in-training is "pitiful."

Not everyone agrees that the problem lies entirely with teacher training. Crowded classrooms, an emphasis on test scores and a child's homelife all influence how a child learns to read.

"When you put a first-year teacher in a classroom with _ God help us _ 35 children, the demands are just incredible," USF's King said. "We can't prepare them for that."

Better preschool programs, involved parents and smaller teacher-student ratios in early grades can help help solve the problem, research says. But, scientists have found that the most important factor is better training for teachers.

"Most kids are getting poor instruction," said FSU's Torgesen.

"Some people think it is the scandal of the century."

_ Information from Times files and wires was used in this report.

Reading resources on the Internet

The Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement: http://www.ciera.org/

The National Research Council: http://www.nap.edu/ readingroom/books/prdyc/

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: http://www.nih.gov/nichd/

National Academy of Sciences: http://www.nas.edu/

International Reading Association: http://www.ira.org/research/

U.S. Department of Education's Reading Summit: http://www.ed.gov/inits/readingsummit/