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Understanding and solving the Reading Crisis in America


Since the dawn of creation, man has communicated through spoken language. For most children, in fact, the ability to talk naturally develops without formal instruction. Reading and writing are completely different entities, however.


A fundamental fact we must remember is that written language was developed in order to record are spoken language. Speech sounds are the foundation upon which the writing code was formed. Speech sounds are audible, consistent, existed before written language, and are in a sense “real”.  Speech existed well before written language was developed and would continue to exist even if all written records of our civilization were destroyed. Letters in English are merely the arbitrary, man-made, unstable code that we use to represent the sounds on paper. As with all codes, of course, there were designed to be reversible. You can write it into the code (encoding or spelling) and transfer it back (decoding or reading).


The key is to remember that sounds are the building block.

Reading Crisis in America

Media reports in this country often focus on the high illiteracy rates that plague our nation's schools. Parents, educators, and politicians have been led to believe that many of our children are failing to learn to read.  Yet, several questions remain. How serious is the problem? And have objective studies been done to assess the nation's literacy rate accurately?


Until recent years, the testing that had been done to examine this country’s illiteracy rate had been non-existent or poorly done. Conventional wisdom told us that many children were not learning to read, yet that was often purely speculative, based on tests given by classroom teachers, or declared after the review of large group standardized tests. For example, the California Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) allows educators to compare individual children to a large sample group. Ultimately, however, this only reveals where a child’s skills rank compared to the whole group. If the whole group is reading at low levels, then an average reader is actually a poor reader!


The National Assessment Governing Board, working with the National Center for Education Statistics, has tested students nationwide in a study that cleared up many of the sampling problems of past research (NAEP, 2000). Students were rated at four levels: Below Basic, Basic, Proficient, and Advanced. In a 2000 national study, 37% of fourth-grade students were rated Below Basic. In other words, 37% of those tested were functionally illiterate! In the same study,  only 32% were at or above the acceptable level of proficient. It is amazing to realize that over one-third of our students are functionally illiterate and only approximately one-third of our students are proficient readers!


These sobering results also held true in a 1992 study of 26,000 adults by the same group (NAEP 1992). Adults were expected to read test materials that were designed to be reflective of reading they would regularly need to do in everyday life. Level 1 required a minimal level of competence. Overall, 22% of the adults tested were at Level 1 or lower. For the whole population, that translates to roughly forty-two million American adults who are functionally illiterate!  48% of the adults were at Level 2 or lower, barely literate. Only 3% of all adults reached the highest level, Level 5. Indeed there is a reading crisis in America!


To a large degree, this crisis can be attributed to the fact that the most prevalent reading programs in use in this nation's schools are insufficient. Not only do many children in elementary school fail to learn to read, but also a majority of these children never catch up and actually get worse over time ( Fletcher and Satz 1980). Likewise, the vast majority of children in special education programs make no progress whatsoever (Truch 1994).

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