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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Why Is It So Hard to Improve Reading Achievement?

January 27, 2020

Interesting question.

Before I answer, let me ask one: What keeps Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, up at night?

You know Amazon, the trillion-dollar corporation that delivers something like a 5 billion packages a year.

I’m at a professional meeting. The chair asks what “levers” we have for improving reading achievement in the U.S.

It’s an easy question. There are so many possibilities.

The first one most folks think of is, the teacher. If teachers did better, kids would do better.

There are a lot of alternative levers: school administrators, politicians, bureaucrats, publishers, universities, assessments, standards, curricula, media, screens, mom and dad…

As these discussions go, this one isn’t bad. Lots of levers, little blame.

But I’m not sure the levers question is the right one. I’ve grappled with all of those levers — “successfully” sometimes.

And, yet, as relevant as each and every one of those can be, I’m thinking about what Jeff Bezos worries about.

What’s that?

The “last mile problem.” Amazon must get packages to customers. Moving packages from warehouse to airport is easy. Flying them to Dubuque or Portland is straightforward, too, as is moving them from those airports to those shipping sites.

But now it gets complicated. We are to the last mile problem … getting that box to your house (the last mile) is the complicated part of the equation.

Classroom implementation is the last mile in reading reform.

For instance, a major reform effort a decade ago created new state educational standards, an important lever. The new standards emphasized teaching kids to read texts of particular levels of complexity. More than 40 states signed on, and publishing companies (another important lever) adjusted their reading programs accordingly…

But then the last mile …. National surveys show that teachers persist in teaching with instructional level texts, instead of grade level texts. So much for levers.

It isn’t just Jeff Bezos who should be losing sleep.

Your question about why it’s so hard to raise reading achievement points out the last mile problem in my opinion.

Imagine a veteran second-grade teacher, Ms. Jones. She’s always received good evaluations from her principals, the parents are happy to have their kids in her classroom, and whatever this or that test may say, she can see that her students make progress. They can read.

Now, the leveraging starts. We want that teacher to teach more phonics, or less. We want her to build knowledge instead of reading skills, or to work with harder books. Leveraging thrives on urgency, and its black-and-white rhetoric often sounds like, “If teachers don’t do what we say, kids won’t learn.”

But Ms. Jones has 15-years’ experience that tells her that the rhetoric is BS!  

She doesn’t do whatever the leverage is touting, and yet she knows for a fact that her children are learning to read. Her own success is one brake on reform — why change if what you are doing is working? — but the overwrought rhetoric is a second. Why change if you can’t trust the people who are urging you to change?

Let’s face it. Our problem in reading isn’t that nothing works. It’s that everything does.

In the 1960s, researchers cooperated in a couple of dozen linked studies to determine what gives kids the biggest boost in reading achievement. They considered lots of possibilities: basal readers, phonics, programmed readers, linguistic readers, language experience approach, and so on.

The outcome?

All of those approaches worked and pretty equally. Oh, there were some differences — those that provided explicit decoding teaching did a bit better, as did those with a writing component. But, basically, everything worked.

Of course, these days a lot of those first-grade programs are obsolete … they’ve been replaced by reading workshops, guided reading, multiple cueing systems, decodable texts, research-based this, and child-centered that … and, guess what? They all work, or at least to some extent they do.

Recently, School Achievement Partners released an analysis of Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study. I helped with that. We scrutinized the degree to which the program was in accord with the research on reading instruction, including how most effectively to serve English Learners. The response of many teachers who are using that program is that the research must be wrong because they know their students are learning. And, they are. Just not as well as they could be or should be.

Learning to read in English is coming to terms with a writing system. That it is a system means that someone can figure it out. Instruction helps with this figuring out, but some kids are advantaged enough that they can do okay even with low instruction approaches.

The instructional research summarized by the National Reading Panel didn’t show that phonics instruction worked and that nothing else did, or that if you don’t get phonics, you’ll be illiterate. It showed that providing explicit phonics instruction in grades K-2 improved kids’ reading success — in other words, there were either fewer reading failures or marginally higher average achievement across the board.

The same is true for phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension strategy, and fluency instruction. I promote teaching kids to read with grade-level texts instead of instructional level ones, but not because the more demanding-text regime ends with reading, and the easy-text approach with failure. I’m clutching for the marginal advantage.

The U.S. is a highly literate nation. Almost all of us can read — no matter how we’ve been taught. But we’ve constructed a society around literacy. Reading is deeply implicated in our academic, economic, civic, and social lives. Achieving the levels of reading that we have in the past is insufficient. Ms. Jones has done well, but if today’s boys and girls only read as well as her students did a decade ago, they’re being disadvantaged.

That’s where Ms. Jones and the last mile become significant. As long as our rhetoric fails to correspond with her experience, we can lever all day long, but won’t deliver significantly higher reading achievement on scale because the last mile won’t be implemented.

The last mile rhetoric shouldn’t be a hair-on-fire message, but one that acknowledges both the current successes and the need to do better.

“Ms. Jones, we need your help. Studies show that kids can do better in reading if they receive a substantial amount of high-quality phonics instruction. Research also shows that hasn’t been happening in enough classrooms. We know you’ve been successful in teaching reading, but the goal line has moved. We need to get kids to higher levels than in the past and that’s going to require some changes. Doing what we ask won’t change everything (and it’s not a criticism of your past efforts), but it will be better for your students and we all want that.”

Perhaps the strong rhetoric will move the levers, but remember we also have to persuade Ms. Jones in the last mile.

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"You may have tangible wealth untold. Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold. Richer than I you can never be — I had a mother who read to me." — Strickland Gillilan