Most Students Read Below Grade Level — What Can Be Done?

Dr. Timothy Rasinski Discusses the Elephant in the Classroom

What is the elephant in the classroom? “It’s obvious,” said Dr. Timothy Rasinski, Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University. “We have 2/3 of our kids reading below grade level. That is the elephant in the classroom. We are not serving our students as well as we need to.”

What’s worse? The elephant has hung around for 30 years, despite various reforms attempting to address it. “We have a challenge ahead of ourselves. We need to think about modifying the way we teach reading,” Rasinski said, in a recent interview with Learning A-Z.

Persistent Low Literacy Despite Reform

Rasinski says low literacy scores persist because education reforms swing from one extreme to another — from a whole language approach (reading as a natural process) to the Science of Reading (using cognitive science to guide instruction).

These pendulum swings keep student scores stagnant. We need to do better, Rasinski said. “The best instruction is somewhere in the middle. Using science in an artful way.”

The Art and Science of Reading Instruction

Foundational skills like phonemic awareness — identifying the sounds in words — are key to developing strong readers. Explicit and systematic instruction of these skills sets the stage for literacy success.

Still, teaching reading is not a monolithic activity, he said, encouraging teachers to infuse art into the Science of Reading. “To be a teacher of reading, you have to be a scientist and an artist.”

“The result? Every one of her first-graders read at grade level or higher. ‘She had never seen so much progress in her readers before.’”

What does that look like? For Rasinski’s colleague, a first-grade teacher in Connecticut, it meant singalongs. Research shows that repeated readings boost fluency. But no student wants to read the same passage over and over. Rasinski said his colleague sang 2-3 songs a week with her students, with the lyrics displayed, and ended each week with a singalong.

The result? Every one of her first-graders read at grade level or higher. “She had never seen so much progress in her readers before,” he said.

Challenges Outside the Classroom

No discussion of low literacy rates is complete without mentioning the unique challenges students face outside the classroom. Poverty and parent involvement significantly impact a child’s ability to read. Lost reading progress during the pandemic has only deepened the reading crisis. More recently, anxiety over school safety has limited learning.

Even still, Rasinski has reason to hope. “If we apply this artful and scientific approach to teaching reading we are going to see improvements,” he said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be something that takes perhaps a whole generation but it’s worth pursuing for our kids.”

How Foundations A-Z Addresses the Elephant in the Classroom

The stakes are high if we don’t address the Elephant in the Classroom today. Research shows that all students benefit from explicit and systematic foundational skills instruction to set them up for advanced literacy success.

Built on the Science of Reading, Foundations A-Z empowers teachers to develop the confidence needed, regardless of experience, to effectively teach all foundational skills and instill the joy of learning.

Promote Literacy for Every Student With Foundations A-Z

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