Dr. Rasinski’s Take on Improving Student Literacy

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

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.”

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.”

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>> To me, it's pretty obvious. The elephant in the classroom is literacy, the lack of developing proficient readers among our fourth graders, or eighth graders, even our 12th graders. This is a problem that has been persistent in the United States for 20-odd years. What we know is from the most recent national assessment, about two-thirds of our children, fourth graders, are reading at a level considered basic or below basic. In other words, these are kids who are having issues in reading development. Only 1/3 of our students are considered proficient or advanced in their literacy development. And I might add one other thing, this is not a problem that is new to us. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, our US Department of Education survey of literacy development found in 1992 that the average literacy achievement of our fourth graders was, had a score of 217. 27 years later, in 2019, the National Assessment found that the average score of fourth graders was 220. So things have gone up three points, but that's basically, essentially nothing there. And this is despite the fact that we've had, you know, teachers, school districts, individual schools, states, local governments, federal governments putting, you know, significant efforts into this. So, what it begs the question to me is, we need to start thinking about teaching reading in in different ways, or perhaps modifying the way that we teach reading.

>> Best instruction is somewhere in the middle, where we use science, but we use it in what I call artful ways there. To be a teacher of reading, you have to be a scientist and an artist. And I think it's when we honor teachers in a way that says, yes, you bring something to the table. It's not just, you know, working out certain protocols on how to teach phonics, or reading fluency, or these other competencies that we teach kids. There's more than one way. And that's the art of teaching reading. And we need to have both, I think.

>> Teaching reading is not a monolithic activity. There's no one way, and yet it seems like the current emphasis is on teaching reading in one particular way, with a great emphasis on phonics, and making sure that that's something that is taught in our classrooms. And believe me, I know that that's important. And I know that many of our children coming into school are not provided adequate phonics instruction, but it's much more than that. It's teaching reading fluency, developing phonemic awareness, teaching vocabulary. What good is it for kids to know how to sound out a word if they don't know what the word means? So developing all these other competencies is equally important. And as I mentioned earlier, in ways that are both artful as well as scientific.

>> Yeah, we've just come through, you know, what, two years of a pandemic and you know, how many kids were out of the classroom for at least a whole year, trying to learn off of computer? That, in a way disrupted the whole social network within classrooms. And I have a daughter, who was a first grade teacher this past year, and her kids had, you know, were not in the classroom for their kindergarten year. And she found that many of the children really had a hard time with it, that notion of, you know, learning as part of a group. I think, another issue, again, this is related to the pandemic, is materials. You know, in order to become a good reader, you've got to read a lot. And of course, that means you have to have lots of material to read. And again, with this pandemic, we had schools closed, we had community libraries that were closed. So lots of our students, you know, did not have access to materials that they could use to actually become better readers.

>> I might mention one other thing as well. And that's what we call, for lack of a better term, the summer slide. We know that many kids actually lose ground over the summer months. And the reason is that they don't read, or they read in a very minimal manner. And if you don't read, you just don't say the same. You actually regress in your reading development. Some estimates are that some kids, if I'm not mistaken, can lose a month and a half of reading progress over a summer by not reading. Well, you multiply a month and a half by six years, grades one through six, and all of a sudden you're talking about nine months' progress being lost, and of course, nine months is an entire year. Imagine what we could do if we could find ways to help children engage in reading over the summer months. And it doesn't necessarily have to be books, you know, it could be poetry. I'm working with a colleague down in Florida who's using song to get kids involved in reading. So, again, there's this notion of trying to think outside the box, finding ways that are perhaps nontraditional, but can have the potential for really making a difference in our kids' lives.

>> So we know from the science of reading that repeated readings is a valuable tool for developing reading fluency. But the artful question is how do you get students into repeated readings? In many classrooms, it's, the purpose is to read faster, and because we measure fluency in that sort of way, speed of reading. I don't find that to be a terribly authentic approach, or artful. I asked this question, why would anybody want to read something multiple times? And the answer to me was performance. If you're going to perform something for an audience, you have to rehearse it. And rehearsal is a form of repeated readings. So, and then the next question along the line is, are there certain texts that are meant to be performed? And of course, we think of things like poetry, reader's theater scripts, speeches, perhaps, from American history. I remember having to learn the Gettysburg Address as a student myself. These are the kinds of materials that, you know, are outside, you know, the primary kinds of texts that we provide students. And I think we should think about bringing these kinds of materials in, giving kids the opportunity to learn to read something well, and then perform it, and do it on a regular basis. Our own research in our reading clinic finds that kids that can do this on a regular basis can make exceptional progress and reading, not just in a matter of reading faster, but actually becoming more fluent readers and, in doing, so becoming better comprehenders at the same time. Fluency opens the gates to comprehension for many of our students. See, it's this kind of instruction that, you know, we're talking about reading, and reading out loud, singing out loud, reciting and performing poetry. Can you imagine a classroom where every Friday, students, say in fourth grade or fifth grade, have a poetry slam? What that requires, though, is for every Monday, students to be assigned a poem. Maybe one week we're going to be looking at poetry by Emily Dickinson. And then the next week, we're going to be looking at poetry by Shel Silverstein. And next week, we're going to be looking for poetry by David Harrison. Every week a different poet. Every student gets one poem, one poem or perhaps two, to practice throughout the week. So throughout the week, they get ten or so minutes to rehearse on their own, or maybe with a partner. Teacher goes around coaching them and again, come Friday, that last half-hour of the school day, the lights are dimmed, the teacher lights a low-level, perhaps a lamp, and puts a barstool in front of the classroom, and children get up one after another, and they perform.

>> Yeah, I think we will definitely start seeing improvements in our reading achievement. But again, we need to take a look at those deeper issues, the issue of poverty, the issue of safety in our classrooms, the issue of access to materials for our children, the opportunity for teachers to choose books, you know, that they think are appropriate for their for their kids, the opportunities to teach parents, help parents become literacy educators. Those are things also, and those are, you know, not as easily solved as the things we can do in terms of instruction. Nevertheless, though, I think we, if we did apply this artful and scientific approach to teaching reading, we are going to see improvements in that, and what we want to see is, you know, a gradual growth. It's not going to happen overnight. It's going to be something that's going to take perhaps a whole generation, but something that's certainly worth pursuing for our kids.

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