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Literacy Denial: As the Climate Changes on Reading Instruction, We Must Respect the Science

By Cheri Rae

The sight and sound of a child struggling to read aloud will break your heart: Shoulders slumped, head bowed, eyes downcast; the halting, stumbling, guessing at words, self-conscious attempts at self-correction; the sigh of relief when they’re finally excused from the excruciating ordeal.

But it’s not over, the damage is done, the shameful secret exposed to all: They can’t read.

As a long-time advocate for the 1 in 5 with dyslexia, I’ve dealt with difficulties of low literacy first-hand. But it’s not just dyslexic children who struggle to read, it’s half the population, children, and adults.

My son described the unforgettable experience of trying to read out loud in class when he hadn’t been taught the basics: “It just made me feel dumb.”

It’s a feeling that, without expensive, intensive remediation, lasts a lifetime. By the time they’re in high school, these kids who never learned to read can’t make sense of the texts they’re supposed to read to learn. Their frustration is too often expressed in academic difficulties, mental health issues and self-defeating behaviors that gets them into troubles unimaginable when they were curious kindergartners, excited about school.

By the time these non-readers become adults, their dreams disappear as they become consigned to achieving below their potential. They figure out every workaround possible to keep anyone from finding out: They can’t read. Not for work, not for pleasure, not even bedtime stories to their own children.

Not by their own choice: They were never taught to read in the way the brain learns to read. Curriculum casualties, they struggle, unnecessarily, for the rest of their lives.

There is a high cost to low literacy, an underlying factor in innumerable individual and societal issues, from low self-esteem to homelessness and incarceration in the all-too-real school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s time we get honest about what causes it, because it is avoidable. Literacy experts estimate that 95 percent of all children can be taught to read by the end of first grade. But we’re not close to that. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 35 percent of the nation’s 4th-graders are proficient readers.

The Santa Barbara Unified School District scores a little better, where 45 percent overall are proficient by 4th grade (but some schools score less than 20 percent), and just 54 percent by 12th grade. And a recent national report card reveals the low literacy levels of adults in Santa Barbara County.

Maya Angelou said, “Elimination of illiteracy is as serious an issue to our history as the abolition of slavery.” No parent, educator or community member would disagree. Skilled reading isn’t an optional activity, it’s a requirement to succeed in school, and to fully navigate and participate in our information society, the key that unlocks so many doors.

We can all claim to love literacy. But when literacy levels hover around 50 percent for years, it’s a fair question to ask what percentage of illiteracy is acceptable to us, in a school, a district, a county, a state and a nation.

When we finally generate the will and the decency to address this crisis of illiteracy, we must examine the causal factors that include denial, economics, politics, entrenched beliefs and the rejection of science.

The Blame Game. Too often, blame is assigned for reading difficulties, first on the child: This one isn’t motivated. This one will learn when they decide to buckle down and learn. This one is a boy, and they always take longer.

Or the blame focuses on assumptions made about families: These parents never read to their kids. This family doesn’t value literacy, they need more books. There must be problems in the home.

I will never forget the then-principal who leaned over to me during a meeting about a struggling third-grader and whispered, “This isn’t a learning disability, it’s a parenting problem.” That person is now a highly placed administrator who was wrong; testing revealed the child was struggling due to unidentified dyslexia.

Some of these assumptions may have some validity. But erroneous beliefs about unmotivated kids and problems at home cannot reasonably account for consistent literacy failure for more than half the students. What if it is the instructional approach selected for use in the classroom that is the primary cause for so much reading failure?

The two major instructional approaches are the science of reading and “balanced literacy.”

The findings of the National Reading Panel in 2000 recommended the scientific approach, as have thousands of studies by researchers from multiple disciplines since then.

But it is the “balanced literacy” approach, so well marketed by powerful publishers, that finds its way into most local classrooms, and those across the nation—except in the states where it’s use has been deemed unacceptable by law.

Reading is Not a Natural Act. Unlike speech, reading does not come naturally.

Reading might not be rocket science, but it should be recognized as a complicated, unnatural endeavor that must be explicitly taught. It requires an understanding of the structure of language and all its component parts, as well as the development of the automatic ability to interpret how the sounds of speech are represented by written symbols.

It’s made more difficult in English, with 26 letters and 44 sounds, known as phonemes.

In her classic essay, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science, noted literacy expert Dr. Louisa Moats makes the case that teaching reading is as difficult as learning it. And she further suggests that teacher preparation programs have shortchanged teaching professionals by not adequately preparing them for the complexity of teaching reading, and for failing to instruct them about the settled science about reading.

I have often encountered well-meaning, experienced classroom teachers embarrassed to admit they never learned the importance of teaching how the sound of speech connects with the symbols of language.

And they don’t know how to specifically address the issues of struggling readers who cannot seem to comprehend the written word. Many of them came to this realization only when their own children couldn’t read, and they had to seek outside intervention.

Some have expressed feelings of guilt at the number of students they realized they failed over the years. Many who took the time to add to their knowledge base and learn the science of reading reflected, “I just didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

The Science of Reading Explained. The instructional approach based on science is structured, direct and systematic to explicitly build understanding of how spoken language is represented in print. It emphasizes the five essential components to help students crack the code and learn to become proficient readers: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary.

It is represented in the equation known as the Simple View of Reading: RC = D x LC

(Reading Comprehension depends on the skills of decoding text as well as comprehending language.)

Journalist Emily Hanford has spent years studying the causes of low literacy in series of widely circulated reports for American Public Media.

"Scientific research has shown how children learn to read and how they should be taught,” she notes. "But many educators don't know the science and, in some cases, actively resist it. As a result, millions of kids are being set up to fail."

Balanced Literacy Explained. In most contemporary public-school classrooms, the science of reading approach is scorned, inaccurately simplified as just boring phonics. Instead, reading instruction is attempted in the approach known as balanced literacy, and its three-cueing system.

Instead of focusing on the explicit sounds and structure of language, in the balanced literacy approach students are instructed to consider a series of questions when they come to a word they don’t know. They are encouraged to consider Meaning: Does it make sense? Structure: Does it sound right? and Visual: Does it look right? They use “contextual clues” like pictures, to guess at what the word might be, or simply to skip the word if they don’t recognize it.

The belief is that immersing children in good literature will result in good reading skills. And that somehow guessing will result in decoding the written word. For example, if a child encounters the unfamiliar word “horse” and is led by the teacher to look at the picture, they might guess “pony,” which has no relationship to the letters on the page.

Among the popular reading programs that use this theory are Core Reading and Leveled Literacy Intervention by Fountas and Pinnell and Units of Study for Teaching Reading designed by Lucy Calkins, also known as “The Reading Workshop.”

These commercial programs also utilize so-called “leveled libraries” in classrooms, rather than the decodable texts promoted by the science of reading.

Criticism and a Remarkable Admission: Criticism of this “balanced” approach is mounting in the face of cognitive research and consistently low literacy outcomes.

It has even forced Lucy Calkins to “rebalance” her approach by adding in a phonics component to her Units of Study approach for K-2nd grade students. This is the early literacy approach in SBUSD.

Several noted literacy researchers conducted a comprehensive review of the Calkins approach in 2020. They reported, “Units of Study fail to systematically and concretely guide teachers to provide English learners (ELs) the supports they need to attain high levels of literacy development.”

“The impact is most severe for children who do not come to school already possessing what they need to know to make sense of written and academic English,” they added. “These students are not likely to get what they need from Units of Study to read, write, speak, and listen at grade level.”

These findings are of particular concern in a majority-minority district like Santa Barbara Unified, where the Calkins approach is widely, deeply embraced. It remains the approach invested in for professional development of educators and instruction of the children in our classrooms, despite consistently low test scores.

The Political Response to Reading Failures. Educators, who have studied the science, have joined with politicians in many states to improve reading instruction. States as varied as Connecticut, Wisconsin, Colorado, Mississippi, and Arkansas have passed legislation that requires teaching based on the science of reading and prohibits the use of “balanced literacy” approach.

Tony Thurmond, California’s State Superintendent of Schools, just announced a new statewide literacy initiative, with the goal of helping all third graders to read by 2026. That’s five years from now. He is convening a task force to develop a plan in hopes of writing eventual legislation. To offer input, write here.

While California lags behind thought leaders in other states, some Golden State educators are not waiting for legislation; they’re proactively seeking out answers to improving literacy on their own. These educators, who have instituted the science of reading in their schools, districts, and counties, have established the California Reading Coalition and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading.

In late July they produced an eye-opening presentation, “Districts and Programs Moving the Needle in California.”

Superintendents, principals, classroom teachers and educational administrators throughout the Golden State offered insights about how literacy outcomes can be improved by moving away from “balanced literacy” and systematically implementing the science of reading in their classrooms.

The organization just issued the California Reading Report Card. After analyzing districts throughout the state, they noted achievement is based on “district focus on reading, management practices, and curriculum and instruction choices.” Further, they concluded, “Any district can succeed at teaching reading.”

Economics in Education. The most basic of public school responsibilities might be teaching students to read, but when they don’t, parents who can step in to make up the difference.

Paying out of pocket is a fact of life in households that can afford to make up for what the schools fail to provide. Parents in Santa Barbara support a thriving cottage industry of professional educators outside the school system: Tutors, educational therapists, reading specialists, and consultants intervene and provide remediation and instruction for children whose parents have the means.

It’s all done quietly, privately, a necessary investment in their academic opportunities for success.

These private educators take satisfaction in the gains their students make, and it’s likely private instructional and remedial services skew test scores upward in many schools and districts.

A 2020 study on the economic impacts of unaddressed dyslexia in California cost the state an estimated $12 billion. And further, that families of dyslexic children regularly spend $15,000 to $20,000 annually to address their educational needs.

The promise of public education is to level the playing field, giving every child equal opportunity to rise to their full potential, no matter what their income or family background.

When parents must provide supplementary payments just to teach their children to read, something is terribly wrong. So much talk about equity, yet so much evidence of the persistent achievement gap among students of color and those of low socio-economic status—those for whom the “balanced literacy” approach is least effective.

Those who cannot afford to invest in private services to compensate for instructional failures are short-changed by the public schools. And they pay the price forever.

A Paradigm Shift Needed to Improve Literacy. As evidence piles up against “balanced literacy” and in the face of consistently abysmal reading scores, it is time to connect the dots and have open, honest community discussion about reading instruction, what works and what doesn’t.

We can’t be held hostage to the “sunk cost” fallacy that would keep us clinging to a flawed approach just because we believe in it and have spent so much time and money on it. I remember the school board member who responded to my objections to the approach that fails so many struggling readers. “But we spent over a million dollars on it,” the trustee exclaimed. “Are you telling me it doesn’t work?”

Well, look at the data. When only half the kids are learning to read, what do you think?

Of all the of struggling readers I have advocated for over the years—some dyslexic, some not—not once has “balanced literacy” been recommended to remediate their difficulties.

In every single case, in every school, educators, administrators and district lawyers admitted that these students needed a structured approach in line with the science of reading, to compensate for the reading skills they were never taught.

The statistics about low literacy only tell the story on paper, not the anguish, or the complexity of the lifelong consequences to individuals who weren’t taught to read.

Recently I had a late-night phone call from a young man I met some months ago at a local shop, where he provided excellent customer service. He was in despair, literally weeping because he’s about to lose his job due to his low literacy skills. He said he needs help, for the anxiety and the reality of not being able to read. And advice about how to succeed in his next job.

Beyond offering empathy and support for this grown man, I cannot make up for the reading instruction he needed when he was just a little boy.

Out of this literacy crisis comes opportunity for our community to honestly recognize the problem—for individuals and the community—and the profound toll it takes on all of us, children and adults.

May we engage independent visionaries, innovative problem-solvers and forward-thinking educators who think outside the box in some serious soul-searching leadership to examine and implement best practices in reading instruction, supporting student achievement, and promoting the importance of literacy proficiency to all our residents.

You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore. ~ Cesar Chavez

Want to ensure equity? Teach children to read.

Want to close the achievement gap? Teach children to read.

Want students to reach their full potential? Teach children to read.

Want to guarantee a fundamental human right? Teach children to read.

Want to address the root causes of homelessness, poverty, and incarceration? Teach children to read.

Humanitarians tell us why; researchers tell us how. It’s time to get on the right side of history on this one. Teach children to read. And let science lead the way.

Cheri Rae is the director of The Dyslexia Project and the author of "DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia."

Further reading:


View the results of the individual School Profile Search Results based on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) of schools in

Santa Barbara Unified, 2018-2019, that range from a low of 8 percent to a high of 70 percent.

View the literacy rates in our county’s school districts, based on the Smarter Balanced standardized tests in 2018-2019.

Critiques of Calkins

Cognitive neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg takes on Calkins in a widely shared essay Seidenberg, the author of the popular book, Language at the Speed of Sight: How we Read, Why So Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About it, is hardly alone in his conclusions.

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