Third Grade Too Late to Fix Reading Woes

February 1, 2010

For release noon Tuesday Feb. 2 and thereafter (690 words)

A legislative proposal to hold back third graders who can’t read well is too little and way too late. If we want to avoid reading woes with our third graders, we have to address the root of the problem: Our kindergartners, first graders and second graders aren’t being taught right.

If you thought the phonics-whole language debate was settled 10 years ago with the National Reading Panel’s report on the science of reading, Indiana’s stagnant test scores prove otherwise. Researchers know more about how to teach reading, but their knowledge hasn’t trickled down to the classroom.

Too many schools use programs that lack adequate attention to phonemic awareness, the ability to manipulate sounds to form syllables and words. Most education colleges still brainwash future teachers into believing that reading comes naturally, not from systematic instruction. We have ignored the words of national reading guru Louisa Moats that “teaching reading is rocket science” and must be done expertly and methodically.

“The question is: If you do retain children does it improve their chances of catching up? “ asks Timothy Shanahan, professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and director of its Center for Literacy. “The best research studies and research syntheses that we have say that it does not. The children who are sent ahead do as well or better than the children who get retained, and retention really does upset kids emotionally. So you have a solution (retention) to a problem (children who are behind in reading) that doesn’t work.”

Rather than waste millions on third graders, Indiana needs to require that all students be taught from kindergarten with scientifically based techniques. This would reduce the number of children needing remediation at any grade level. Which means Indiana lawmakers must do something they don’t like doing: micromanage what’s going on in our education schools.

In 1999, state Sen. Murray Clark tried to do this with a bill increasing the number of credit hours elementary teaching candidates would receive in phonological reading skills. It died. Last year, as part of his teacher licensing reform package, State Schools Superintendent Tony Bennett sought to mandate a specific number of credit hours devoted to scientifically-based reading instruction. He withdrew that in order to get support from ed schools for his overall plan.

A 2009 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) — a groundbreaking study invited by Bennett’s agency — reached this conclusion: “Most teachers prepared in the state of Indiana are not exposed to effective reading instruction.”

The study gave failing grades to most of Indiana’s 41 elementary education programs, including the two largest, Indiana University Bloomington and Ball State University, as well as to “more selective” private programs at the University of Notre Dame, Butler and Hanover. Purdue, IUPUI, IU-South Bend and Franklin College were the only ones praised for exposing all future elementary teachers to the science of reading.

The study confirmed the experience of Diana J. Hunter, a retired K-12 reading teacher in Indianapolis who had to seek phonics training on her own after graduation.

“Teachers are told in the universities that you just cannot expect all students to learn to read so the teachers are not to be blamed.  So the first problem is low expectations from teachers. The second is the fact that universities are not teaching nor encouraging teachers how to teach children to read using phonemic awareness.”

Teaching better will not eliminate the need for remediation, but remediation should occur earlier, experts agree.

Moats says, “Most children identified before second grade as having trouble learning to read can learn to read well with a bone fide SBRR (Scientifically Based Reading Research) program. If children are caught later, the odds of bringing them to an acceptable level fall sharply.”

Successful remediation presumes that teachers know how to teach reading, which gets back to the underlying problem. The NCTQ recommends Indiana require prospective elementary teachers pass a test on the science of reading. This would serve two goals: It would assure schools that they are hiring teachers knowledgeable about effective reading instruction. And it would show which education schools are training teachers effectively.

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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