Unlocking Literacy for Intellectual Growth
Reading methodology has shifted in the last 40 years from phonics-based instruction to the whole-language philosophy to the balanced-literacy approach, yet reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have not significantly improved. They are still mired where they were in the early 1970s. Poor reading scores have plagued American schools since before the advent of progressive education a hundred years ago. In the first half of the 20th century, 25 percent of American World War I and World War II draftees were functionally illiterate. Seventy years later, little has changed.
Today, approximately 25 percent to 30 percent of 9th grade students drop out of school before their high school class graduates. Traditionally, the verbal section of the SAT has been written at an 11th grade level or slightly higher, but during the 1970s scores began to decline. This drop forced the renorming of the verbal SAT scores in the mid-1990s. And the downward trend continues: Today's 500 verbal score was the 420 of the early 1990s, and 2011 marked the lowest SAT verbal scores ever recorded. Parsing such data sheds more light on our literacy problem: Our best students are equal to students anywhere; our least-successful students group toward the bottom of the international distribution curve.
English is a more difficult language to learn to read than other alphabetic languages, but that only partially explains our literacy problems. Perhaps we fail to teach all children to read and write well because we confuse the skills needed to read with the intellectual process of reading. We teach literacy as a set of discrete skills—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge, comprehension strategies—that, when learned, are supposed to unlock the knowledge that written material contains. Literacy is partially this, but it is also much more; literacy has a...
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- Elementary Principal
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