Education Opinion

Failing to Teach Students How to Read

By Walt Gardner — January 08, 2018 2 min read
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We hear so much about the importance of computer literacy, but what about reading literacy? A new lawsuit filed by Public Counsel on behalf of a group of students, parents and advocacy organizations charges that California has not met its constitutional duty to provide a free and public education of at least a reasonable quality (“Are California’s public schools failing their students on literacy?” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 26, 2017). The suit says the problem exists in charter schools as well as in traditional schools.

Its basis is a Stanford University study, which reported that of the 26 school districts nationwide with low reading scores, 11 were in California. What it doesn’t point out, however, is that California also happens to have the largest percentage of students whose first language is not English. That’s not an excuse but an important explanation. Ever since the early 1980s, California has been the principal port of entry for immigration.

The study also fails to note that cutoff scores to determine proficiency levels are arbitrarily set by panels that rarely agree with each other (“Reading Tests Vary With the Standard Used,” The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 23, 2017). For example, a state panel in Wisconsin in the 1990s said that 88 percent of students in the state were proficient. But another panel said it was only 35 percent. Which panel was correct?

Moreover, average reading scores on the National Assessment for Educational Progress for 9- and 13-year-olds are higher now than at any time in the past 45 years. I haven’t seen NAEP scores for California students. But I think the plaintiffs will need to use them to make their case. I think they’ll also have to explain the results of the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, which ranked 4th-grade students from 50 countries and 11 benchmarking regions.

I saw first-hand the difficulty of teaching reading to immigrants when I was teaching English in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Starting in 1980, my class rosters were suddenly filled with the names of students from all parts of the world. As a result, I had to scrap prior lessons plans that were designed for English-speaking students, and design new ones to meet the needs of students from so many different cultures and backgrounds. The district failed to provide the necessary support in making the transition. I found myself relying on newspaper cartoons to teach them.

I’ve often wondered why students from European countries have been able to learn so many different languages. What makes their teachers so successful? For example, almost all students in Sweden graduate from high school speaking and reading English. Are there lessons that teachers in the U.S. can learn? If so, what are they? I realize that Sweden is far more homogeneous than California. Nevertheless, I would be most interested in learning more.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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