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Education Opinion

Reading First Puts Reading Last

By Donalyn Miller — May 14, 2008 3 min read
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On May 1st, the Department of Education released the preliminary results of Reading First, the federal program which provides grants for initiatives which improve the reading achievement of at-risk elementary school children. The initial findings of the DOE study indicate that students participating in Reading First perform no better on reading achievement tests than their peers in other instructional programs. Instead of re-addressing the flawed premise on which Reading First was built, the 2000 Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, policymakers ask for more money to fund this failing federal program and beg us all to give Reading First more time.

The National Reading Panel left independent reading off of their recommendations for improving reading instruction stating that, “The research suggests that there are more beneficial ways to spend reading instructional time than to have students read independently in the classroom without reading instruction.” However, Stephen Krashen, respected researcher, activist, and the author of The Power of Reading, identifies fifty-three different studies which prove that students in free-reading programs perform better or equal to students in any other type of reading programs, and students’ motivation and interest in reading is higher when they get the opportunity to read in school. In spite of the findings of the NRP, this information sends the message that every other activity used in classrooms to teach reading better get the same results, not just in reading achievement, but in motivation, or it is detrimental to students.

The children cannot wait. They do not have more time. Students, who entered kindergarten in 2000, the year the National Reading Panel report came out, are in high school now. While Washington policymakers fumble to figure out what is best practice in getting children to read and crafting program after program claiming to have the answers, these children are graduating and breathing a sigh of relief that they never have to read a book again.

We have worked so hard to develop systems to teach reading, yet I claim that we had no grounds to systematize an act like reading in the first place. The only groups served by current trends to produce more and more programs for teaching reading are the publishing and testing companies who make billions of dollars from their programs and tests. Last year, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), released a report detailing conflicts of interest at Reading First due to financial connections between several staff members and educational publishers. What agenda was being served? Meanwhile, the people who have the best ability in actually getting children to read—children’s book authors, parents, librarians, and teachers get the least credit (monetarily or otherwise). No hidden agenda exists with this group; they just want children to read.

I believe that this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test practice curriculum facilitates a solid bottom-line for the companies that sell them, and give schools proof they can point to that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but these efforts are doomed to fail a large number of students because they leave out the most important factor. When you take a forklift and shovel off the programs, underneath it all is a child reading a book.

And it would take a forklift. Using a bathroom scale, I weighed the ancillary materials that came with our district-adopted literature book. The teacher’s edition, student workbooks, practice tests, lesson plan guides, CD-ROMs, and extension materials weighed twenty-seven pounds. Throwing on several hardcover editions just to even the odds, the forty books I require my students to read each year weigh about twenty-four pounds, and these books cost hundreds of dollars less than a textbook package. We don’t need another reading program; we need to go back to the first reading program—connecting children with books. This should always be our bottom line.

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer 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.