Reading & Literacy

Is the Bottom Falling Out for Readers Who Struggle the Most?

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 15, 2021 5 min read
Image of a student reading in the library.

More and more American students are falling significantly behind in reading, and the widespread academic disruptions during the pandemic are likely to create a critical mass of struggling readers in the nation’s schools, new analyses of federal data show.

There’s been no improvement in overall reading performance at any grade level in the national tests called the Nation’s Report Card for the past decade or more, with declines for lower grades happening since 2017 and for 12th graders since 2015.

That stagnation has been driven largely by a growing share of students failing to meet even the most basic level of reading proficiency, and by steadily falling scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress for the 10 percent to 25 percent of students who struggle the most with reading.

The NAEP measures three levels of reading achievement—basic, proficient, and advanced—based on students’ understanding of literature and their ability to gain information from texts. However, since 2017, the number of students who cannot meet even the basic literacy benchmark has grown in 30 states among 8th graders and 13 states for 4th graders. Nearly half of 4th graders in New Mexico, for example, cannot meet the lowest reading benchmark, according to a new analysis by Ebony Walton, a statistician for NAEP.

The decline in performance for the bottom 10 percent of readers has spanned nearly all racial and socioeconomic groups, NCES reported in a symposium on reading research last week. And the drops have been significant enough to prompt the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Institute of Education Sciences to launch initiatives focused on studying and supporting the most-struggling readers.

“This is not a Black and brown problem. It’s not a problem just for poor students or students with special needs,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP. “We all are represented in the bottom—perhaps disproportionately for some relative to their representation in the population, but nonetheless we’re all there.”

What skills trip up struggling readers?

While the group of students who fall below basic reading performance has been growing, their educational status is largely a black hole. We still know relatively little about what these students can understand and what skills they most need, according to Lynn Woodworth, NCES commissioner.

In an attempt to get a clearer picture, one analysis by the IES looked at NAEP oral reading data from a nationally representative group of 1,800 4th graders from 180 public schools. While the study could not determine which skills caused students’ overall low reading performance, “a large body of research has established that foundational skills are the main drivers of oral reading fluency, which in turn is necessary for reading comprehension,” said Sheida White, an NCES researcher and the author of the study.

White found, for example, that, among below-basic-level readers, the difference in accuracy was greater between students in higher and lower groups than it was between readers in the proficient category and and those who barely missed making it into the basic reading performance category.

The lowest-performing 4th graders misread about 1 in 6 words, on average, and often didn’t recognize words in print that they knew from spoken language.

Low below-basic readers had significant trouble decoding key words, and focused on reading individual words rather than phrases, sentences, or passages. In one example, demonstrated in the audio clip below, the 4th grade student only finished about a third of the text within the allotted time and read in a stilted monotone, which has been associated with poor comprehension. (The photo associated with these audio clips from IES does not depict either of the actual students speaking.)

By contrast, proficient readers like the one in this second audio excerpt, completed the passage and read with expression, pausing in the correct places and emphasizing particular parts of the text for listeners, showing understanding rather than just decoding the material.

P. David Pearson, a reading researcher and emeritus faculty member in the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education, argued educators need to avoid siloing different areas of reading instruction for different students and grades. Teaching reading comprehension should begin in the earliest grades, and teachers should continue to look for and remediate problems in decoding and other early-literacy skills among older struggling readers.

“We can fall into an either-or track, so comprehension and word recognition become a kind of a zero-sum game. And we want to discourage that,” Pearson said. “Just because we’re teaching them word recognition doesn’t mean that we can’t teach comprehension. And just because we’re focusing on building knowledge, doesn’t mean that we have to de-emphasize strategy instruction. ... We want to think of the various instructional components and activities as complementary and integrated rather than completely separated and independent of one another.”

Reading skills and deficits compound over time. While the oral fluency study did not look at 12th graders, a proficient 4th grader reads aloud more accurately than an adult with only basic literacy—159 words correct per minute versus 123 words correct per minute, based on data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

And poor reading skills significantly narrow students’ choices after high school. In a separate new study based on the Program for International Student Assessment, IES researchers found U.S. students’ focus of study at age 19 was strongly linked to their reading proficiency at 15. For example, while 9 percent of all 19-year-olds were still working to earn a high school diploma and 26 percent were not studying for any higher degree, among students who had performed in the lowest two reading levels on PISA at age 15, 23 percent were still working to graduate high school at 19, and another 49 percent were not in school at all. By contrast, only about 4 percent of the best readers at age 15 were not studying for a postsecondary degree by 19.

In January 2020, just before the pandemic, the Council of Chief State School Officers released a report calling for states to pass new laws and launch initiatives aimed to improve reading—and in particular, to ensure that teachers base instruction on the latest science on reading development.

A Nation of Readers Report

But more than a year of school and community disruptions and switches from in-person to virtual learning formats and vice versa have likely slowed progress or worsened reading performance gaps, according to Carr and Scott Norton, deputy executive director of programs for CCSSO.

Low-income students and students of color, who were already disproportionately more likely to read at a below-basic literacy level, have also been significantly more likely than white and wealthier students to learn only through remote and virtual instruction during the pandemic, Carr noted.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as Is the Bottom Falling Out For Readers Who Struggle The Most?


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