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Assessment Opinion

Reclaiming Today’s Failing Readers

By Steven L. Miller — July 22, 2009 5 min read
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For the last 15 years, educators in this country have been focused on the importance of getting students reading at grade level by the time they enter 4th grade.

The reasons for this are obvious. Nearly three out of four students who are struggling in reading in 3rd grade will still face reading problems in 10th grade. By the time the students reach middle school—when they face a heavier workload and more reading across all content areas—their chances of becoming a disciplinary problem, failing classes, or dropping out are better than their chances of rebounding to read on grade level and graduate on time.

This focus on early reading has paid off to a certain extent. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress results , from 2007, show 4th graders logging their highest reading scores ever. Further, 4th grade students performing at the 10th and 25th percentiles posted double-digit growth since 2000, while the gains for students at the 75th and 90th percentiles showed just under a 4-point increase.

While these results prove that a unified effort around a group of students can make a significant difference in the way they learn, a very real problem remains: Two of every three students in this country still don’t attain grade-level reading proficiency as defined by NAEP by 4th grade. And study after study shows that for these students, graduation remains elusive. A full 30 percent of children who enter 9th grade don’t graduate, and that percentage jumps to nearly 50 percent when considering urban students. In fact, today’s students are less likely to graduate from high school than their parents were, making the United States the only industrialized country to hold that distinction.

Clearly, there’s a need to focus more on the “older” students—the 8.7 million 4th through 12th graders who, according to a 2003 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, are below-average readers. But in our K-12 education system there is an underrepresentation of intervention programs and resources aimed at helping these students become competent readers. The reason is a long-held misconception that after 4th grade these students can’t be effectively remediated—that if they haven’t learned key skills during the brain’s formative period of birth to age 6, they missed the boat.

This simply isn’t true. Neuroscience research has proved that brain development continues throughout adolescence and young adulthood. Results are not preordained, and even high school students can make significant gains in reading ability and retain their progress.

In recent years, we have learned that the second-biggest period of brain growth occurs in adolescence, when children are in their late teens or early 20s. This undermines the national belief that after 3rd grade, the task of helping struggling readers is biologically more difficult, if not impossible.

Overcoming this misconception is a big first step in helping these students. The second element of change is more complicated. Hoping that struggling readers will improve with simply more of the same instruction is not a solution.

Neuroscience research has proved that brain development continues throughout adolescence and young adulthood. Results are not preordained, and even high school students can make significant gains in reading ability.”

The brains of many poor readers have created an inefficient way to learn. Put simply, the job of trying to succeed in school for children who haven’t learned the proper way to read is like trying to force streaming video through a dial-up connection. The more complex the content, the slower it arrives—if at all.

Thus, putting more information in front of such children, as typically happens when students hit 4th grade and then middle school, predictably means declining results and more frustration. If people spend a lot of time practicing a skill they aren’t very good at, they get really good at being worse.

The good news is that we have the power to change this. The answer lies in neuroplasticity—the ability to change the way the brain processes information, no matter what the age.

Brain research in the last decade has shed light on how a typical brain behaves when accumulating knowledge from reading. Using this information as a baseline, researchers have been able to understand how struggling readers compensate by creating “work-arounds” in their brains as they read. While this less efficient way of reading may suffice in 3rd grade, it increasingly fails as students face more information and a higher level of rigor—such as in middle and high school, where students no longer learn to read, but instead read to learn.

By comparing how a “typical” brain looks when reading with the brain activity of poor readers, a clear picture of missing neural connections can be drawn. And we can now use technology to create the changes in brain function required to achieve literacy.

Computer-based instructional programs not only build the literacy skills but also the cognitive skills—memory, attention, processing rate, and sequencing—students need to become effective readers. With these programs, students learn new content at their own pace, but more importantly, their brains “learn” how to more efficiently process information, making future learning easier.

Scientists have proved that measures of intelligence—including IQ—are modifiable. While a person’s genetics may create a range of intelligence, a person’s environment can affect that range, including significant improvements for measurable intelligence scores according to numerous studies, including a 2008 study by several University of Michigan psychologists.

Even better, neuroscientists and educators are collaborating on research projects, with findings in labs being tested in classrooms. New advances in technology and learning can be leveraged and brought to scale much quicker than they were as little as 10 years ago.

With the public school pendulum swinging toward 21st-century skills, college readiness, and the need for students to compete in a global marketplace, the time is right to reclaim the vast number of students who are on track to leave without a diploma, by giving them the tools they need to succeed.

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