Reading & Literacy

What Can Schools Do When Older Students Can’t Read?

By Sarah Schwartz — March 06, 2023 3 min read
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Progression through elementary school is based on the expectation that children will learn the basic foundations of reading in the early grades: kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd.

After 3rd grade, teachers are asking students to read more complex texts, and reading is central to learning across subjects—not just English/language arts, but science, social studies, and math.

What happens if kids don’t master these foundational skills by then? And what can schools do to make sure they do?

These questions were at the heart of a March 6 panel conversation at SXSW EDU. The annual education conference, happening in Austin this week, has a host of reading-related programming on the schedule.

Often, when older elementary school students can’t read, it’s because they’re having trouble with a foundational skill, said Brandy Nelson, the academic director for the Reading Reimagined program at the Advanced Education Research and Development Fund, and the panel’s moderator.

“What is probably happening is the student has a decoding challenge,” she said.

Decoding is the process of lifting words off the page—connecting the written letters to spoken sounds, and then blending those sounds together. Research has shown that it’s the foundation of skilled reading, and that teaching students how to do it—teaching them phonics—is the most effective way to help them learn to read words.

This research, and the ensuing implications, has become a cornerstone in the movement known as the “science of reading.”

On this panel, two researchers and a parent advocate joined Nelson to discuss what school systems need to do to support older students who have reading difficulties.

The panelists included Kathy Rhodes, an assistant professor of education at the University of California Irvine, Sonya Thomas, the executive director of parent activist organization Nashville PROPEL, and Jason Yeatman, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

They talked about identifying and intervening with students who have decoding challenges, but also the broader social and cultural context that determines the shape of reading difficulties in this country. Reading scores are lower for students of color and students experiencing poverty.

Teaching reading well is an “issue of justice,” said Rhodes.

Read on for three takeaways from the conversation.

1. Educators need to believe that all children can learn

When it comes to students in the upper elementary and middle grades, “there’s a huge belief gap,” said Thomas.

School systems and the educators who work in them have to start with the assumption that all children can learn to read, and that all children have the right to learn to read, she said.

Instead of labeling children with foundational skills gaps as generally “behind” and lumping them together in one category, schools should instead pinpoint what skills they have and haven’t achieved mastery in, said Yeatman.

2. School districts need to know the extent and shape of the problem

Not all older elementary students who struggle with reading have foundational skills deficits. But for those who do, schools need reliable assessments that teachers know how to use and interpret.

Schools need to figure out what students are struggling with exactly, before they start “executing on solutions,” said Nelson.

At Stanford, Yeatman’s lab is building a free library of effective decoding assessments. They’ve also created their own open-access set of assessments, called the Rapid Online Assessment of Reading, or ROAR.

Choosing assessments shouldn’t be treated like a run-of-the-mill procurement process, Yeatman said. Instead, it should be informed by the ways that students are struggling, he said.

3. Teachers need the right tools to address reading difficulties in a culturally responsive way

Older elementary teachers often don’t have the training to teach foundational skills. Even if they did, finding time within the school day to address phonics or phonemic awareness can feel all but impossible with a tight schedule of grade-level content to get through. Experts say that students who have foundational skills gaps should still have access to the same core instruction that their peers are getting.

But it’s not just logistics. Schools also need to make sure that they’re meeting kids’ diverse cultural and linguistic needs.

Many Black children use a dialect of English, often referred to as African American Vernacular English, said Rhodes. “It has really profound and rule-governed, predictable, morphological and syntactical features,” she said. Schools often plan targeted reading support for young English learners, for example, who are using two different languages, Rhodes said. But bidialectical students need these supports too, she said.

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