“Reading is So Hot!”

A year ago, virtually everyone had left reading instruction improvement for dead.  Massive cuts to Reading First seemed to trump whatever data the states or the U.S. Department of Education were putting out on reading scores.  The appearance of flat NAEP reading scores only added to the sentiment.  And even those optimists looking for NCLB 2.0 to be passed this year haven’t spent much time talking about the RF component of the law.

But over the weekend, The Washington Post put reading instruction clearly back on the reform frontburner.  Saturday brought an op-ed from E.D. Hirsch, Jr., the chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation.  Hirsch’s premise is simple — if we expect schools to meet AYP on reading, we need to provide greater focus and gain greater understanding of comprehension skills.  But more simply, we need a national commitment to building vocabulary and reading comprehension in all students.

Today’s Post has op-eds by Howard Gardner and Susan Jacoby, both discussing our national need to read.  Gardner talks of the end of literacy.  Jacoby of the dumbing of America.  Both embracing a similar theme that reading skills lead to success.

All three, of course, are correct.  Reading skills are the core to student achievement and successful lives.  While critics of Reading First have dubbed the program a “phonics” program, the initiative was always based on an approach that included equal priority to phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.  So what does this renewed attention on reading comprehension and ability tell us?

First, reading skill acquisition is not limited to the reading or English/Language Arts classroom.  Reading skills are also acquired through content areas like science and social studies.  That is why such a focus has been paid to reading at grade level by fourth grade.  Students need those reading skills to achieve in their science, history, and even math classes.

Second, reading instruction is a team sport.  Yes, teachers need to do whatever they can to build reading skills — particularly comprehension — in all students.  Parents and families bear a similar responsibility.  They need to model good reading behavior.  They need to encourage their kids.  And they need to be aware of their kids’ strengths and weaknesses, and do what they can to improve on the latter.

Finally, comprehension is king.  Hirsch is correct.  We can get kid to memorize vocabulary words, but if they don’t understand what they are reading, what good is it?  As we get more sophisticated in our reading assessments, student reading skills are measured on their ability to independently read a text and demonstrate they understand what they read.  Knowing letter sounds and vocabulary words are important components to reading.  Successful reading, though, can only truly be measured through comprehension.

Where does it all leave us?  Reading skills are just as important today as they have ever been.  Such skills are successfully obtained when instruction is focused on all five of the key components to research-based reading.  And we can’t let anyone forget either.  Reading instruction should still rule the reform roost.  Comprehension skills should be the measure of effective instruction.

Unlike Gardner and Jacoby, Eduflack isn’t ready to proclaim the end of literacy or the dumbing of America.  There are too many good educators, too many good researchers, and too many good minds committed to improving reading instruction in the United States.  But if Eduflack is to hold that optimism, we must redouble our efforts to get scientifically based research, proven-effective instruction, relevant professional development, and good ole good books into every classroom. 

If we are to be a nation of readers, we need the skill, the passion, and the texts to prove Gardner and Jacoby wrong.  And we have miles to go in that regard.

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