Why Johnny (and Jenny) Can't Read

This national crisis needs to be addressed. But how? We hold to the false belief that mastery of the alphabet (Really? Just knowing the names of those 26 squiggles?!?) and a singular focus on vocabulary will reverse Johnny's plight. Yet the research says it isn't so.
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Poor Johnny. Since 1975, we have known about this pesky achievement gap that just won't go away. Rich kids score better than poor kids in math and reading. While math scores have edged up a bit over the years, reading scores are inching along at a relatively steady pace, to quote Motoko Rich in her New York Times article, 1,2,3 is easier than A,B,C.

We have tried to remedy the situation. Indeed, our educational correctives have a flavor du jour approach. Poor Johnny has witnessed changes in reading curricula from sight-reading to phonics (a move supported by both behavioral and brain research). Schools have dropped recess to make more time for reading instruction (not supported by research) and teachers now pummel Johnny with vocabulary lists ad nauseum (a move only partially sanctioned by the research). More recently, in a well-intentioned move, politicians and policy makers are bringing this urgent issue into the public eye as over a dozen states passed the 3rd grade reading guarantee. Led by Ralph Smith from the Annie E. Casey Foundation states like Ohio now mandate that children not reading at the third grade level in third grade will be retained! (Envision classes of 15-year-olds hunched over 3rd grade desks.) Over 80 percent of children who qualify for free lunch and over 90 percent of low income dual language learners do not read at grade level. Sadly, these numbers also forecast high school graduation rates.

This national crisis needs to be addressed. But how? We hold to the false belief that mastery of the alphabet (Really? Just knowing the names of those 26 squiggles?!?) and a singular focus on vocabulary will reverse Johnny's plight. Yet the research says it isn't so. Reading depends on children infusing those letters on the printed page with meaning and learning about the structure of stories. When mommy tells Johnny about the eggplant they see in the supermarket or why a whale is different than a fish, he is gaining meaning. And don't forget books! Books tell stories and teach new meanings children don't necessarily encounter in the world. Books also help children become familiar with the structure of stories: characters, setting, problem, struggle and solution.

The core of our reading problem today is that we have divorced language and literacy. We teach Johnny a lot about the squiggles (letters), but little of the language skills needed to support reading. It does not matter how well you sound out the word b-o-y if you have no idea what boy means. And you need to have sufficient life experience to understand what it means to go to the b-e-a-c-h.

A lot of children in America come from homes where they have poor language skills with small vocabularies. They cannot translate the words they are reading into any home language. Shamefully, in these great United States, 22 percent of children live in poverty -- a risk factor for lower language competence. In their classic study, Betty Hart and Todd Risley from the University of Kansas found that low-income children from welfare families hear only 525 words per hour while their peers from professional families hear an average of 1116 words per hour. For the children who hear low numbers, poor reading and poor school achievement are often, though not always, the unfortunate outcome. Poor children thus have a trajectory of failure that starts before preschool and that can handicap them throughout their school years.

If we really want to narrow the achievement gap in reading we need to help Johnny grow his language skills. We need to expose him to vocabulary and sentences in the contexts that are the stuff of world knowledge. The word "crenellation" only becomes meaningful when the Knights of the Round Table peek between the castle walls to spot a forthcoming enemy.

We also need to engage Johnny in conversations. Kindergarten is too late to start these language "lessons." Even then, teachers can't do it alone. A child spends only 20 percent of his waking time in school. Our libraries, supermarkets, laundromats and city parks have to do what the town of Providence, RI is doing. They are using small recording devices made by the LENA company to collect the words children hear and then coaching low-income families about how to produce more engaging talk for their kids.

And children need to hear and interact around books -- well before they can talk. Coming to school not knowing which way the book opens is a bad predictor for learning to read. Books teach vocabulary implicitly and if adults follow kids' interest as the words trip off their tongues, whole conversations take place around books.

The evidence tells us that well before Johnny can read, starting at birth, he needs to hear a lot of language to develop a strong language base. Until we face this fact, the third grade reading guarantee guarantees no more than poor language can buy: a third grade reading slump. Language is a prequel to literacy. Until we face this fact, reading progress will continue to limp along behind math achievement. And this conclusion is evidence-based.

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