Why Do So Many Children Struggle to Read?

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A great deal of time and fortune are expended in federal, state, and school district efforts to address struggling readers, yet our reading woes continue. Second-language learners in Latino communities, in particular, consistently report high rates reading deficiencies. James Popham, an emeritus professor of education at UCLA and authority on assessment research, contends that standardized assessments do not bring relevant information to the site where change can take place: Teachers in the classroom.

Students in Latino communities have a dual challenge. In addition to learning a second language, there is the problem of a low level of literacy, or illiteracy, in their primary language. This deficiency, which stems from the home environment, begins the achievement gap in early learners. This gap widens through the grades.

Teachers need better understanding of illiteracy, along with better training and cognitive development tutorials that address basic literacy skills. A child speaking only Spanish, and with low literacy skills in his own language, arrives in first grade and is handed a text in English. This doesn???t make sense.

Parenting Is Key

The root of the problem stems from a gap in cognitive development that occurs before first grade. The critical ages for building the basics for literacy are three, four, and five, at home. The level of literacy of the home environment is the key to reading readiness when a child enters first grade. Lacking this will mean a child is unprepared for first grade. This begins an achievement gap that will widen as textbooks become more complex through the grades. Efforts to improve reading at the higher grade levels will be ineffective, since the foundation skills for reading are missing.

Symptoms of this problem begin to appear after third grade. This is where readers begin to develop the reading level that leads to higher thinking skills. However, if students do not develop basic, pre-reading skills, their reading skills do not develop beyond the third grade. Researchers such as E.D. Hirsch have reported this for years. In addition to literacy, we must also address illiteracy.

What is Illiteracy?

Defining this is easy: it is the lack of reading and writing skills. The confusion occurs when the question arises, ???What can we do about it???? Curriculum is not likely to include instruction in the cognitive development process children are missing, which creates increased reading difficulties. Every year, teachers introduce reading curricula that expand in breadth and depth, and students continue to receive texts for other core areas, which they also cannot read. English-speaking students often cannot read critically or express themselves adequately in writing. Imagine the problem for Latino students with a second language and low literacy in their own language.

Several states have introduced legislation to retain third-graders, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is becoming clear that there is a persistent problem, and it becomes evident in the early elementary grades. It???s interesting that states focus efforts on third grade. The problem is a result of language development that occurred, or didn???t occur, at second and first grades, and even before that. Let???s address the problem, not the symptoms.

Building Literacy Skills

Several states are now committing funds to third grade literacy programs. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, for example, wants interventions such as 90 minutes of reading instruction. These interventions should also include instruction in the learning process that leads to reading skill. But the students in intervention programs usually receive another book to read, which is exactly what they can???t do.

A phonics program is a critical first step, but the teacher must be aware of the cognitive process involved and what constitutes proficiency. The teacher must understand ???attainment of cognition,??? which means an awareness of the process, and knowing when a learner is ready to advance.

Phonics is part of an area that is also known as ???alphabetics.??? This involves several skills, beginning with a mastery of the inventory of sounds that exist in the language. The learner grasps that a series of sounds represents a word and then expands to form a group of words that compose a thought. Next, it is important to be able to convert those sounds into writing. To do this, the learner must master both.

The next skill is converting written language into fluent speech. Speech should reproduce the language???s sounds correctly and fluently, along with proper word stress, intonation, etc. This is commonly referred to as ???decoding,??? and is critical to reading. However, developing this skill depends on mastering the previous skills. This progression is not often taken into account. Thus, the classroom teacher tackles the challenge of decoding, when the learner does not have the skills required to perform the task.

The third element in reading development is vocabulary. As simple as this sounds, it is a highly complex instructional and learning process. Vocabulary is often taught in lists of random words with a single meaning. However, context often changes a connotation or an entire meaning. Meaning is related to context.

Vocabulary can be grouped as discrete or conceptual. The former refers to words that can be visualized. These are easily learned. The latter represents concepts that cannot be visualized, such frugal, economy, negotiate, etc. These are difficult concepts that must be approached via discrete vocabulary. Before a reader begins a text, there must be a high level of comprehension of the vocabulary in that text. If a reader does not know as little as 10-15% of the vocabulary in a text, reading it will be difficult. Reading strategies such as cognates, meaning through context, word families, etc, are fine for readers who are much more accomplished. Early readers can???t apply these reading strategies.

If a reader keeps pausing to link a sound to its corresponding written letter(s), pauses to decode or pauses to reflect on the meaning of a word, there is no comprehension.

There is a way to address reading deficiencies, but it has to be done through teachers, with training and an appropriate curriculum. Legislating performance requirements won???t solve this complex problem.

Patrick Herrera ( is faculty at Chapman University and founder of ESL Phonics to Literacy.