Why Aren’t Big Publisher Reading Programs Working in Your School?

Core Curriculum standards have increasingly muddied literacy education. Incredibly dense lesson plans that exist to justify their cost simply increase work teachers have to do at home in order to distill lesson plans down to what they think will be the most effective program. This results in inconsistent education and exhausted teachers.

According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) "only roughly one-third of our nation’s 4th and 8th graders can demonstrate proficiency on national tests". If children can’t read, then they can’t learn. This leads to the great majority of students who fail to master reading by 3rd grade either dropping out or finishing high school with dismal lifetime earning potential.

Literacy isn’t something we can ignore, yet teachers and school districts are set up for failure. But, not all hope is lost. In this paper, we will examine the reasons why teachers and districts struggle with reading education and explore what can be done to better serve our children.

The Role of Common Core

The road to where we are today with reading education can be traced back to President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act he signed on April 11, 1965. This was the first federal education regulation of its kind, designed to cover the cost of educating disadvantaged students.

The next major federal education regulation happened in 2002 when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was signed into law. This bill was designed as an update to the 1965 law sparked by a fear that the United States was falling behind in education compared to other countries.

This legislation required schools to test students in order to demonstrate they had acquired math and reading proficiency that would aid them in life after high school. Strict penalties such as restrictions on Title 1 funding and significant turnaround strategies would be instituted when schools failed to meet achievement targets.

However, even with the threat of these penalties, by 2010, 38 percent of schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress. Additionally, funding that was supposed to support the program never came to fruition. Not only did schools lack the resources to meet NCLB standards, but states lacked the resources to enforce penalties on school who didn’t perform.

In 2011, states were offered reprieve through waivers that allowed them to get out from under many of the penalties mandated by NCLB. In exchange, states could either adopt Common Core State Standards or get their higher education institutions to certify that their standards are rigorous enough.

Today, 42 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia are waiver states and 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core. The goal of these initiatives is to better prepare children for college and career. And whether teachers and school districts believe that is being achieved by Common Core State Standards, they are the reality for many.

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Classroom Realities

Literacy education has come a long way in the last few decades. Not long ago educators believed reading was absorbed by being around books, the same way talking is. However, recent research has shown that’s not the case. "Children need to be taught how to read."

This is the challenge then thrown at teachers in the classroom. Ideally, students would have already started their literacy education at home before entering kindergarten, but for many that’s not the case. This leaves teachers with the challenge of teaching a large number of students who have varying levels of existing knowledge how to do one of the most challenging yet crucial skills in a person’s life. And if they don’t succeed, not only is the child disadvantaged, but that teacher and their school could take a hit.

It’s an unreasonable amount of pressure put on teachers and schools, but it’s the tough reality most face.

We’re Teaching Children the Wrong Way

For many children, their literacy education starts with learning the alphabet. They sing the ABCs proudly and loudly and most adults think these smiling children are well on their way to becoming voracious readers.

The problem is, they’re not. "Without context, the alphabet has little meaning for children". The ABC song provides no information about how letters are used, the sounds they make, or how they can be combined into words. In fact, most children think “L M N O P” is one letter.

This gets at the fundamental problem with reading education. It starts in the wrong place. Without context, letters have no meaning for children. To make matters worse, the first letter in the alphabet, the letter most education starts with, is one of the most complicated letters to learn.

For a child in the beginnings of their literacy education, vowels can be some of the most confusing letters because they make different sounds depending on the word. The letter “A” can be a short vowel or long vowel or be completely silent depending on the word. Why in the world would that be the first letter we teach children?

The Fundamentals of Reading

There are a few fundamental elements necessary to successful early child literacy education. First is books. Physical books have been shown to be the most effective tools in teaching children to read. In fact, simply having at least 18 books in the home has been shown to increase a child’s ability to succeed in school and beyond.

Second, is positive reinforcement. The research tells us that positive reinforcement and experiences with reading early in life result in higher levels of literacy. Children need to feel good about reading and experience achievement early in order to be successful readers.

Even though we know this, traditional literacy education asks students to understand all 44 letter sounds in the English language before reading their first book, because most early childhood books utilize all of them in their story. If a child is asked to read a book before having mastered those letter sounds, they feel incapable. They lose confidence and develop a distaste for reading.

This simple crack in the system has had detrimental effects on children for decades, as evidenced by the fact that according to the NAEP, "more than six in 10 fourth graders aren’t proficient readers".

This isn’t the fault of the teacher. "The curriculum teachers are mandated to use has outdated information". And most publishers, instead of updating their curriculum, merely provide digital updates, pushing teachers and children to use technology for reading education. Unfortunately, this is counter to the first point: reading actual books is essential to learning to read.

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The Challenges We Face

The Common Core standards most schools have adopted limit the curriculum resources schools can access. Schools are required to meet these standards, so they rely on approved publishers for curriculum. However, there are a number of challenges with big publisher reading programs.

  • They are expensive: Schools pay a pretty penny per teacher and per student for reading education materials. Limited providers have allowed publishers to inflate prices over the years without making significant improvements to the actual content.
  • They are elaborate: In order to justify the price tag, many publishers create elaborate, over-stuffed curriculum. This requires teachers to spend their time out of the classroom lesson planning. Not only does this put undue strain on teachers’ time, it also results in inconsistent lesson plans, meaning students in the same school could be getting different instruction from different teachers.
  • They are beginning to rely too much on technology: In order for publishers to save money, they are providing digital tools for teachers and students. This means the books kids used to be able to take home and learn from are disappearing from modern classrooms. And while research shows that technology is great for reinforcing reading concepts, it’s not as effective as books in teaching reading and instilling a love for reading in children.
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Looking To the Future

The importance of literacy education cannot be underemphasized. The government’s attempts, whether successful or not, underscore the United States’ value of education. And learning to read is understood as the door to every other subject. We learn to read so that we can read to learn.

Unfortunately, many federal efforts for improving education have been unsuccessful when analyzed broadly. The United States continues to rank well below most leading nations in reading and math and improvements are incremental at best year after year.

Common Core State Standards have failed to use recent research to define a successful path for literacy education. And big publishers have failed in the same way, providing few effective tools for teachers to educate young students.

Additionally, these programs are time consuming for teachers and students. They require teachers’ time outside of the classroom in order to build lesson plans that are long and inconsistent, meaning children are not learning to read they way should be.

School districts feel like their hands are tied between federal regulations and expensive reading programs, and the majority continue to fall below achievement standards.

It’s clear that there has to be a better way for children, teachers, and schools to approach reading. One that is affordable for schools, simple for teachers, and, most importantly, effective for children.

Learning Dynamics has spent the last 20 years developing a program that addresses all three of those needs. The program is backed by research from the University of Oregon. To learn more, visit the Learning Dynamics’ website here.