TANTILLO: New Jersey Parents, We Have a Reading Problem

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Sarah Tantillo, Ed.D. is the author of “The Literacy Cookbook” and “Hit the Drum: An Insider’s Account of How the Charter School Idea Became a National Movement/

Recently one of my former students, now married with three children, reached out for help with his 5th grade daughter. “She’s bright,” he said, “but she’s really struggling to read. She doesn’t like it, and her grades are going downhill.  We can’t tell if she’s lazy, or if there’s something else going on.”

Here’s what I told him: The good news is that she’s not lazy. Children want to succeed—to learn and perform—and when they don’t, they feel incompetent and frustrated. Those feelings sometimes make them want to avoid the thing(s) they’re not good at.

The bad news is that she probably wasn’t taught how to read in school.  And sadly, her situation is all too common.

The good news is that you can do something about it.

First, the Big Picture.  In the early 1970s when I was in elementary school, everyone was taught phonics.  We learned how to sound out words in order to read them.  Several decades ago, the field of education was overtaken by a push toward a “whole language” approach.  In brief, the idea was that immersing children in books—especially books “at their level”—would enable them to learn to read on their own.  It included the ineffective “3-cueing” approach (look at the picture, consider the context, “Does it look right?”).  Children who have been taught this method tend to look at the pictures in order to guess at the words.  For example, they might guess “bunny” when the word is “rabbit.”  When they have to read texts that don’t have pictures—usually by 4th grade—it seems like they “suddenly” can’t read.

Advocates for the whole language approach might have had good intentions, but they didn’t have a firm foundation of research.  Nevertheless, as Emily Hanford explains so effectively in her podcast SOLD A STORY, whole language materials began to dominate the field to the extent that even as recently as 2019, “an EdWeek Research Center survey found that 75 percent of K-2 and elementary special education teachers [used] the 3-cueing approach to teach students how to read, and 65 percent of college of education professors [were teaching] it” (see “Is This the End of Three Cueing?” by Sarah Schwartz in Ed Week, Dec. 16, 2020).  Most educators entering the field after a certain point would simply assume that this approach was research based.  Alas.

It’s important to note that this has NOT been only an URBAN educational problem.  It has permeated THE FIELD for decades.  While some people can learn to read without explicit instruction, most need to be explicitly taught no matter where they live.  In the suburbs, when parents find their children struggling to read, they often hire tutors; this has masked the extent of the problem.

When the pandemic hit and schools went remote, even schools that normally taught phonics were challenged.  It is difficult if not impossible to teach students how to read via Zoom.  So for 18 months, students in K-3 who were supposed to be taught to read missed that instruction.  And parents couldn’t hire tutors because of the lockdown.  In a terrible way, the pandemic leveled the playing field: we have seen learning losses across the board.

Fast forward to today.  We’re in the middle of the second year of post-pandemic instruction.  Students who were in K-3 during the pandemic were not explicitly taught to read.  Many current 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who normally would be expected to decode and comprehend text are struggling with both.  Schools must address this problem IMMEDIATELY.  They need to marshal resources to teach phonics in those grades (as needed) and ensure that K-3 students are also receiving robust phonics instruction.  Some school leaders have not realized this yet.  Some don’t have the resources or the staffing.  Time is slipping by, and it will only become more challenging to provide these supports in later grades.  I do not think it is overstatement to say: This is a national emergency.

I told my former student about Emily Hanford’s podcast and suggested speaking to his daughter’s teacher ASAP to see what supports the school could offer.  Also, finding books on topics she is interested in, no matter what level they’re on, could reinforce the value of books and encourage her to keep pushing herself in spite of the challenges.

As I reflect on this widespread problem, I’m reminded of something Maya Angelou once said: “Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.”  We know better now.  Let’s go.

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1 Comment

  • Michael Chirichello, February 6, 2023 @ 8:50 pm Reply

    Sarah, as I read your essay, I am reminded of the merry-go-round approach we often see in education. If whole language doesn’t work, let’s try phonics. If not phonics, then maybe whole language again or maybe a new program that “teaches” reading “more effectively.”
    If we believe that each student is unique, why not this and that rather than this or that? Rather than either/or, let’s try both/and. I believe phonics instruction, combined with good choices for reading stories and chapter books using strategies from whole language, will offer each student opportunities for success. And let’s remember that whole language is a philosophy and phonics is a strategy.
    I believe that whole language never intended to exclude phonics. If we believe that there is no one way that holds the answer for all students, then we should offer them a multi-faceted approach to reading!

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