For the actual report, see: The Nation’s Report Card Shows a Major Drop in Reading Scores. Why?
The 2022 test scores are low, yes, partly because of COVID, but mostly because of the way reading is taught in the classroom—teaching method. Notice, I did not say teachers, I said teaching method.
Exactly what went wrong and who is to blame?
Yes, the sudden five-point drop in reading scores for 4th graders between 2020 and 2022 was mostly caused by the pandemic. Let's face it, for the past 2 ½ years school classrooms have been in turmoil. So, the drop in reading scores should not be a surprise to anyone.
The question is, where we place the blame?
Was online teaching to blame?
Online teaching can be effective. Again, it depends on how you were teaching online. What kind of curriculum were you using? Let me give an example. When the lockdown was first announced, I was teaching at my reading clinic where two students had just moved up two grade levels in reading using vowel clustering after only 48 hours of instruction. Both of these students had entered my reading clinic reading below grade level.
During the lockdown, I began teaching online. I'm a group specialist. I design psychological educational programs that emphasize the therapeutic healing power of working together in groups. Therefore, teaching online was totally new for me, as it was for many teachers. No, the way that I taught at my reading clinic did not just automatically transfer to online teaching.
One student who I worked with during the lockdown was a full year behind. This was a very bright student who always attended in-class instruction before the lockdown. There were no diagnoseable learning difficulties and the student was not dyslexic. But the student was a year behind before the pandemic. During the lockdown, the school sent home stacks and stacks of worksheets, sometimes videos to watch online, and sometimes nothing at all.
Worksheets do not teach. We have years and years of research that document that if a student does not already know the information, a worksheet will not teach it to them. I had to start creating online curricula. The next year, the parents took the option to enroll the student in an actual online program with curriculum that was written to be used online. I continued to work with the student. It was hard because the online curriculum assumed that the student was at grade level. The student was not, but the student actually covered two years of learning in one year with online curriculum. The student not only caught up to grade level but moved ahead.
So no, I do not believe that online teaching is to blame for a 5-point drop in reading scores. Once again, the problem is the method that we use to teach reading, regardless of whether it be online or in the classroom. Teaching method, not teachers and not poverty, is the cause of reading failure.
Won’t simply returning students to the classroom solve the problem?
No, returning students solves nothing. Just sitting in a classroom is not what enables students to learn. Research shows that curriculum can be one of the most important ways that schools can help students learn because when you select a reading textbook, you are also selecting a teaching method.
As Matt Chingos and Grover Whitehurst stated in their Brown Center on Education at Brookings report,
“Students learn principally through their interactions with people … and instructional materials….”
When schools select a failed or disproven teaching method, they are contributing to reading failure. Reading failure leads to academic failure. A student who cannot read cannot excel in social studies, in science, or even in math. Reading is essential; therefore, schools must select curriculum that will enable teachers to teach children to read: all children. Just putting our students back in the classroom is not enough.
The question is, how are we teaching students to read in the classroom?
I’m a psychologist. Since reading failure is one of the root causes for mental health concerns, I must teach students how to read in order to help them correct the mental and psychological problems they are facing. I cannot use a failing teaching method. In many instances, I am working with struggling and/or failing students. Students come to my program because they have failed in the classroom using whole language, balanced literacy, and even systematic phonics. They have lost confidence; they no longer believe it’s possible for them to learn to read. Students need a teaching method that restores their self-efficacy (belief that they can learn again) by teaching them to read effectively. I use vowel clustering. I do not use phonics, whole language, cueing, guessing, reading recovery, or any other method presently being used in most public-school classrooms.
Because the schools have tried these different methods with the students who I teach, and the methods have failed. Students need a teaching method that will help them learn to read and be successful in the classroom.
Let’s look at another table from the NCES that charts how well students were reading before the pandemic. This particular graph does not include the new 2022 scores. You will recall from the earlier NCES chart that reading scores dropped from 220 in 2020 to 215 in 2022.
What does this chart tell us?
This graph shows how poorly our teaching methods have been working since 1992. There is very little improvement. This graph also shows that the 2020 scores are not the first drop in reading scores. Look at 2019—a two point drop.
So far, only the 4th grade scores have been released, so let’s look at those. For 4th grade, we see that the average reading score in 2019 was 220 which was two points lower than the average score in 2017 (222). Why did scores drop? Students were in the classroom. We had full in-class instruction. This was before COVID. A 2019 survey of more than 600 elementary schools blamed the drop on balanced literacy teaching methods—a mixture of whole language and phonics.
As one report stated,
“A 2019 survey of more than 600 elementary-school teachers by Education Week found that more than two-thirds used a balanced-literacy philosophy, although most also said they incorporated “a lot” of phonics.”
In 2001, No Child Left Behind established that all students, pre-kindergarten through high school, should be at the proficient level for their grade by 2014. We fell short of that goal.
Proficient level on the NCES scale means students are able to read at or above grade level. Not proficient identifies students reading below grade level.
From 1991 to 2019, reading scores have improved very little. Again, teaching methods.
The problem is not just COVID or the 2022 drop in reading scores. Reading failure and below proficient scores have been a long-standing problem. We’re doing something wrong. We need to change how we teach reading, especially since more than 60% of 4th graders could not read at the proficient level in 2019.
For more on the 2017 and 2019 scores, see: Reading Wars are Over! Phonics Failed. Whole Language Failed. Balanced Literacy Failed. Who Won? It Certainly Wasn’t the Students.
What teaching methods are schools now using?
During the lockdown and even today as students return to the classroom, some schools rely heavily on worksheets. As one author explained,
“A worksheet does not teach, no matter how hard you believe they do, they just don’t. Children, young children especially, need time to explore concepts and manipulate materials in order to learn. A cut and paste worksheet on the life cycle of a butterfly is really just giving them cutting practice, not teaching them about the life cycle.”
“Hands on learning benefits all learning styles, even those kids who love to write.”
Researchers have been studying worksheets for years. Harris Cooper, Jorgianne Civey Robinson, and Erika A Patall conducted a study entitled, Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003.
Combining their research on worksheets with their focus on homework, they concluded that worksheets do not teach. Unless the student already knows the material being covered on the worksheet, the student will learn absolutely nothing from the worksheet, except frustration and a sense of failure. They also concluded that worksheets and homework do not improve academic achievement, test scores, or overall learning.
So, why do we keep using worksheets in the classroom and sending worksheets home as homework? Good question, but in most school systems, worksheets and homework are a district decision, not an individual teacher decision. Change must come from the school board or the state.
The schools are buzzing with “science of reading” talk. As I stated earlier, I completely and totally support scientific research in reading, but just labeling our teaching methods science of reading will not teach students how to read. We want to find methods that work with all students.
For more on the science of reading, see: Tutoring Hint #8: Stick with Real Scientific Research in Reading. Do Not Fall for Gimmicks. Scientific Research Is Helpful for Tutoring.
Let’s look at an example. I have cited this example before, but it is definitely worth citing again because it speaks so directly to the importance of using teaching methods that work with all students. It also illustrates how changing the teaching method can turn a student from failure toward success.
A 15-year-old was brought to my reading program, reading at the pre-kindergarten level. She knew her consonant sounds but none of her vowel sounds. She had failed for nine straight years. She had an extensive violence record. She lived in a single parent household from the housing project area in her neighborhood. She, her parent, and the school were completely convinced that she would never learn to read. The school had tried balanced literacy, reading recovery, and even one-on-one systematic phonics tutoring. The student could not even read simple words like cat or dog. With the vowel clustering teaching method, she learned to read in 3 ½ years. How? Vowel clustering, the method that I teach in my new tutoring book.
It is never too late to teach someone to read. Vowel clustering works with all ages, and it is perfect for one-on-one tutoring, a small group, or an entire class.
For an example on how to use creative art therapy, see: Tutoring Hint #7: Intrinsic Motivation Is Better than Extrinsic Rewards
Vowel clustering teaches students to match vowel sounds with their corresponding letter symbols. This emphasizes the oral letter-sound relationship. Remember, we are training the brain, building “pathways” in the brain. When these neural pathways are developed, reading can take less than half a second. Therefore, it is important to organize how we teach so students can organize how they learn. We want to work with the brain, not against it.
Does teaching method really make that much difference?
Yes, changing the method that you use to teach reading can even help a student who has failed for nine years become a successful reader.
As Dr. Mark Seidenberg states in his book, Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why so Many Can’t, and What Can Be Done About It, the reason phonics did not work for my 15-year-old student and for many students is that it does not connect with oral speech. Vowel clustering works directly with the oral language system. This is why we have been so successful using vowel clustering with struggling and failing students.
As Dr. Seidenberg goes on to explain, real scientific research has had little effect on how reading is being taught in the classroom today. If we simply return students to the classroom and do not change how we teach reading, reading failure will continue.
We have the knowledge to stop reading failure. The question is will we use that knowledge, or will we cling to old ideas and teaching methods that have proven to be ineffective. We cannot just blame COVID for all of our reading failure problems. Reading failure existed before COVID.
Soon, we will look at some of the scientific neuroimaging research that Dr. Seidenberg was talking about. But before we move on, we need to consider the effects of reading failure.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. I had two students contemplate suicide. Once they were able to talk about their feelings, both students explained that they were tired of being teased and laughed at because they couldn’t read.
Reading failure is a serious problem. If you know someone who is struggling with suicidal feelings or with reading failure, be a friend, help them seek professional help.
I am always available to help anyone struggling with reading failure. Contact me. I can help.