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Why do so many kids struggle to learn to read?

Half of California third graders can’t read at grade level.

There’s exhaustive brain research that suggests that most children must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters, yet many children are not taught how to do that. Why do so many children struggle to read? And why are we still debating over how they should be taught?

Education Beat is a weekly podcast hosted by EdSource’s Zaidee Stavely and produced by Coby McDonald.

Transcript:

Anne :

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, CEO of EdSource. Half of California third graders can’t read at grade level and research shows that students who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade will struggle to catch up throughout their education career. Still in California, there is no comprehensive approach to how to teach reading. There’s exhaustive brain research that suggests that most children must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters. Yet many children are not taught how to do that.

Esti:

You could be in a very nice school with really nice teachers who are caring, who have a lot of education experience and knowledge, but yet because of the model of instruction that they’re delivering, they may not be able to meet your child’s needs.

Anne :

Edsource recently launched an ongoing series to look deeply into the belly of the literacy crisis in California. Why do so many children struggle to read? And why are we still debating over how they should be taught? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee:

When Esti Iturralde’s daughter Winnie started kindergarten in a public school in the bay area, she told her parents, she was really excited to learn to read. And it seemed to Esti like the teacher was creating a really vibrant environment for literacy.

Esti:

We were welcomed into the classroom. All the families would sit with their kids and read stories with them. The school itself has a library. There’s library lessons. The joy was there. There was a lot of joy of reading. And I do feel as though there was this message to parents that if you inspire joy in books and in reading, that will be sufficient to have your child learn how to read.

Zaidee:

But then Esti noticed that Winnie was feeling anxious at school.

Esti:

She was having a lot of pains, headaches, stomach aches, and sometimes we would have to pick her up from school early. She would get sent to the nurse’s office.

Zaidee:

Esti couldn’t tell at first what was going on, but she gradually realized that Winnie was struggling to learn to read and write.

Esti:

She felt stressed about having to write and not feeling like she had the ability to do that. And then she could sort of tell that she wasn’t really reading in a true way. She was kind of going through the motions of reading, but what she was doing wasn’t really reading at all.

Zaidee:

Then the coronavirus pandemic began. Schools closed their doors. And suddenly Winnie was learning from home. Esti followed the instructions that the teacher sent home to parents. She read to Winnie and she had Winnie read dozens of books online, but she noticed something was off.

Esti:

And we would watch her read the book, but there was something phony about it because she seemed to have memorized the book, not actually learned how to read the words. And it was around that time that I just got this greater sense of worry and angst about it.

Zaidee:

Then Estie read some articles by Emily Hanford. She’s a reporter at American Public Media about how many schools use methods to teach reading, like guessing words from pictures and context, without sounding words out. She read that for some kids, these methods work, but for lots of kids, they don’t.

Esti:

And a light bulb went on because I immediately recognized that this was the methodology that they used in her classroom. So I realized, oh, it’s not that she was taught how to read these words in the story. It’s not that she’s failed to learn that. It’s that she was never taught that.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I’m Zaidee Stavely. This week, California’s reading crisis. Lots of kids in California are struggling to learn to read just like Winnie did. So EdSource is embarking on an in-depth ongoing series about the literacy crisis in California. We’ve published two stories so far written by my colleagues Karen D’Souza and John Fensterwald. Hi Karen and John.

Karen:

Hey.

John:

Hey Zaidee.

Zaidee:

So Karen, why don’t you tell me first, you know, how is California doing with teaching kids to read?

Karen:

Well, the short answer there is really, really badly. I had a great quote from the former superintendent of LAUSD Los Angeles Unified. And he said from his perspective, basically we’d sold an entire generation of kids down the river. I think the latest cumulative scores we had were less than half of California kids are reading at grade level by third grade. Now third grade is interesting because it’s the first time the state actually tests reading assessments. So the problem may actually be apparent earlier than that, but there’s no way to measure it.

Zaidee:

And how do we compare it to other states?

John:

Well, we know in the NAEP scores, which is the national assessment for educational progress, we have made some progress in reading scores in fourth and eighth graders over the past two decades. So the latest NAEP report for 2019 California was behind the national average and it’s behind 21 other states that are clearly ahead of California. And then there’s a whole block of states that are similar to California. That are scored within a point or two. And they say, well, you’re basically alike. So we we’re not at the national average and a state like Mississippi, which has gone through this intensive state approach to reading. And it reached from near bottom to the national average over the course of seven years, which is very impressive. It can be done.

Karen:

Certainly there are places where it’s being done more effectively. A lot of times they are smaller states of course, and less diverse states. So we have a thousand school districts. This is a particularly thorny place to try and Institute any kind of new strategy or reform.

Zaidee:

So what’s the deal. Do we know why so many children in California are struggling to read?

Karen:

Well, I think what’s interesting, “the reading wars,” which is sort of an academic battle on which strategy works best has been going on for a hundred years, at least. But in recent years we have more brain research, more compelling brain scans, where many scientists have proven that there needs to be a link between the part of the brain that interprets the visual and the part that interprets the auditory. It’s not, we don’t come wired that way. Babies come wired to learn how to speak by listening to all of us chatter. They don’t come wired to learn how to read until you make those connections. There’re pathways in the brain. And the more you do it, the smoother and wider they become sort of like a highway system. And phonics is one of the ways to build that pathway. Explicitly teaching kids, you know, these are the letters and these are the sounds they make. And the brain scientists are all pretty much on the same page about how that part, that fundamental or foundational part of reading works.

Zaidee:

As the daughter of school teachers from California, I know that the, you know, the arguments about what’s the best way to teach reading have been going on for decades. Can one of you kind of sum up a little bit about how the pendulum has swung back and forth in California?

Karen:

Well, that’s actually a really good way to put it. I mean, I would say in the seventies and eighties, the whole language approach dominated, you can trace the roots of whole language back to the eighteen hundreds and Horace Mann. He believed that you needed to learn words and not letters, which you could say the process of scooping up words that you see in some balanced literacy classrooms. They don’t really teach kids how to sound it out. They’re going for something about unlocking the meaning of each word. Sometimes through context cues a more phonics-based approach would actually just teach you how to go through each letter and put the sounds together. But that approach, as you say, it’s been going back and forth from the seventies to eighties. In the late nineties and the year 2000, there was a national push to more phonics-based approaches, which many say was very effective. I think there were also some aspects of the implementation of that philosophy that struck a lot of educators and administrators the wrong way. And the pendulum went right on back so that my daughter who was 11, she was never really taught any phonics at all.

Zaidee:

Esti Iturralde’s daughter, Winnie, wasn’t getting much phonics either in kindergarten or in first grade. She knew the sounds of individual letters, but she hadn’t been taught the sounds that different letters can make together. Esti has a doctorate in clinical psychology. After she learned more about the different ways to teach kids to read. She decided to set up a little experiment and record a video of Winnie reading. She’d noticed that the books Winnie was assigned in school, books designed for her reading level, had words in them that seemed really hard for a little kid to sound out words like neighbor, community, everywhere, purple.

Esti:

So I set her up with one of these digital books and I had her read this story once through.

Winnie:

[ Audio from video of Winnie reading ]

Zaidee:

This was a picture book intended for Winnie’s reading level. When she first read it through, Winnie was able to guess most of the words on the page. using tricks. She’d learned in school, like using the pictures in the book to guess what the word might be or guessing a word based on the context of the story.

Esti:

And then I put this Manila folder over the image of the story. So she had to read it again, but only using the words

Winnie:

[ Audio from video of Winnie reading ]

Zaidee:

Without the pictures Winnie struggled to read some of the words she’d breeze through moments before. Words like swing and fence tripped her up. But others like purple. She guessed correctly seemingly from the context.

Esti:

And then I showed her unfamiliar words from the story or less familiar words from the story one at a time to see how she would read them.

Zaidee:

First does and fence

Winnie:

[ Audio from video of Winnie reading ]

Esti:

And then I had her read the word purple in isolation. And even though she’d been exposed to the word purple all those many times, she didn’t recognize the word at all.

Winnie:

[ Audio from video of Winnie reading ]

Zaidee:

Despite having read the word purple, successfully, 16 times just moments before Winnie could not recognize the word at all once it was stripped of context.

Esti:

And what that told me was that the word purple was just a blob to her. It was not something that she was reading using the symbols and the sound connections with the letters. I was taken aback by it because it was much worse than I expected. I truly could not believe that she couldn’t read this word that had been exposed to her so many times.

Zaidee:

To Esti this meant that those tricks Winnie was being encouraged to use, figuring out a word by the picture or by guessing the word based on the context, weren’t really helping her to read. Esti was so surprised by this, that she decided to try out a different way of teaching Winnie to read.

Esti:

I didn’t expect it to be as powerful as it was.

Zaidee:

First Estie found a bunch of words for Winnie to read that had similar sounds made up of similar groups of letters as in the word purple. So for example, she used Turkey and surf because they had the UR that says er in them. And apple, which has a consonant plus L E saying ul. And turtle, which has both the er and the ul. First she checked to see if Winnie already knew how to read the words

Winnie:

[ Audio from video of Winnie reading ]

Speaker 7:

Oh, okay. You know that one

Zaidee:

Then Estee taught her how these groups of letters sound.

Esti:

[ Audio from the video of Esti demonstrating sounds to Winnie ]

Zaidee:

And then she had Winnie tried to read the words again.

Karen:

[ Audio from video of Winnie reading ]

Zaidee:

Winnie still needed a little extra help on purple. But after Esti showed her how it was broken down into per and pull, she got that one too. And the next day she could still read the words. That hadn’t happened before. Winnie zoomed ahead in reading with this kind of help at home. And by the beginning of second grade, she was reading above grade level. Now she loves reading, but here’s the thing. Esti doesn’t know what would’ve happened if Winnie hadn’t been home for distance learning at the time that she was struggling to learn to read. Or what would’ve happened if her mom hadn’t known about the different ways to teach reading, hadn’t been able to study how to teach those phonic skills.

Esti:

It really upsets me. I think that’s one of the things that causes me to keep talking about this, because even though I see her being out of danger, I see this pathway where she would’ve been in a lot of danger and it would’ve slipped by us. And we wouldn’t have noticed. And I think that it would’ve been much harder to fix later. There’s so much about my experience as a psychologist and my past experiences assessing kids and observing kids’ behavior. And I just don’t think a lot of parents would have that, nor should they. You shouldn’t have to be this really conscientious, overly educated mom. You should just be like a normal person.

Zaidee:

Esti’s story is compelling. She put her videos of Winnie reading with different methods on YouTube. And they blew up. It seems clear that there are a lot of parents concerned about their kids reading and other kids could benefit from more instruction on sounding out words in schools. California has an English language arts framework, which says that teachers should teach phonics along with other things like vocabulary development and comprehension, but different schools teach reading in different ways.

John:

And so when you ask what is California’s role, well, it approved the framework and then didn’t distribute it widely. And hasn’t done anything to emphasize to districts that you should do this. We don’t know how literacy is being taught in individual districts. We don’t know whether it’s whole language and the state is saying basically we don’t care. It’s up to you to decide. And it’s up for you to decide what textbooks you use and how you train your own teachers. And this year they said with 250 million dollars we’re gonna help the poorest schools in the state get coaches, but there’s not explicitly said in the bill, please use the science of reading, make sure everybody’s on the same page here. We don’t know that. And so it’s local control, but that really becomes an excuse for inaction and taking any guidance from the state or any clear instruction as to what you should be doing. And that’s not very helpful to local districts where in fact, there are perhaps veteran teachers who continue to teach whole language and they need to be pushed. And we need to train teachers coming into the system in the science of reading so that they know from the start how to teach it.

Zaidee:

Karen, you talked with a couple of kindergarten teachers who had struggled to teach kids how to read. Can you share a little bit of what they shared with you?

Karen:

So there was some phonics in their instruction. I guess they learned later not enough and not enough for most of the kids in their classroom. So they had gone through everything they were taught to do, which is to immerse children in the joy of literature, to read to them and encourage them to read, to let them pick out books. You have publishing parties where kids get donuts and they laminate their novels onto the wall. But without phonics or any understanding of spelling some would argue that those exercises don’t actually teach them how to read. And all of these teachers had families coming to them in crisis, wondering what had went wrong and what could they do to help their kids. And actually all of these teachers had the same, you know, I don’t know how to help you. Basically they just doubled down on what they were doing and tried to make it more joyful and to read more. And, you know, if the kid likes sharks, let’s pick a shark book, like all the kind of intuitive things you do, but without understanding there’s a foundational problem. Unless you go back and fix it, the problem will continue.

Zaidee:

Something that Linda Darling Hammond said in your article, John, Linda Darling Hammond is the state board of education president. And she’s also an advisor to Governor Gavin Newsom for TK through 12th grade. Something she said in your article, John really kind of summed it up for me. She said, there’s not a lot of disagreement among researchers on how children learn to read, but the disagreement surfaces when you start to talk about what’s happening in particular districts under the banner of science of reading. And to me, that kind of that really rang true because I feel, you know, what I’ve heard about the concerns from folks who are concerned about a big push for phonics that will sort of crowd out everything else that’s needed for reading. Like vocabulary, you know, for English learners, oral language skills. And one of you mentioned in your articles that teachers may remember reading first the federal initiative in the early two thousands. And you know that there’s this concern that it will just end up being drill and kill exercises.

John:

Yeah. I agree. There’s a concern looking back in the past that we will repeat the past. And I think that in the article it also reflected let’s get to the points of agreement and move on to the future for the sake of our kids. And not go back and fight this old war of reading first open court curriculum, which was so scripted. And I think the folks in the science of reading say, no, we don’t want to go there either. So there’s a question for English learners too. Phonics is important, but it’s also important in a larger context of language development. And so I don’t know whether it’s a question of whether it’s 10 minutes a day versus 40 minutes a day, or it should vary somewhere in between that. But we’ve gotta get to the point where we agree here are the foundational skills that all students need.

John:

And so let’s figure out how to do it and how can the state be helpful in doing it. And just one thing is that this time is really critical because there’s so much federal and state money that have come into the system the last several years. And so now’s the time to make it a priority. And we just can’t say, under local control here are 20 billion dollars. Districts, figure it out. I think what we need to say is, yeah, now’s the time to spend money, getting new textbooks or making early literacy a priority so that you get assistance in your classroom or coaching, or we have the money for your teachers to go through a good course of instruction on skills. And this is what you should do. But districts are scattered and pulled in so many directions right now, unless the state makes it a priority it’s gonna be squandered. And then three years from now, we’re gonna say, oh, sorry, we don’t have any money anymore to do the kinds of things that you may have had five years ago.

Karen:

Also, I think it’s important to acknowledge it is kind of a false dichotomy. It’s not phonics on one side and the love of literature on the other side. You know, if you talk to anybody in the structured literacy camp, they all emphasize language, comprehension, oral skills, vocabulary. I actually think there’s much more agreement than disagreement, but somehow we can’t get everyone into the same room to see how much they have in common.

Zaidee:

So what is California doing, John?

John:

Yeah, it’s actually doing several important steps that it’s taken. The most important is new standards that the commission on teacher credentialing is establishing for all new teacher candidates will be taught in the science of reading in the graduate schools that they attend or undergraduate in some cases. And they’ll be judged for that in a new performance assessment that will take effect in, I think it’s three years from now. So it’s moving quickly to adopt those standards. In fact, it will be adopted in October. That’s one important step. Something else. Again, I mentioned it’s 250 million dollars for coaches, but that’s only in the most poor 400 schools in the state. So most schools won’t be able to take advantage of that. And it’s also creating a screen to give to students early in kindergarten, first grade to diagnose, or at least preliminary diagnosis of, of dyslexia and other reading difficulties. The debate now is whether it should be mandated, but nonetheless, the state is paying for this new screen in multiple languages, which is an important development.

Zaidee:

Let’s talk about what else the series is gonna delve into. I know I’m gonna be looking at how schools are doing with teaching English learners how to read and some of the best practices there. And I believe Diana is gonna be looking at this teacher preparation bit and teacher credentialing

Karen:

The next leg to drop, I’m not sure exactly when, but it’s basically about a lawsuit against the state arguing that it had violated children’s civil rights, the right to learn how to read. There was a settlement in 2020. And the state agreed to give 50 million dollars to the lowest 75 schools, the lowest performing 75 schools on that third grade reading assessment. And they’re undergoing now like a three year kind of literacy lab trying to rethink their instruction with various successes and challenges. And so that’s what part three is really about looking at what was their experience like. You know, and the question for me is really can the poorest performing schools in the state of California amid a global pandemic, with all the other stresses they already have in terms of, you know, inconsistent training, spotty attendance, high staff turnover, if they can make some progress with an evidence based approach, then that ought to hopefully do something to bridge consensus in the reading wars.

John:

And part of our series will actually reporters will be going to the classrooms in some of these schools. And we’ll get readers will take a look and say, well, what is the difference that it’s making? How are students being taught? And let me just say that this is an incredible laboratory that the state could benefit from. I don’t see as of yet, Karen, tell me if I’m wrong. I don’t see any real state interest in doing the kind of research that even EdSource is doing to draw these kinds of conclusions, which will be important.

Karen:

I think that’s fair to say. I mean, actually I just got a response today from the CDE after much, much prompting that they will use the evidence they get towards legislative analysis in the future. So I think at least we know they’ll be looking at it. Whether or not they’re looking at it with a mind to reform statewide reading instruction, I think is a fair question.

John:

That’s encouraging news, breaking, encouraging news to hear. So we’ll see what happens.

Zaidee:

Okay. Thank you both very much for joining me. And we will definitely be following up on this series as we move forward.

Karen:

Thank you.

John:

Been a pleasure.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. You can find our series on California’s reading dilemma at edsource.org. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to our guests, Esti Iturralde, Karen D’Souza and John Fensterwald. Our CEO is Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe. So you won’t miss an episode.

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