The most recent report cards for school districts in Ohio show an abysmal record for the overwhelming majority of Ohio’s school districts. And while districts complain about changing tests, too many tests, etc., the bottom line is that if a child is in the third grade, his or her reading ability should not depend on who is writing the test. That child should be able to read third grade level material regardless of who wrote it. Moreover, the score set by our State Board of Education for third graders to be promoted is in the “limited” range, which means your child doesn’t need to be able to read much to be promoted.
But what about those students who test in the “Basic,” proficient or even accelerated range in reading? How can you tell if they are really reading? Because we know that despite our tendency to pat ourselves on the back for how awesome our schools and teachers are, many Ohio students reach postsecondary education unprepared to do college level work. Those students must take remedial classes, and many drop out before they get a degree. The State is now considering reducing graduation requirements to avoid a crisis where more than 30% of high school students are not on track to graduate. And at the elementary level, in the last reporting, 45 % of Ohio third graders were below proficient in reading.
So how can you tell if your child is doing as well as the district says he is doing? We have seen school districts who routinely give students “A”s on their report cards despite their knowledge that the student cannot do grade level work. First find out what reading program your child is using. Most elementary schools now have adopted curricula which is mandatory for K-8. In many cases, if a district is using Leveled Literacy Intervention, Literacy Collaborative, Reading Recovery or Benchmark Literacy, those programs are the only reading materials your child will receive. You may be told your child is reading at a specific level, generally described by a letter designation. Level M, for example, coincides with a specific grade level. Most leveled programs are aligned as far as what the individual levels signify. So Level M in Leveled Literacy will coincide with Level M in Benchmark, etc.
Most of these programs are referred to as “guided” or “blended” reading programs. The blending refers to incorporation of a variety of reading techniques. And the school district will steadfastly assert that these programs are “research based.” Unfortunately the only research supporting the efficacy of these programs has been done by the publishers or originators of the program. Obviously those folks are not going to say anything other than that every child can benefit, right?
The actual research says otherwise. Most early readers need to have explicit phonics instruction in order to establish the necessary foundational skills to become strong readers. For students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, there is simply no evidence that blended reading programs enables these students to read. Without explicit instruction to assist with phonological awareness (hearing and manipulating sounds) and phonics (connecting sounds with letters), those students will continue to struggle all the way through school. Many will drop out. Even non-disabled students frequently struggle with learning to read when not given a strong phonetic basis for their reading skills.
Then there’s the focus on sight word recognition. Just remember that you cannot learn phonics from learning sight words. Sight words are limited to those words that don’t follow a rule or pattern and therefore must be memorized.
What can you do about this? Well for starters you can read with your child. If the district says your child is at grade level, go to the library and take out a book at that level. Give it to your child. If he or she is struggling to read it, then you may have a problem. One of the issues we have with guided reading programs is that districts often do not require any reading other than what is in the program. Because the students are guided through the reading, there may not be other indicators that students really aren’t reading independently until you get the statewide assessment results and discover that the students in your school district cannot read third grade material. Again, many districts do not require students to read anything outside of their own adopted reading program, so teachers think their students are doing better than they are. In some cases we have seen fourth grade teachers who read all the content areas directly to their students, perhaps because their students are unable to read it on their own.
If your child is on an IEP and you think he or she is not reading, ask the district to conduct a standardized assessment to see how they are really doing. If you have the resources, have your child tested by an outside evaluator. If they are able to read, then great. If not, you need to call a meeting of the IEP team to make sure the IEP contains explicit instruction in the areas of need. Make sure that the instruction is really addressing what is necessary and not just paying lip service.
Your child’s ability to become a strong reader will impact him or her throughout their life. By the time a student is in high school, it is often too late to redress all the deficiencies. So be vigilant and ask the hard questions. You have a right to do that.