Effective Reading Instruction
One of the most important factors impeding the social and economic mobility of poor Black, Hispanic, Native American and White children is our failure to ensure that they learn to read proficiently. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that, for 2019, only 35% of fourth grade students were proficient in reading, while 36% lacked even basic skill. The proportion of Black and Hispanic children who lack basic skills was significantly higher (52% and 45% respectively) and only 19% of Native American fourth graders were proficient readers. We have been unable to find data on poor white children; however, only 45% of white children were found to be proficient and socio-economic status is a well-established correlate of academic failure. The inability to read proficiently is one of the strongest predictors of academic success, school dropout, and psychological and behavioral problems that undermine well-being.
The magnitude of the challenge our nation faces is indicated by the number of children who face life-long difficulties due to inadequate reading skills. Based on Census data and the extent of reading failure, we estimate that as many as 5 million Black children, 8.4 million Hispanic children, and 492,000 Native American and Alaskan Native, and roughly 10 million Non-Hispanic White children will experience life-long difficulties due to poor reading outcomes.
There is ample evidence of the existence of instructional practices that result in proficient reading. However, despite numerous efforts to reduce disparities, no progress has been made getting these practices widely implemented. Perhaps the most ambitious effort, The Campaign for Grade Level Reading (GLR), has been working in more than 300 communities in an effort to reduce disparities in reading proficiency. A 2017 report on their progress since 2010 showed that among children eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the proportion who were proficient in learning went from 17% in 2010 to 21% in 2015, while the proportion of proficient reading among more affluent children went from 45% to 52%; thus, the gap in reading disparities increased from 28% to 31%.
The report attributes these results to the need for greater attention to contextual conditions associated with low performance, such as school attendance, children’s health, and school readiness. However, the project overlooks the importance of the curriculum that is used to teach reading. Citing evidence that the biggest effect size found in learning research is .32, it states that, “the research literature provides no credible evidence that … even the most exemplary and acclaimed programs is sufficiently powerful that it alone can close the gap” (p. 6).
We respectfully disagree. Evidence indicates that there are instructional practices that can produce large effects on reading competency, even in the context of the social and economic conditions that are associated with reading failure. A meta-analysis by Stockard and associates reported an average effect size of .53 across 249 studies of the effect of Direct Instruction for reading. Contrary to the conclusion of the GLR report, the evidence on Direct Instruction had effect sizes for poor children and students of color equivalent to those for other students.
In contrast to ongoing community-wide system change strategies that target social conditions that are associated with poor reading (e.g., GLR), we propose to focus on reaching children with better instructional practices that develop their oral reading fluency and comprehension.
The critical question is not if these strategies will be effective (we have enough evidence to be confident that they will), it is how we can get these instructional practices implemented. To do that, we will recruit elementary schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods, as described below.
For each school, we will create an Action Circles that consist of at least four K–3 teachers, the principal, and at least two parents and two infleuntial community leaders who are connected with civic organizations that could contribute to the effort. The Action Circles will be organized and facilitated by Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) who are recruited, trained, and supported by Values to Action.
Action Circle facilitators will employ community organizing and social influence principles to recruit the parents and community influentials while building support for a neighborhood or community-wide effort to promote reading skill.
The key features of community organizing include: (a) a media campaign to inform parents and community members about the importance of reading success and the availability of effective methods for increasing reading competency; (b) an active listening process in which parents, teachers, and community leaders are interviewed about their concerns and priorities relevant to elementary school children succeeding; (c) the gathering of endorsements from parents, neighborhood leaders, and business and civic organizations; and (d) feedback to the community about the progress of the effort to improve reading.
Critical to any local effort is accurate measurement of children’s reading skill. Such measures are readily available. Our local Action Circles will work to ensure that participating schools are assessing children’s skill development in Kindergarten through third grade. In addition, our community organizing efforts will arrange for and offer families a “Reading Check-Up” to assess children’s skill. Such measures will be used to (a) identify children who would benefit from supplemental instruction; (b) engage parents in efforts to support their children’s reading development; (c) assess progress in reducing reading failures and disparities; and (e) advocate for efforts to improve children’s reading skill.
Here is what this Action Circle is up to:
Recruiting schools, community organizations, and families to participate
Assessing reading instruction and reading fluency
Arranging for the implementation of Direct Instruction to improve reading