Upper Grades, Lower Reading Skills

Lori Aratani, Washington Post, July 13, 2006

Teaching reading has long been considered the job of primary grade teachers. But some educators are calling for more attention to be paid to the reading needs of middle and high school students, many of whom are struggling to master this critical skill.

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Though struggling students might be able to read words on paper, experts said, they lack the ability to explain or analyze what the words mean.

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The U.S. school population has rapidly diversified over the past few decades. The number of students who are learning English has more than doubled, from 2.03 million in 1989-90 to 5.01 million in 2003-04, according to the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs. A decade ago, students who were learning English made up 6.1 percent of the student population in Montgomery; today, the figure is almost 10 percent.

But it’s not just immigrants. A breakdown of test scores in Maryland, for example, shows that black students, those enrolled in special education and those who come from poor families are most likely to lack strong reading skills.

Educators said it’s difficult to pin down one cause. Bad teaching, chaotic home lives, low expectations for some students, cultural bias, the fact that older students simply don’t read enough—all have been faulted.

And student attitude can be a factor.

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Even in such affluent, high-achieving counties as Montgomery, one in five kids reaches high school reading at a basic level. When broken down by race, the numbers are even more startling, with 42.1 percent of black students and 47.8 percent of Hispanic students reading at only a basic level when they reach high school.

In Fairfax, about 15 percent of students who entered high school last year had difficulty reading. But among black students, 32 percent were not reading well; among Hispanic students, 33 percent were struggling.

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Shanahan and others said the key to helping older students is less about the mechanics of reading—phonics and such—than about the nuances of reading, that is, teaching students how to understand and explain what they read.

Patricia O’Neill, who represents Bethesda and Chevy Chase on the Montgomery school board, said she fears that if more isn’t done to help kids catch up, they will not be able to graduate from high school, noting that statewide tests that students must now take to receive their diplomas include significant amounts of reading and writing.

Wise and others said that unless more is done, school systems will be forced to spend millions on remediation programs. And efforts to close the achievement gap between black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian counterparts could be stymied.

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