(Christchurch City Libraries/Flickr)

This past fall, Governor Deval Patrick signed a much-heralded bill focused on improving third grade reading outcomes for all children in the Commonwealth. Such legislation may seem unnecessary in a state that posts some of the highest scores on national education tests, but 39 percent of our third graders are not reading at grade level, and research tells us that the third-grade marker is pivotal. Children whose reading skills are less than sufficient by third grade have a drastically reduced chance of graduating from high school. As a result, these children are unlikely to develop the academic skills essential for participating fully in this knowledge-based economy. Like many other states across the nation, the problem here is not one of program availability, however. The state is peppered with programs to boost literacy for even the youngest children.

As an example, in Boston alone, 24 organizations and advocacy groups cite improving children’s reading as part of their central mission.

Yet here and in other parts of the country, despite the plethora of options and efforts, too many of our children have not reached reading proficiency. Why?

In all, the city and its affiliates offer more than 70 reading and literacy-related programs and services for young children.

Yet here and in other parts of the country, despite the plethora of options and efforts, too many of our children have not reached reading proficiency. Why? The average service or program is not substantial enough, and together the offerings are not coordinated enough, to result in reading improvements.

As a state, we are good at creating programs with broad information-spreading approaches. We keep our fingers crossed and deliver support and services that we hope will make a difference, but rarely do; extensive, behavior-changing efforts that improve children’s reading skills elude us.

For example, a family literacy program that distributes free books to a parent and child may be an important element of a literacy campaign, but that alone won’t change the reading behaviors that increase reading skills. Changing home reading practices takes sustained work guiding families to use books in multiple ways, including, for example, inciting daily conversations about rich concepts and ideas.

In schools and communities, our efforts — whether focused on improving adults’ capacities to promote children’s reading or focused more directly on children’s development — are similarly insufficient: We do once-a-week tutoring and power lunches to help children reach a benchmark, rather than strengthening daily instruction; We provide teachers with one month worth of curricular materials and modeling, instead of ongoing guidance and comprehensive curricula; We give pediatricians time to flag only the most severe language issues late in the game, rather than the opportunity to perform an annual screening of language skills. Given the high and sometimes even tragic individual and societal costs of children’s low reading skills, we could do much better.

Given the high and sometimes even tragic individual and societal costs of children’s low reading skills, we could do much better.

As with public health initiatives such as the nationwide No Smoking campaign, improving children’s reading outcomes demands we do the hard and intensive work of not just raising awareness, but changing behaviors. And behavior change is not easy. Literacy supports and services that change behaviors demand a more sustained, intensive approach; one that, over time, supports children, caregivers, and educators to both build their knowledge and apply what they are learning.

Some Massachusetts programs are stepping in the right direction and carefully crafting efforts that show promise for effecting lasting change. One such promising example is Talk/Read/Succeed!, a Springfield early literacy program that is a collaboration among local agencies and schools. Components of the program include parent education workshops; home visits from teachers; adult education and job training for parents; and early education, after school, and summer programs for children. But even these promising efforts will take sufficient time, resources, and relentless attention to quality in order to actually produce results.

Our legislators and governor have given Massachusetts another chance to be tops in education, but we have work to do first. While we are well-intentioned, our current efforts are not adding up to meaningful improvements. To seriously address the new legislation, all of us in the field working to promote children’s reading development need to scrutinize what we do, and determine if our efforts are sustained and intensive. Only then can we expect to have all our children entering fourth grade as proficient readers.

This piece was co-authored by Joan G. Kelley and Julie Russ Harris, members of Lesaux’s research team.


The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Rach4syth

    “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” — Emilie Buchwald

    While investing in literacy campaigns, schools, and libraries is very important, parents and caregivers ultimately need to be the ones who make the time to read to young children & spark a love of reading in the older kids. Finding interesting reading material for each individual and regularly making the time for reading requires diligence and persistence. It’s very challenging. However, if reading is considered a high priority, people will find a way. Perhaps there should be more campaigns geared at educating young parents about the positive, long-term outcomes for kids who become avid readers.

    • jeanabeana

      This is important as a comment… perhaps this is where the article was leading? but it was not stated. One thing that happens is a school board will take this as they did the Coleman report and say “parents make the difference” so therefore, don’t invest in schools or teachers. Sadly, that is what happened in the 60s. I see this repeated today with “research studies” that are coming from the so called “think tanks” or even “Education Next” out of Harvard. It is intellectually dishonest.

  • ceegee

    no one reads anymore. distractions like the computer, ipads, video games and TV have replaced time when kids had no other entertainment but reading. parents have to read to their kids and kids have to read more to be better at reading. its not the schools’ problem that kids are illiterate. immigration of lower socio-economic demographics, fewer books and less time made for reading at home are to blame. stop blaming teachers!! (like me!)

  • Laura

    About one in every 5 people have dyslexia. If phonemic awareness was tested for and taught in Kindergarten on a daily basis, we would be catching those with severe issues and remediating those with mild issues earlier. By third grade, many more kids would be reading fluently, and less children would be falling behind. It is not rocket science.

    • jeanabeana

      The statistic used might be closer to 10% ; these percentages change over time depending policy changes. It is probably true that more children with asthma are now identified (environmental?) and there are data that say there are more anencephalic fetus developments where there is extremely bad pollution, but some of the other changes are artefact of the system. DSM IV is changing the autism spectrum so that means you will see numbers shifting. You are absolutely right in saying we need to work with youngest children and I totally agree with you that phonological awareness should be the emphasis but it is not the entire picture. This is part of the “reading wars” and the “math wars” that have been permeating the schools; I assume the author of the article agrees and she/they cite Catherine Snow etc. as authority; however, when the “research” gets played out in public policy and budgets we see many distortions and a lot of extremism. That is not the fault of the parents or the teachers.

  • Doug Johnson

    Reading programs? How ironic, since Tamerlan Tsarnaev published a deluded rambling that could only be the manifesto of a madman under some form of mind control by “handlers.” He was “mind raped” and then “activated” at some point along the way to serve a purpose in a false flag agenda.

    • jeanabeana

      do you think it is because he learned to read?

  • drmo

    As a parent educator for over two decades, I agree with many of the author’s points, especially the role of the home (and the parents) as the place to reinforce the importance and benefits of literacy. I currently work at a non-profit, Families First, that does workshops on language and communication. I was at one last week, where the parent educator brought a series of children’s books to the workshop and demonstrated the variety of ways families can read together — word books, picture books, menus, bus stop signs, grocery lists, etc. Literacy is much more than just reading books; it is about everyday learning opportunities, active listening and encouraging curiosity.

    The best way to engage in “extensive, behavior-changing efforts” is to work with all families, especially in the early years. The evidence is clear that low-income children fall far behind their middle-income peers before school even starts. We need to close that gap. Parent education, early and often, is part of the solution!

    • jeanabeana

      There is an excellent program that sends nurses into homes with moms who have new borns; it keeps being “cut” with the slash and burn techniques we have seen demonstrated over the years. In the 70s Merle Karnes set up a program that trained home visitors who would work with the moms at the kitchen table. Why do people think the idea is new? The value of programs over the years should be recognized and we should have consistent policies that do not re-introduce “fads” … this is the reading wars, the math wars, etc. over and over again on a 15 year pendulum cycle. I don’t mean to criticize your comment but support your statements.

    • Rach4syth

      well said!

  • jeanabeana

    This headline is another attack from Harvard on the teacher preparation programs and the public school programs of Massachusetts. I don’t see how the authors can generalize to “failing” and this is done only to publish scare headlines to provoke people to read about how their teachers are failing them. Why don’t you talk about some of the good work by Marilyn Cochran Smith or the recommendations from Linda Darling Hammond? I believe that the authors have very limited knowledge of actual programs in Massachusetts. They dismiss the fact that students test well when compared with other states… what is that “a fluke?” The article is full of generalities and it is not a motivator to get any of us (in the schools) to do more …. perhaps Ms. Lesaux is more

    familiar with Candian system and does not understand the local school policy as it is established in 350 districts and not dictated by the state in a uniform manner; there are many pockets of innovation in Massachusetts and , granted there are still inequities among and between the districts, but we do have much more “Success” than “Failure”…. I reject the premise of her article; I wish she could something that would motivate educators to do better instead of “bashing” us all the time. I believe that the disparity (achievement gap) in Massachusetts is lower than any of the other states and this is due to our teacher preparation programs and the wise use of federal program aid over a long period of time. This article does not do justice to the public school programs of Massachusetts and is meant to be some kind of stick to beat us up??? And, then Harvard can come in and say “vouchers”, “Charters” get rid of teachers like the articles that come from Richwine and the articles from Education Next that report how wonderful Louisiana and Arkansas are doing. I went to 3 schools across the river and only took one course at Harvard but this is a nasty kind of elitism. There are many individuals who have the expertise and training of the Harvard professors/faculty and they do not all reside in Cambridge.

    • jeanabeana

      What is Harvard providing for the reading public? Well there is Rogoff, and Richwine, and Peterson at Education Next and yes, I forgot Larry who said “women just can’t do math and science.” Peterson is quoted in the Daiy News NY that genetics is a big factor in underachievement. Peterson is quoted in UPI headlines with those “pricey teachers”… and now Ms. Lessaux has to bash our public school programs??? What is it with Harvard? I know I went to 3 schools across the river and Harvard always told us they were inferior but this is the 21st century.

  • jeanabeana

    Yesterday I left a message that the article should describe the good work of Marilyn Cochran Smith and others. Here is a Fordham University faculty member Nicholas Tamplo who is also someone who should be quoted. He argues:

    “America needs many kinds of excellent programs and schools: International Baccalaureate programs, science and technology schools, Montessori schools, religious schools, vocational schools, bilingual schools, outdoor schools, and good public schools. Even within programs and schools, teachers should be encouraged to teach their passions and areas of expertise. Teachers inspire life-long learning by bringing a class to a nature center, replicating an experiment from Popular Science, taking a field trip to the state or national capital, or assigning a favorite novel. A human being is not a computer, and a good education is not formatted in a linear code.”

    To use “failing” in the title of your article is intellectually dishonest especially if you are writing about Massachusetts. All it does is play into the hands of the real estate people that will tell the person “Vote with your feet” and spend your dollars in x or y neighborhood/town/city. Inequities among/between the 350 districts do exist ; in some schools children are hungry or live in dangerous surroundings and these problems are wider than the so called “failure” of teaching phonics (which is usually where you article will lead; or “common core” and computers which seem to be hand in hand with the Gates policy for education). The Massachusetts Education Commissioner or Secretary historically has had very little discretionary funding; in the past it came from federal through state ; with these funds being reduced the burden gets foisted on the state which devolves the burden to the local city or town. We noted this during Romney’s tenure as governor. Romney would destroy the goose that laid the golden egg. When your article starts out with “failing” to capture the reader with an “exciting (read sexy)” title you place all the professional educators on a confrontational mode by your attack. I have worked on both sides of the issue; ten years as a classroom teacher and then another 30 in curriculum, evaluation, staff development etc. There are complex issues that you reduce to a single “failing” so that parents will vote for home school or “charter” or “get rid of the teachers” etc…. Why would you want to inflame this kind of rhetoric? Do you see it as motivating people to do better? When Bush’s people said “teach unions are terrorists” and “teacher education programs should be bombed” there were many of us who heard the message. Ted Kennedy and the resources he had available were offered as a bipartisan solution/resolution and NCLB was formed; the important considerations that Kennedy’s intent brought to the agenda got carried away by extremists so that we now have educational policy being established by Gates with assistance from the corporate influence of Jeb Bush (et al)…. This is not what I intended when participating in bipartisan NCLB legislations. All of the work that Massachusetts developed (with great assistance from federal dollars, by the way) was neglected in an idiotic pursuit of tests to fire teachers. If anyone would care to respond from your cognoscenti, I have two questions (actually 3). Given that IQ is 50% heritable (as Harvard so wonderfully tells us through Richwine and colleagues), what does the school administrator do when IQ correlates with MCAS (High Stakes) at 50% or less????? As a school administrator, where would you put your emphasis ? Would you go with the latest fad? the one that gets your name in the newspapers? I am not one who believes as Richwine that Latinos have lower IQs (this is what he tells us from Harvard) I am just describing where his intellectual dishonesty will lead us… my own particular view is with Eliot Eisner, Larry Cuban , etc I went to 3 schools across the river (I have 4 degrees from 4 different colleges) and I rsent that this is coming from Harvard with tones of “authority” that are unearned.

  • Jim

    We, as a society, have put the cart before the horse. For the longest time the rule of thumb was to learn to read in grades 1-3. From grades 4 onward we read to learn. Will the specialization of the curriculum and the holding up of the early readers as the norm, we educators and the general public are not making sound decisions based upon the child’s brain and expected mastery.

  • Futo Buddy

    We provide teachers with one month worth of curricular materials and modeling, instead of ongoing guidance and comprehensive curricula

    ? thats not true

    We give pediatricians time to flag only the most severe language issues late in the game, rather than the opportunity to perform an annual screening of language skills.

    medical care is expensive enough without giving the doctors a hundred other things to do that they do not specialize in

    if they want kids to learn to read give them an IPAD. we are still stuck on this “sit and read a book quietly” paradigm when the future is digital media. these people must have not heard the story on NPR about the guy who left computers without keyboards in the ghetto in india and within 6 months the children had learned english and become as proficient with computers as a trained western secretary

  • maryg

    An excellent literacy program, Generations Incorporated in Boston, places trained literacy volunteers in K-3 classrooms to work with small groups of children. There are on average about 12 of these volunteers in each of the 10 Boston Public Schools in which we work. Most volunteers spends 10 hours per week in the same classroom all year. We also “pull-out” students twice a week who are struggling with literacy so that we can work one-on-one with them. Over 90 classrooms in Boston are receiving this assistance. It is deep, highly structured, and impactful. Going forward, these volunteers will focus on oral language and other early literacy skills in kindergarten and first grade. The members of Lesaux’s research team are well intended, but missed a major program that is working.

  • ubtaught

    The main problem is the misapprehension of the oft repeated but poorly understood comment that no two children are alike. There is no such thing as a ‘third grade reader’ or an ‘average five year old’. Put twenty, eight year olds in a room and you will have twenty two different readers.
    The push is to get all humans into one, easily defined box so they can be controlled. We are not a herd. Seventh graders do not exist. Pretending we are sheep and, in essence, all the same is the dream of Socialists and the nightmare of real humans who seek responsible liberty.
    Reading programs fail when they fail to to understand that no two humans read in the same way, for the same reasons and with the same comprehension.