Overblown reading wars hide real literacy gap

American learners have a persistent reading problem, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 35% of students tested read at or above proficient levels.

Yet a closer look at the data finds that most white and Asian students, as well as learners in the suburbs, routinely score at least near proficient. Poorer students, as well as black, Hispanic and Native American children, fare much worse.

It’s one of the reasons journalist Emily Hanford—who wrote a recent New York Times opinion piece on the necessity of teaching science-based phonics reading to all kids—takes educators to task. In fact, she’s heard from many readers who are grateful for the information, and many, she says, are teachers who told her they were previously unaware of the research.

“This is about equity,” says Hanford. “Unless we teach all kids in a way that lines up with the way the brain works, you’ll leave a lot of kids out.”

Students from wealthier families and districts often have the resources to remediate reading deficits, she adds. “[Disadvantaged kids] have no backup,” Hanford says. “No one’s going to pay for them to go to a special private school; no one’s going to pay $3,000 for them to get tested; no one’s going to pay for a tutor to come five days a week for an hour before school.”

Instead, the kids will never learn to read well, she says.

Main story: Teaching phonics builds balanced literacy


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