We’re in a literacy crisis. Our children deserve a better approach.

After decades of multidisciplinary research, the scientific community has achieved consensus—children need systematic phonics instruction to crack the code and learn how to read.
Jeanne Jeup
Jeanne Jeuphttps://imse.com/
Jeanne Jeup is co-founder and CEO of IMSE, a provider of structured literacy PD programs.

The U.S. is in a literacy crisis.

Despite the fact that literacy is one of the greatest fundamental elements of every child’s development—impacting nearly every part of their lives—the current reality of how our children are doing in school is sobering. Just 33% of fourth-grade students performed at or above the NAEP proficiency level on the reading assessment 2022, and 34% of students are below basic reading level in the fourth grade, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics.

Illiteracy is a significant factor in whether adolescents graduate from high school. Students who are behind as early as kindergarten make up the largest portion of school dropouts—these students have a less than 12% chance of attending college, according to the Children’s Reading Foundation.

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Even more startling are statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice that link incarceration and illiteracy, with an astonishing 70% of incarcerated adults unable to read above a fourth-grade level.

Despite literacy—or a lack thereof—being a major issue in the U.S. for decades, parents and educators are failing to see progress. Recent in-depth, well-researched reporting—from journalists such as Emily Hanford and her podcast, “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong” and The New York Times education reporter Dana Goldstein’s “The Fight Over Phonics“—have brought the literacy crisis to the forefront and exposed the truth: we were wrong.

Solving the literacy crisis

Balanced literacy, pioneered by Marie Clay and brought to the masses by the esteemed educator Lucy Calkins almost half a century ago, downplayed the role of phonics in reading instruction and promoted this beautiful, idealistic idea that if you expose children to enough books and genres, they will automatically, and intrinsically, learn how to read.

While for some children, this is true, for the majority, it isn’t. Years of poor reading scores and far too many children falling through the cracks of our education system have shown that learning how to read is not easy. While we are born wired for oral language, our brains are not wired to learn how to read, and the process is quite complex.

As Louisa Moats—the teacher, psychologist, researcher, graduate school faculty member, and author of many influential scientific journal articles, books, and policy papers on the topics of reading, spelling, language, and teacher preparation—said, “Learning to read is not natural or easy for most children.”

“Unlike spoken language, which is learned with almost any kind of contextual exposure, reading is an acquired skill—and although surrounding children with books will support reading development, it is NOT SUFFICIENT for learning how to read,” Moats continued. “Teaching reading is rocket science. But it is also established science, with clear, specific, practical instructional strategies that all teachers should be taught and supported in using.”

The good news is that many state legislators and other policymakers are requiring reading instruction to align with cognitive science research about how children learn to read. States don’t have to recreate the wheel or start from scratch. Six states have passed laws to change the way reading is taught since last fall and a dozen other states are considering similar efforts.

After decades of multidisciplinary research, the scientific community has achieved consensus—children need systematic phonics instruction to crack the code and learn how to read. To combat popular arguments made by opponents, we know that phonics is not the only answer. We can teach all kids how to read using the essential elements of structured literacy:

  • Phonological awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

Ninety-five percent of children can learn to read. Yet, without all five of the above elements, the system breaks, and many, if not most, children will struggle to become successful readers. We need to agree that every child has a right to the systematic, sequential, and explicit evidence-based instruction that structured literacy provides—and we need to do something about it now.

PD is the game-changer

Many educators and districts bought into a system they thought they could trust. It’s not their fault, yet it’s a hard pill to swallow. We now need to get the word out that there is a better way, and that for our children, time is of the essence. Teachers need and deserve comprehensive training and actionable strategies and tactics that can be immediately implemented. Students deserve reading instruction that is grounded in research.

Regardless of a student’s background or ability level, structured literacy works for everyone. Similar to learning to play an instrument, you have to follow the right steps to learn to read. That includes the right building blocks and successful scaffolding to build confidence. At IMSE, we have taught thousands of teachers who have, in turn, taught millions of children to read using structure literacy. It works.

One week of immersive professional development coupled with early literacy curriculum and classroom tools can be the difference between a teacher that struggles and one that succeeds with confidence. As importantly, our teachers are making an immediate impact in their classrooms, turning the literacy tide and changing their students’ lives forever.

We cannot ignore the research or the current state of literacy. Evidence-based literacy instruction works. Real, lasting change will require working with schools, teachers, administrators and parents to ensure everyone feels supported in their efforts to overcome the literacy crisis we currently face, but it is doable.

Together, we can combat this literacy crisis.

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