The Science of Reading: Failing Students or Failing Schools?

By Faith Borkowsky

Studies show that nationwide, over 60% of children are not meeting grade-level proficiency in reading. School data from across the country reveal that most children placed in educational interventions do not significantly improve or function better as a result. There are a variety of reasons why school intervention failure rates are so high.

In Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, I describe some of the systemic failures I witnessed in my years working as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, literacy coach, and administrator. Too often, the same intervention services are provided to children year after year without any appreciable improvement in functioning. Even worse, in many cases, rather than preventing harm, the interventions are actually detrimental. In either case, there comes a point where the intervention services should no longer be called “intervention.”

So, what should we expect when a child enters intervention? True intervention should be life-changing for a struggling child, both academically and emotionally. While we all would hope to see the achievement gap closed, or at least narrowed as early as possible, the emotional toll on struggling children and their families also must be considered. To illustrate what intervention outcomes should look like, I offer the voices of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching parents:

“Before . . . my son would avoid reading at all costs, which would include hiding and acting out . . . (After) The last few weeks have been an exciting time for us. His reading has taken off and he’s immersing himself in magazines and books. He recently began to read the Dog Man series out loud to me on his own and has gotten through chapter after chapter without frustration. If you told me this is where we’d be at this point in the year, I never would have believed it.”—J.V.

“We ended kindergarten not being able to recognize all the letters of the alphabet as well as not being able to recall the sounds that all the letters made. Now at the end of January of first grade, she is able to read age-appropriate texts with some help . . . She was behind all of her peers at the beginning of the year; she is now surpassing some of them. She is spontaneously reading things like store front signs and packages. She was diagnosed with ADHD over the summer and we were scared for first grade . . . she was making poor eye contact, not paying attention and almost incapable of sitting still for more than five minutes. Fast forward to now, and my daughter sits one hour with Faith with her eyes on her most of the time, and she actually appears to be enjoying her sessions on most days. It is not only the rules to decoding . . . but the confidence to know that she is capable of learning to read.”—L.S.

“Before my daughter (third-grader) started . . . she could barely sound a word out. [In fourth grade,] she now has the confidence she lacked and can read chapter books. When she doesn’t know a word, she is able to use the skills she’s learned . . .”—M.A.

“When my son first started . . . in third grade, he was reading on a kindergarten level and could barely read 3 letter sight words. It was a struggle at first for him, but after six months, the progress my son made was astonishing. After another year, he received a merit award at his fifth-grade graduation based on the progress he had made. Today (sixth grade) he is on par with his classmates and has adjusted well to middle school.”—J.W.

“As a second language speaker, it was hard for me to teach my daughter to read in English. At the beginning I used Spanish sounds to teach her how to spell words in English. The sight word method was not for my daughter. By third grade, it was difficult for her to read and write at grade level. My daughter took reading lessons . . . for about six months and her reading skills improved and has not had problems. (Now in sixth grade)”—A.H.

“During K, he stayed at guided reading level C—memorized all the books and would magically recite them verbatim without ever looking at the page. My son had an IEP, classified OHI for ADHD and also received Speech, OT, and PT. He remained at Level C from October 2017—December 2018 of first grade . . . The turning point was when we started working with Faith . . . My son went from level C in Nov 2018 to level J by June 2019. This is a huge contrast from being at level C for a year from Oct 2017 through Dec 2018. I will always be grateful . . . for saving his life—his academic and social/emotional lives are intertwined and codependent on ability to read at grade level expectations.”—D.D.

“By first and second grade, the memorization strategies that she had developed to “read” became unsustainable. Reading turned into a fearful and upsetting task in our home. I have always been a proficient reader, but I had no idea how to help my daughter. It was an awful feeling . . . My daughter’s dyslexia will always be with her, and she does still stumble at times. But . . . she [now] has the tools she needs to get through a page, a chapter, a book! She no longer just collapses in despair when she is faced with challenging text. It’s as if we were once lost at sea and then someone gave us an oar, a compass, and a map . . . After seeing the change that structured reading instruction could make in a child’s life, I decided to become trained myself.”—M.M.S.

These parent testimonials represent just a handful of those I have received over many years of working with students with dyslexia and other language-based reading difficulties. The stories are numerous but the theme consistent: the interventions did not target the deficit areas. Being knowledgeable about the reading process will help parents advocate for interventions that actually improve functioning.

End of guest blog.

When it comes to understanding the details of high-quality reading instruction and learning what dyslexia is and isn’t and how to provide the social and emotional support dyslexic students need, there are two important books that every parent should have, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist Faith Borkowsky, and Raising a Child With Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the new CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators.