Most Kids Are Not Proficient Readers … We Need Better Teacher Preparation by Dr. Marcia Henry

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Science leads to better readers by Marcia Henry

It’s a grim story to read.

Fifteen years ago, Wisconsin fourth-graders placed third in the country in state rankings of reading ability known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. By 2009, our fourth-graders’ scores plunged to 30th, with a third of the students reading below basic levels. The scores of minority youth were even bleaker, with 65% of African-American and 50% of Hispanic students scoring in the below-basic range.

As a member of Gov. Scott Walker’s blue ribbon reading task force, I am one of 14 people charged with reversing that drop. And, as a 50-year veteran educator, I have a partial solution. Let me spell it out for you: We need better teacher preparation.

How many of you remember your very best teachers? I remember Miss Hickey at Lincoln School and Miss Brauer at Folwell School in Rochester, Minn. They taught me to read.

Teachers Not Prepared to Teach Struggling Readers
I travel throughout the country consulting and providing staff development for school districts and literacy organizations. I’ve met thousands of dedicated teachers who tell me they are unprepared to teach struggling readers.

This situation is not the teachers’ fault. Some teachers in Wisconsin had only one course in reading instruction. Most were never exposed to the latest research regarding early reading acquisition and instruction. In contrast, several states require three or four classes in courses that contain the latest in science-based reading instruction.

What is Science-Based Reading Instruction?
So, what is science-based reading instruction? This instruction provides students with strategies for reading words accurately and fluently, and improving vocabulary and comprehension. Evidence is based on over 100,000 studies conducted on learning to read over a 40-year period. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation and other agencies, in conjunction with research universities such as the University of Michigan, Stanford and Yale, provides clear implications for teachers.

At a word level, well-trained teachers know how to

  1. train children to manipulate sounds in words,
  2. teach phonics, the letter/sound relationship known as the alphabetic code,
  3. divide words into syllables and
  4. recognize prefixes, suffixes and other word parts in words.

Teachers learn the English spelling system and know how to explicitly teach it to their students.

However, most teachers in training learn to begin with a story. Children learn the words Dick, Jane, run and jump not by sounding them out but by reading the words over and over in a story. Children read to themselves or to others. They are even encouraged to guess at words, by finding clues in pictures and the context of the story.

No specific strategies are provided for figuring out the words. Instead, children are told to skip them or try again or ask for help. Children have to figure out the code on their own; some do, but many do not.

We know that students can learn to read when teachers have learned the necessary skills. Current research finds that teachers can successfully learn to teach strategies and methods useful for all children. Teachers who are trained in science-based reading intervention programs are improving reading scores in Massachusetts, Delaware, Virginia, Florida and other states.

Many Teachers Don’t Know Structure of English Words & Not Trained to Teach Literacy Skills
Nationwide research summarized by the National Reading Panel shows that many teachers have not been trained in their universities to teach literacy skills. One study found that significant numbers of teachers were unable to count sounds in syllables, divide words into syllables and identify prefixes and suffixes in words. Another study found that 53% of those training to be teachers and 60% of teachers in the classroom didn’t know the answers to half of the questions regarding the structure of English words.

Children with dyslexia and others who struggle to learn to read need to learn the alphabetic code in order to read and understand text. These programs will help all children learn to read, not only those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities. Wisconsin’s biggest educational challenge is improving our children’s reading. All our kids deserve the very best teaching.

After five meetings, there is little consensus among task force members regarding adequate teacher preparation and licensing. One step in the right direction is to ensure better teacher preparation.

Your Assignment: Get Involved!

We need a swell of support from parents, educators and others who value the future of our children.

So, here is your assignment:

Write the Department of Public Instruction and your legislators. Insist that your representatives propose and pass legislation that provides science-based reading instruction for all teachers. Demand that DPI increase the number of units for teacher credentialing in classes, require rigorous licensure exams, and adopt content and knowledge standards based on the evidence from science-based research.

Let’s provide a happy ending to this story.

Marcia Henry is professor emeritus at San Jose State University and former president of the International Dyslexia Association.

This article by Dr. Henry was originally published in the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel on August 27, 2011 at:

Related Resources

Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading published by the International Dyslexia Association, 2010.

Teaching Reading IS Rocket Science: What Expert Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do by Louisa Moats, published by the American Federation of Teachers, 1999.

What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching About Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren’t Learning, published by the National Council on Teacher Quality, 2006.

Reading Richmond: How Scientifically Based Reading Instruction is Dramatically Increasing Achievement by Jennifer Dubin, published in the American Educator, 2008.

Scientifically Based Reading Programs by Marcia L. Kosanovich, Ph.D, published by the Florida Center for Reading Research, 2005.

  1. From my limited personal experience with my children, their learning disabilities (reading) are organic in nature according to neuropsychologist who have evaluated them, however, intensive reading remediation given early has brought them up to grade level in reading. It does not take away the LD, which is always present. Good teaching and best practices can enhance the reading ability of dyslexic students. Most teachers struggle in overcrowded classrooms which result in such students falling behind.

  2. In regards to Susan B., you address a provocative question. I think it is rare that lack of adequate reading instruction ‘creates’ learning disabilities (dyslexia). I would go on to say that the lack of correct teaching methods would enhance the dyslexic symptoms. I do believe that in many, many case – ‘proper’ reading instruction by a ‘qualified’ teacher can greatly enhance the reading ability of a child – if not bring the child to near grade level, at grade level or beyond in regards to literacy.

    BTW, for those interested – I am reading Proust and the Squid (The Story and Science of the Reading Brain). It brings up some very interesting points.

  3. Just a thought…anyone else here ever considered that some (not all) learning disabilities are created by this “lack of adequate reading instruction?”

  4. I fully agree with teacher training. But, for now parents need a working plan to deal with the “now” and learn through their Parent Advisory Centers how to work with school districts to monitor their child’s progress. Qualified teachers are not qualified in all areas as more students are entering school systems with complex issues. Few teachers know how to fully remediate for dyslexia and reading specialist may not have the tools in their toolbox to deliver instruction. It is hard to figure out “how to remediate.” Teachers do try but need professional development, administrative support and understand data driven results. Mayhem, I applaud you for your point of view but not all kids can be taught to read so easily and need more scientific based interventions that not “everyone” can do despite degrees. But, your words speaks to me.

  5. Good teachers are crucially important to students’ success. We need talented and committed individuals in the teaching profession.

  6. Sorry under qualified teachers don’t get an “I don’t know how” excuse. They have a college degree and I have some research and 2 kids who could read before starting VPK. its really not that hard to figure out how to do really. The truth is the entire reading philosophies nation wide are wrong. to much attention is focused on reading everything word for word but as long as what they read is understandable as they go and they can still comprehend then they can read. To many teachers want them to read exactly the way it is written but we as adults don’t even read that way. we skip words and fill in extra words as we go along as well.

  7. Patty – Yes it is called No Child Left Behind which many are trying to change so that more and more children “fall through the cracks”. It appears that there is no one who cares about our children even the regular ed children.

  8. A big problem here in Wisconsin is that the Govenor and Legislator just changed school standards so that a district no longer needs to have a reading specialist on staff. How can the teachers we do have gain the knowlege needed to help struggling students when those who do have the information are removed from the school.

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