No Offense: But Isn’t It Alarming That So Many Children Are Not Learning to Read?

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It appears I’ve offended some teachers by the post and comments on “Fifth grader is reading at 2.7 grade level. Should he be tested for Special Ed?”

Before describing the purpose of that article, I have a question for you: If your child was in 5th grade and reading on the 2.7 grade level, wouldn’t you be alarmed?

Wouldn’t you want a research based reading program that has a proven record of success before your child falls even further behind?

To clarify, that article is a critique of teacher education programs, not an attack on teachers.

When writing articles, we use research by respected organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and The National Council on Teacher Quality. We recommend publications from these organizations to those who are interested in reading instruction and teacher preparation. Here are some excellent publications and reports on teacher preparation and reading:

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.

Teacher Education: Coming up Empty – Describes a study in which leading teacher educators admit that there’s little evidence to prove the effectiveness of teacher ed programs.

What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching about Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren’t Learning

The National Council on Teacher Quality examined what aspiring teachers learn about reading instruction in college. NCTQ analyzed a representative sample of reading courses to assess the degree to which students are taught the five essential components of effective reading instruction ( phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Raising the Bar on Teacher Prep – National Center on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) aims to strengthen teacher education by rating programs on standards that measure key elements of teacher preparation program design and were developed in consultation with a broad range of experts.

A Closer Look at Early Reading: Key Findings.  Teaching children how to read is “job one” for elementary teachers because reading proficiency underpins all later learning. Unfortunately, 30 percent of all children do not become capable readers.

2015 State Teacher Policy Yearbook summarizes how the states are doing in developing policies that improve the teaching profession. The Yearbook describes teacher quality and preparation by state. State by State Summary.

Teacher Prep Review for 2014 uncovered early evidence that teacher prep programs are beginning to make changes.

Among their findings:

  • Reading proficiency underpins all later learning. Unfortunately, about 30 percent of all children do not become capable readers.
  • Two in five (39 percent) of the 820 undergraduate elementary ed programs evaluated provide instruction in all five essential components of early reading instruction.
  • Most programs’ course designs include comprehension (75 percent), and two-thirds include vocabulary (64 percent) and phonics (62 percent). Only about half include fluency (48 percent) and phonemic awareness (46 percent)
  • Quality of Most Reading Textbooks is Poor, Inaccurate and Misleading.

Given the strength of the scientific research in reading instruction, there is genuine cause for concern … we will not be surprised to find that it took several decades for the science of reading to be absorbed into thinking and practice … [that means ] yet another generation of children have been deprived of the benefits of the science.


  1. I am a mother of two children on the spectrum. From all my research in the last two years, I find one area that is overlooked in the schools is vision processing. A special optometrist can test and offer therapy in this area. The beauty of the therapy is it can be done at home daily along with weekly visits to the optometrist. Check out the book “Disconnected Kids “

  2. I understand many parents are frustrated with the state of special education but careful with the teacher bashing! We should be a community working together to make things better for OUR children. All the special educators I work with care passionately about teaching and advocating for students with disabilities. Don’t assume that we are not working hard to make things better. I am a case manager, a special education teacher and a parent with a son with a disability. I am grateful for the help he gets at school but the public schools can not provide the level of support we give him outside of school. I am very frustrated by the lack of funding for special education and related services providers and parent advocates make a huge difference. Just remember…we are on the same side!

  3. As a reading specilist in a New York system, I had to have 30 credits or a MA in order to teach reading. Such a ruling was legislated in 1978. I now live in Georgia where teachers who have no special training are selected to teach struggling readers. There is a Reading Endorsement of 12 to15 credits available but the state and the school systems do not require it. As a state consultant I had the opportunity to train some of these teachers in reading assessment strategies. Many attending the course literally ran to the professional learning coordinator and asked why the course was not made available to them years ago. Why isn’t it important to have well trained teachers?

  4. I would recommend reading the book, THE GIFT OF DYSLEXIA, by Ron Davis. I had a fifth grade student who read by sounding out each word although he had a lot of reading instruction. One week of instruction by a qualified Davis counselor worked to help him read a newspaper with better fluency.

  5. I am a retired Sp. Ed. Director, and now supervise Intern Special Education Teachers for a state university. I am in complete agreement with the NCTQ’s findings about the preparation teachers receive in college to be able to competently teach students to read. I use Wrightslaw often in working with my interns. Thank you for all of your helpful information.

  6. For the first few years after finishing my graduate-level courses in education, it was difficult to admit that the preparation I’d received in reading instruction was inadequate. Yet, I kept searching the literature for more methodologies backed by well-designed research studies.

    My “a-ha” moment was a few years in coming. I was sharing a pile of educational books about reading instruction with a friend who had just landed a teaching job. Seated there in my friend’s kitchen, it suddenly occurred to me that the materials I had brought were the ones I considered essential to teaching. Not one had been assigned during my graduate training.

  7. What is a parent suppose to do when the school says it up to the parent to get the child extra help they need outside of school because the child has problems reading because they have to keep the ones who can challenged and make sure they dont get bored. And where does a parent go to find the extra help the child needs?

  8. The articles and comments about reading leave off two very important facts. Can the child see appropriately and or can the child hear correctly. These two questions must be answered before any test is administered. The GORT and or the PIAT have distinct limitations and should not be used in an urban setting. The norms established by the KTEA are at best ridiculous.
    The articles about reading deal superficially with the problem and do not really expose the possible true causes of reading difficulty.

  9. I’ve had the same experience. My daughter was in special ed but she was making little progress in reading. At every IEP meeting, we’d bring up our concerns, and they’d insist that she was making satisfactory progress. Finally I talked to a learning disability specialist at a local university who told me about private schools that specialize in teaching students with learning disabilities and might be appropriate for my daughter. We visited the schools and people there were able to recommend lawyers. We found a special ed lawyer and had outside evals done. We were preparing to go to due process, but once the district saw the reports by the outside evaluators, they agreed to pay for the private school. My daughter started at the new school a month ago, and we had our first IEP meeting there last week. She is finally getting what she needs!

  10. I have a 16 year old in the 10th. grade who we have spent ALOT of money for reading tutors and lawyers to fight our school district! He is only reading at a beginning 6th. grade reading level. It is very dishearting….the schools and teachers just don’t care!

  11. Don’t give up. My son struggled in reading for years. I repeatedly was told that he would not learn to read, but they could read to him, etc. I got evaluations on several occasions, with recommendations in each. I made graphs of his test scores, and plotted them against his expected reading scores. I allowed for some flexibility in scheduling, but not in intensity (we could move the time around, but he received instruction daily). At 13, he finally began to make the connections and now if a fluent reader who reads for enjoyment. If you can allow your child to always have material he or she has chosen, regardless of the level, it reinforces that reading is for them, not the school. The truth is, we now know how to teach virtually all children to read. Contact local universities, find experts to back you up. It can happen.

  12. I think I work in one of the worst school districts in the nation in NJ. The percentage of non-readers is appalling. What’s worse is, that everyone knows, and there are no programs available to eliminate this problem. Child Study Team referrals are generally high. People in charge don’t seem to be the least bit worried. They continue to collect their paychecks, as John and Jose struggle to learn to read.

  13. I have to say that my 5th grader is also only reading at a 2.7 grade level and I have searched far and wide for help. I can state that I agree with everything said here and wish that as a parent I had more options available.

    If there were a way to hold someone accountable for the failings of my child (he has dyslexia that the “teachers” thought he would outgrow) I would have done so, now however it is much more important to find a way to “fix” the problem and not blame. Even after having talked to many teachers and trying to explain that there are many more ways to teach him to read I still come up against roadblock after roadblock.

    I find now that many different things are the problem and to get to the solution is almost impossible. Lets band together and find any way we can to fix it.

  14. Jamie: You write, “It seems that so many children … have problems with reading. So why do the schools not want to help?”

    Lots of reasons. Most teachers graduate from college without learning how to teach kids to read. For years, educators believed children learn to read “naturally,” as they learn to speak. Reading comes easily to some kids. But most kids need a research-based reading program, a teacher who is fully trained to use that program, and who has enough time to teach properly. This is expensive & time-consuming.

    Some kids need instruction in small homogeneous groups, or one-to-one. One teacher provides instruction to 3, 2, or 1 child for 90 min a day. This is expensive. The school will give that reading teacher so many students that no one gets quality instruction.

  15. I wrote this article the other day as a post to on and advocacy website and wanted to share it here because if the statistics are right that i in 5 have a mental illness, then can you imagine what WEcould accomplish if all the education advocacy groups, mental health organizations and the parents united to say WE the People, SO ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

    I truly hope this inspires all who are weary as I am with the tactics and the complaints for what is mandated, and a violation of ours and our children’s civil rights.

  16. I can relate. Our daughter has dyslexia and adhd. She has been in reading recovery since K. She is now in the 5th grade and reading at a 2nd grade/3month level. We have hired and finally found a tutor who is trained in Orton-Gillingham. However, the cost is $360/per month. In a time of recession and job loss this isn’t good for our family. I am going to demand that the school pay for this tutoring. It’s a crime as far as we are concerned. Educational Neglect. Worse yet….we’ve let the district put bandaids on our wounds and we are just as guilty for allowing this to go on. The school isn’t always right!


  17. Wrightslaw folks. I definitely hear and amplify your suggestion that the public at large is unfamiliar with RTI and its precepts as well as your point that there is a serious dearth of training in colleges of ed. Vis-a-vis advocacy on the part of parents, I would further point folks to look at the following dynamics influencing our current situation:

    +Gentleman’s agreement between certified/admin: “Admin pay will go up exponentially and teachers won’t be judged on their skills and pedagogical acumen but will experience stagnant pay.”

    +The best and brightest teachers leave the field within 5 years of teacher (high NTE scores correlate positively with leaving teaching)

    +The caliber of students graduating from colleges of Ed. have decreased with the relative buying power of teachers’ salaries in the last 20 years.

  18. MARY- You can find a list of scientifically research based programs at the FCRR (Florida Center for Reading Research) and the WWC (What Works Clearinghouse)
    As parents and advocates, we need to really push for reading programs (in general education) that address the 5 elements put forth by the National Reading Panel, as the elements a reading program must contain in order for students to learn to read. NCLB and IDEA both mandate scientifically research based instruction. As an advocate, I know that many children are being identified as having a specific learning disability who really suffer from ABT (ain’t been taught), which is prohibited under the SLD eligibility criteria of the IDEA, as a child should not be identified as having a SLD due to lack of adequate instruction. Adequate instruction = scientifically research based.

  19. It seems that so many children across the country have problems with reading. So why do the schools not want to help?
    I am new to all of this and it really does not make any sense. It would seem that trainng the teachers and buying the license for the O.G. based program would be so much cheaper than the legal fees they pay. Also how can educators sleep at night knowing they are passing a child who can not read? I am very happy to find this blog and knowing that it is not just in California but all over. This also makes me very sad to see so many kids that are being left behind. How can we change this?

  20. As a special education teacher, I personally have experienced this frustration with the school not providing a program for students with dyslexia to close the gap in the reading. Reading and Writing is essential. Yes, teachers have to be highly trained in the programs such as Orton Gillingham that have been proven to work with students with the forbidden word dyslexia. I have a list of strong programs and resources available that are proven to work with these students on my website. Please check it out. You can do it yourself and train yourself. Be empowered:

  21. Early intervention is very very important! Parents are your child’s best advocate. You understand your child the best. I was told recently by sp. ed. dir. in my school district that the goal for reading level for all students was 8th grade. That is unacceptable & I told her that was very sad. My 19 yr. old daughter is a senior this yr. reading at about 7.5 grade level, & her math is around 6th grade level. She has LD’s & a specific learning disability of reading comprehension. Anyone know where I can find a list of research-based reading/math programs? I have asked for several yrs. for research-based reading programs & keep getting trun around from the school. Wilson helped yrs ago from a tutor. Next/present tutor does not use any specific program. District just got Orton-Gillingham but only for 1st grade. Also, READ180, pilot program.

  22. Z: In theory I agree with you. But we have read (and published) many papers about RTI. There are an astonishing number of RTI models and passionate disagreements (and no consensus) between the experts about how to implement RTI.

    You write: “Given the … dearth of direct & research-based instruction in sp. ed), why aren’t parents advocating for systems change in the form of RTI?

    Most parents – and most teachers – do not understand RTI. The fact that psychologists disagree about how to implement an RTI program doesn’t help. RTI includes research-based instruction and frequent measurements of progress. In the typical school, who will provide this level of instruction? Who will monitor progress weekly?

    We’ve discussed RTI with special ed directors in several states. They say their teachers don’t have the knowledge and skills to implement an effective RTI program, that it will take a great deal of time (many years) and $$ to retrain their teacher corps. This won’t happen fast, if it happens at all.

  23. You go, Pam! I’ve got a 5th grader reading about 80 wpm who hasn’t hit his IEP reading goal in 3 years. The teachers think they can take overview classes of various reading programs, then teach him with mini version of these programs. (One said, “Oh, I took a short Orton-Gillingham class, so I’m giving him a short version of the program.”) Getting them to measure progress is like pulling teeth. (“…in an authentic school setting, we feel that DIBEL measures one per month are enough…”) What is WRONG with these TEACHERS??!

  24. Anmarie

    After reading From Emotions to Advocacy as well as reading through the Special Education Law book until it started to make sense, we slowly began to make effective requests in our IEP meetings.

    When it comes to advocacy for your children, you are the best person to advocate for many reasons.

    Special education attorneys are expensive and offer no guarantee of success for your child.

    A private evaluation will give you a benchmark of your child’s academic abilities. This is VERY important when setting measurable goals on the IEP. If the goals are not meaningful and measurable, your child will only experience low expectations.

    You have what it takes to be an Advocate… have Special needs kids who desparately need an advocate..

    YOU will do a great job!

  25. I appreciate what you are saying. I would love to be able to send my kids to a program to give them the extra help they need, but the funds are not there to do so. I have 4 kids on the spectrum. I wasn’t expecting the attorney to wave that magic wand. I thought that maybe I haven’t been using the correct language to get the services my kids are entitled to. I will continue to advocate on their behalf. I do agree with you. The wheels turn very slowly. Your son is lucky to have you as his advocate. Good luck to both of you

  26. Anmarie

    Attorneys don’t have a magic wand that makes schools provide educational services. In our situation, my son did not get any educational services until we physically provided it or located the folks who could provide meaningful educational services.

    Most school districts have no problem spending six figures in legal fees to keep from providing your child with services that would cost much less. Parents who wait for their attorney to fix the system, can easily watch their child grow up and out of school with no education.

    Time and financial resources were limited for us and I am glad that we were proactive in obtaining educational services on our own.

    If we are reimbursed at some point, that would be great. If not, our son will be in college and making choices about what he wants to be when he graduates.
    Good luck.

  27. I would throw yet another issue into the fray. A few posters have intimated their frustration re: their district’s refusal to assess their student for Sp. ed. even though they perceive that their “high incidence” (LDish) kid isn’t making any academic gains. Given the longitudinal research that unambiguously shows that sp. ed. does not have a significant positive impact on students (for a whole host of reasons, including the dearth of direct & research-based instruction in sp. ed), why aren’t parents advocating for systems change in the form of RTI?

    RTI focuses on core instruction that provides ongoing formative assessment and effectively grouped & leveled instruction in conjunction with multi-tiered intervention. IMO IDEA is simply a legal guarantee of subpar status quo instruction and fails to address loci and foci of the problem.

  28. I have been trying to get her needs met. I have done independent evals, shown the district with their own testing that there has been regression. The only response I have received is that she is complicated and they are doing what she needs, but she isn’t absorbing it. My daughter will be going from a school with less than 200 students to one with more than1200 next year. How will she survive there if she doesn’t have the skills now? It took me 3 yrs and 3 different doctor’s letters to have her coded correctly. Her teacher threatened her with a truant officer because she didn’t understand what was being asked of her and couldn’t self-advocate. She hasn’t slept in her own room for almost a year because she thinks someone is going to come take her away. She has never had educational success. If not an attorney,then what have I missed?

  29. One thing that you will find in common in all caselaw is that the wheels of justice spin slowly in special education law.

    The absolute first priority with our son was and is his educational needs being met. You do whatever you have to do to help your child learn how to learn.

    Once your child is experiencing educational success, the attorney that you locate will have a good foundation for a case.

    In the event that school poitics prevail, your child is not left holding the ‘victim bag”.

    Been there. Done that. If we choose to retain an attorney to recover expenses involved with helping our son get his “FREE” education, we will consider buying the T-shirt.

  30. I too have a 5th grader who reads 3yrs below grade level. She just finished her second set of evals thru the school and shows no significant progress and several areas of regression. She is my fourth child on the autism spectrum and even with dr.s letter stating her diagnosis the school challenged it. She has had 3yrs of remedial help and I have completed one independent eval and the second is scheduled. Her speech and language eval evaluator said the english language to her might as well be makes no sense. She has no working memory of any short vowel sounds and can only make concrete literal connections to all that she can read. Her perceived achievement is grade appropriate. My 14yo twin sons are not much better. Neither of them can spell or write a coherent paragraph and they are in 8th grade. Looking for an attorney now

  31. Schools can’t make Medical Diagnosis

    My son’s school district introduced us to an ABA Expert that they had contracted to train their staff and develop specialized programs. Aspergers is documented on an FBA done several years ago.

    We brought my son’s doctor to the IEP table to discuss his medical opinion so that nothing would be lost in translation.

    In 2008, we requested that my son’s classification be changed to Autism from OHI, these non-Medical Doctors told us with a straight face that “they had never seen anything that would cause them so to suspect that our son has Austism”. They were surprised to learn this, and did a good job of looking so.

    They can’t make a medical diagnosis, but if your Doctor writes a letter of diagnosis and even shows up at the meeting, they are able to un-diagnose a child quickly. Too Funny.

  32. D – If you can’t read, how can you make it in the real world? In the workplace, no one will read to you, no one will act as your scribe. If you can’t read, how will you learn about the world around you? How will you learn new things?

    The solution is research based reading programs and teachers who are trained in their use. The programs must implemented properly (i.e., student-teacher ratio, hours of instruction per week). We have research based programs … we don’t have enough teachers who are trained, nor do we teach reading an hour or more a day in small homogeneous groups.

    Schools won’t change until they have no choice. NCLB requires schools, school districts and states to make measurable progress every year and report their progress to the public. Public reporting requirements may turn the tide but it won’t happen overnight. If we can continue to educate parents so they become agents of change, it may happen in our lifetimes.

  33. Pam is dead on the money with this one. After reading all of the posts on the “Fifth Grader reading on 2.7 grade level” I am further convinced that the “reading wars” rage on.

  34. Pam Wright has raised a very important issue that pertains not only to those with disabilities, but all student in school who cannot pick up reading without some form of direct reading instruction.

    My oldest is 5 years behind in reading and writing according to a private evaluation. I was told my child is reading and writing better than the majority of students in the class that do not have learning disabilities. My child is in a regular classroom. All novels are read to them by a tape recorder and thoroughly discussed instead of the students reading them.

    This is the state of America’s high schools in one of the best performing counties in the country where the teachers tell the students it is ok to change the words when you are reading as long as it makse sense.

    If you can’t read – how do you know it makes sense?

  35. cc: You say the school staff say they “are not allowed to use the “d” word –“dyslexia” because it is a medical diagnosis and they aren’t doctors.” Dyslexia is listed as a specific learning disability in IDEA, and always has been. (see the definition of specific learning disability on page 55 of the Special Ed Law book)

    Is cerebral palsy a medical condition? Deafness, blindness? Are these kids entitled to special ed services for their “medical conditions?”

    The reluctance to use the “d” word is not because it is a “medical diagnosis” but because most teachers don’t know how to teach kids with dyslexia. Instead of training their teachers, schools pretend they can’t provide special education to kids with dyslexia because it’s a medical condition. When you think about it, that doesn’t make sense.

  36. I agree that you should get the outside eval. Yes it is expensive but it helps everyone especially your child know why they can’t read and it gives you piece of mind. I did spend the money on my then 8 year old who is 10 now and it didn’t seem to matter to the school because they are not allowed to use the “d” word “dyslexia.” They say its because it is a medical diagnosis and they aren’t doctors. To me its just another way to get around to helping my son. I have tried for two years in vain to get the school to use a Orton Gillingham program. No luck so I tutored him myself one summer and the following school year his reading scores went up by 20 points. They still aren’t convinced, so what’s a parent to do. He does have an IEP, lucky some say. I can’t even imagine but it really hasn’t helped except to give extra time on assignments.

  37. Teresa: You say your daughter is in 4th grade and is receiving average grades.

    Ignore grades – grades don’t tell you if she’s learning to read. You need to get an evaluation of her by an expert in the private sector (psychologist, educational diagnostician). Go to Wrightslaw and search for “evaluators” – you’ll find lots of info about how to find a good evaluator. Yes, an evaluation can be expensive but the cost will be a hundred times more if she doesn’t learn to read, and is illiterate when she drops out of school.

    Please don’t procrastinate – learning to read gets harder as the child gets older. If you live near a university with a psychology department, you may be able to get an evaluation by a grad student at a lower price.

  38. Schools seem satisfied with passing kids who are not up to grade level, and then when they get to middle school, the students are expected to *snap* read the grade-level text books. I am finding there are no modifications for those kids that are left behind. My son is in 6th grade and reads at grades 2-3, but the teachers have no modifications for text, tests, etc. prepared at all! It’s absurd.

  39. I’ve got an 11 year old daughter who is in the 4th grade this year. She is now on a 2.4 reading level as of October this year. I’ve been dealing with the school since she was in the 1st grade. They passed her and she could not read. She made C’s on her report card in 1st grade with having extra tutoring in a Title group. In 2nd grade, she passed with C’s and D’s. Her achievement tests were not proficient. I decided to hold her back because she still could not read. She repeated 2nd grade and stayed on honor roll the entire year. She stayed in the Title group the whole year. In 3rd grade, she passed with B’s and C’s with the help of extra tutoring. Now keep in mind, all achievement tests are still showing not proficient. We are now in 4th grade, had 3-D’s, 2-C’s, and 1-A on her 1st report card. I have a meeting Tues. Help???????

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