NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

No Secret To Teaching Reading, But Many Students Fail

June 11, 2001

The National Institutes of Health, Harvard University's School of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, as well as other experts, agree youngsters follow a definite process in learning how to read that can be applied in the classroom -- using phonics programs, for example -- but that knowledge is not reaching classroom teachers.

As a result, only 32 percent of the nation's fourth-graders read at grade level -- and the gap between the worst and best readers is widening.

Here are some sobering facts which illustrate the dimensions of the problem:

  • Thirty-three years of study by the National Institutes of Health found that of the 10 percent to 15 percent of children who will eventually drop out of school, more than 75 percent will report reading difficulties.
  • Only 2 percent of children getting special education for reading problems will complete a four-year college program.
  • Half of adolescents and young adults with criminal records have difficulty reading.
  • About 5 percent of children learn to read and write with ease, 20 percent to 30 percent more learn to read relatively easily, and about 60 percent have difficulty.

Experts say there were probably the same proportion of children 40 years ago who had reading problems. But reading wasn't as crucial to employment then as it is in today's age of high technology.

"School dropouts, teenage pregnancy, poor academic achievement, crime -- all of these are downstream consequences of not learning to read," says NIH researcher G. Reid Lyon.

Perhaps most chilling of all is that some states now use their fourth-grade reading failure rates to predict the size of prisons they will need a decade in the future.

Source: Tamara Henry, "Lawmakers Move to Improve Literacy, the 'New Civil Right,'" USA Today, June 11, 2001.


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