Lisa Stark, Education Week
Lisa Stark, Education Week
Fewer than 40 percent of fourth and eighth grade students nationwide are proficient readers. Now, led by parents of children with dyslexia, a learning disability that makes reading and spelling difficult, some states are trying to change how reading is taught. Special correspondent Lisa Stark reports from Arkansas, where a group of determined advocates have upended traditional reading instruction.
But first: The reading gap among school children in this country is disturbing. Fewer than 40 percent of fourth and eighth graders are considered proficient readers.
There is a push to change how students are taught to read, and it is being led by parents whose children have dyslexia.
Special correspondent Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week reports from Arkansas for our education segment, Making the Grade.
Meet the families who changed how every child in Arkansas will learn to read, because they know what it's like for kids to struggle with reading. Here's Kim Head:
My kid is crawling under the table, stomach aches, doesn't want to go to school. We're in tears.
The psychological damage that happens to them when they cannot figure out reading.
He said, "I told you I can't read. Nobody believes me."
These families have spent thousands of dollars on educational testing and tutoring to discover their children have dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to spell and read.
It affects one in five individuals. Here's Dixie Evans:
Not being able to get the help from your school, the people that are supposed to know, that are supposed to have the answers, not being able to get that help and having to go out and find it on your own.
The sense of urgency with us is, while the schools are trying to figure their way, these kids, they don't have time to wait.
Audi Alumbaugh has led the push to pass new state laws on reading instruction. She has a niece with dyslexia.
She is not a strong reader still because of our delay in figuring out what was going on, but she will be a success. And I saw how it impacts every fiber of the family, which is what everybody here says. And there's just no need.
We have a system in place to fix this.
That system includes explicit instruction in phonics, teaching students how letters and sounds go together to help the brain process the written word.
If we have the word brush, brush, an we want to take away the buh, we are left with?
We absolutely know that this is the best way the teach children to read.
Sarah Sayko with the National Center on Improving Literacy says this approach works well for all students, not just those with dyslexia.
We know without a doubt that reading is not a natural process. Reading has to be taught. And it needs to be taught systematically.
Here's what that looks like at Springhill Elementary in Greenbrier, Arkansas, where students with characteristics of dyslexia get intensive reading instruction.
Rain. Oh, I tried to trick you all on that one. Very good.
Why are you in those groups? Do you know? What's that for?
Dan, do you want to say something about that?
To help us spell better, I think.
What about you, Cord?
Ace, Cord, and Dani are taught the use their senses of touch, feel, and movement to help imprint words into their brains.
And like pounding tapping helps me like write it.
So it helps to pound the word out and tap the word out?
And why is that, do you think?
Because you're sounding out each letter.
And letters become words. Words become stories. Reading is no longer something to avoid.
And then now I know a lot about reading. And when I go to chapter book, I will get stuck on big words.
I would like to see words. And I would like to just see them and say, oh, I know that word, and then just keep on reading.
Are you able to do that at all yet?
For those who can't read well by the end of third grade, there are lifelong consequences, including higher school dropout and poverty rates. Arkansas ranks in the bottom third of states when it comes to reading, and this group is determined to change that.
They have fought for laws to transform reading instruction, often battling an education establishment resistant to change, says Dallas Green.
They didn't want us around. They would see us at educational things, and it would be like, oh, lord, here they are.
But perseverance paid off. Seven years and at least eight bills later, Arkansas is revamping everything, from dyslexia screening, to reading instruction, to teacher take and licensing, costing the state $6 million a year.
Statewide, we have embraced this. And it's not been easy.
Not easy, but a watershed moment, says Stacy Smith, who oversees curriculum and instruction in Arkansas.
When we saw schools who started implementing dyslexia programs, kind of more school-wide, and all of a sudden their reading literacy results were improving, it was kind of that moment of, wait a second, not all these kids are dyslexic.
This type of reading instruction is the most beneficial for early readers. That was the conclusion of the federally appointed National Reading Panel nearly two decades ago.
So, there is actual scientific evidence about how students learn to read. And it's largely been ignored.
Ignored largely because of years of ideological fights over how to best teach reading. Should lessons be heavy with phonics or steeped in good literature?
Smith says sure kids of course need time with good books, but from what she's seen in Arkansas, the first step is comprehensive phonics instruction. That's why the state is moving to teach every student this way.
Golly, you think, what have we done? What have we done for generations to kids that we didn't really teach to read?
Arkansas is now retraining thousands of its educators who were never taught this method of teaching.
When I first started teaching, I honestly didn't know how to teach kids to read. I didn't. I taught them some sight words. I taught them the letters and what sounds they make. And I hoped that they put it all together. Rush.
Teacher Miranda Mahan no longer has to hope. She knows kids are learning to read.
I know that we're sending better readers to first grade now than we did, and first grade's going to send better readers to second grade. And I feel that there's not going to be as many students fall through the cracks.
This is happening around the country, with parents leading the way. Over 40 states have laws, pilot programs, or bills ready to be signed around reading and dyslexia.
But the requirements and mandates vary widely. In Arkansas, by the school year 2021, all elementary and special ed teachers must show that they know how to teach reading based on the science. At Springhill, they will beat that deadline.
For principal Stephanie Worthey, this is personal. Remember that student Ace Newland? That's her son.
I was an educator. And I struggled with my own child. And had this not come out and I was able to learn about dyslexia, I wouldn't even have been able to help my own child, rather less a whole building full of children.
So is this new approach working?
Let's go to the source.
Reading is kind of fun for me now that I know how and stuff.
The efforts are still so new, they haven't yet moved the needle on state tests. For those pushing for the changes, there's little doubt they will.
Would you say that teaching your children a different way has made a difference for your child?
How much of a difference?
Life-changing when children are truly learning to read.
For education week and the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Stark in Greenbrier, Arkansas.
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