Reading with Proficiency

The key to a child’s successful reading journey rests with the parents

Perhaps a lesson in how to help kids learn to read can be applied from my father’s method of inducing me to learn the multiplication table. 

In second grade, I dragged my feet about learning the multiplication table through 9×9. After testing, school officials were skipping me from third to fourth grade, and my father wanted the multiplication table memorized. However, like Henry Higgins’s My Fair Lady opinion about women, I was equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling than to ever let this table into my life.

After a few frustrating days working with me, my dad typed the table on an index card. “Go to your room. Don’t come out until you know this.” My entreaties, pleas, requests were ignored. If I faltered, back into my room I went. But I learned the table. The next day in school, I felt as if I’d conquered something, even if against my will.

If your kids can’t read well, and you’re seeking a reason, please choose one: flawed teaching approaches, curriculum emphasizing student self-esteem over student achievement, lack of parental involvement, too much teaching to testing, not enough teacher-parent cooperation, expectations that teachers will teach reading. Or perhaps look at your own face in the mirror?

The reason isn’t there? Pick another. Chances are good there’s a dust-gathering study on yet another bureaucratic shelf to justify your position. None are fixing the problem: too many children can’t read well. There’s a cost, in dollars and lives, to this failure to motivate, encourage, or compel kids to learn to read well.

Knox County, the state of Tennessee, and the U.S., are disgorging annually from schools an army of teenagers who are unfit and unprepared to be successful either in college or the modern economy. Many of these young people face the real possibility that their economic futures will depend on how much they’ll be supported by American taxpayers. For all the political and societal attestations of devotion to education—and despite the seemingly endless series of local and state education improvement projects meant to lift student reading ability—the grade, based on standard test scoring, is ‘F’.

Why aren’t student reading levels higher than the disappointing-to-dismal statistics of grade level reading proficiency? The answer is possibly far simpler than an academic dissertation: They’re not interested; there are things more fun to do.

Typical scapegoats are school superintendents, administrators, teachers, parents, politicians, educational theoreticians, educational technicians, or someone else conveniently nearby on whom to place blame. The most recent culprit, COVID-19, has forced remote learning with teachers physically separated from the kids they’re teaching.

But sub-par reading levels have been reality since before COVID-19. On January 2, 2019, a year prior to the pandemic, an NPR article on the reading struggles of American kids said, “According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 32 percent of fourth-graders and 24 percent of eighth-graders aren’t reading at a basic level. Fewer than 40 percent are proficient or advanced.”

In Tennessee, as around the country, new administrations have a plan for schools. Gubernatorially, dating back to the mid-1980s, some of the principal—but not only—initiatives: Gov. Lamar Alexander’s Better Schools Program; Gov. Ned McWherter’s Basic Education Program; Gov. Don Sundquist and “investing” in teachers with scholarships, mentors, and merit pay; Gov. Phil Bredesen’s pre-K emphasis; Gov. Bill Haslam’s “free” community college; and Gov. Bill Lee’s school voucher program.

Nevertheless, in reading, the 1998 NAEP National Report Card showed Tennessee fourth-graders scoring 212 out of 500; in 2019, the score was 219. These dreary results are consistent with many other states. What to do? Lowering standards or eliminating testing are answers, then everyone can feel good without changing anything. 

If improvement is sincerely desired, teachers can’t do this alone. Parents know what to do, and, if willing, can figure out ways to make reading fun, incentivize their kids, challenge them, and deal with frustration when the kids push back. 

Sometimes, it might require sending a child to his or her room and saying don’t come out until you’ve read this and can explain it to me. In the moment, the child might not like it; the next day in school, however, knowing more than they did the day before, they’ll feel as if they’re conquering something, in this case, challenges in their life ahead. Even if it’s against their will

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