Saturday, September 28, 2019

Don’t accept excuses — your child can learn to read

An OCPA policy brief last month reminded us that colleges of education are failing and offered proposals to improve teacher quality. Sadly, then, a story this week from Oklahoma Watch (“In Oklahoma, a Discredited Theory of Reading Is Widely Used”) came as no surprise.

“In classrooms across Oklahoma and the nation,” Jennifer Palmer reports, “students are taught to read using a theory that has been discredited by decades of research by brain scientists.”

Hats off to Oklahoma Watch for shining a spotlight on this enormous problem. Think about it: fully 7 in 10 Oklahoma fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. The numbers are even worse for minority students. Many of these children, thinking there's something wrong with them, will go through life with unspeakable distress. As their frustration mounts, many will slide into delinquent behavior. Many are destined for welfare or prison.

Unfortunately, illiterate children grow up to become illiterate adults. As one longtime Oklahoma educator with a doctorate in education has pointed out: “More than 20 percent of our state’s population, or nearly 400,000 people, can’t read.”

This massive failure is as unnecessary as it is heartbreaking. “To teach a child to read properly is not difficult,” says author Douglas Wilson. “Local education professionals have made it seem difficult, and the entire process has been shrouded with arcane professional terminology. But the only term that concerned parents need to know and understand is phonics.” (Wilson’s 1991 book Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning basically launched the modern-day classical Christian education movement.)

“It's almost a sin what we're doing to our children,” phonics tutor Sylvia Brown once told me. Mrs. Brown is a former public-school speech pathologist, assistant principal, and principal in Tulsa. “In my 30-some years of teaching, I have not met a child who couldn't read when we go to the basics and teach him his alphabet then teach him his sounds," she said."I haven't met one yet. Maybe there is one out there on this planet, but I don't believe there is."

Your child needs a strong foundation in phonics. He or she needs to be taught — in a direct, systematic, and intensive manner — how to match sounds with the letters that spell them.

In the words of world-renowned reading expert Siegfried Engelmann, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Oregon who died this year at the age of 87: “If your child is not reading by the end of the first grade and is not retarded (IQ below 75), do not accept excuses that blame your child.”

What to Do

I will discuss some schooling options below, but right up front it's important for you to know that you can do this yourself. My wife and I recommend Engelmann’s book Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons, which we used with all of our children. You won’t regret it. As Susie told our oldest son when he graduated high school:
What stands out in my mind is that I was able to spend time with you. I am grateful that I got to be the one sitting next to you on the couch, listening as you slowly sounded out letters, words, and sentences. It was I who got to be the one to hear you read for the very first time.
Indeed, teaching your child to read may turn out to be the most fulfilling thing you'll ever do.

If your child is in a public school and is not learning to read, you must ask the school to give your child a firm foundation in phonics.

Another option is to seek out a private school, though you'll want to make sure it's one that provides a firm foundation in phonics. Don’t panic — private schooling is more affordable than you might think: according to The Journal Record's 2019 Oklahoma Policy Review, average private school tuition in Oklahoma is $4,588 for elementary schools and $6,140 for high schools. Moreover, scholarships are available. Oklahoma has two programs to choose from:

  ➤  Many students are eligible for a private-school scholarship funded by private donations (for which donors receive a state tax credit). Click here to learn more about the program. To explore schools, click here, here, or here, for example.

  ➤  Many students — special-education students, foster kids, children adopted out of state custody, and more — are eligible for a Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship. Click here to learn more about the program. (Ironically, many children shunted into special education are there only because of a teachin' deficit disorder: the grown-ups never taught these children how to read.)

As I've lamented for 25 years, school-produced illiteracy is a huge but underappreciated problem. "Men can always be blind to a thing," Chesterton observed, "so long as it is big enough." The illiteracy epidemic and its victims should be in the news every week, not only at Oklahoma Watch but in media across the state. 

Moreover, it's time for our state's political leaders to bring greater scrutiny to bear on those whom author and attorney Bruce Shortt has called "Oklahoma's crack team of government educators — the folks who spend billions of dollars a year to achieve heretofore unknown levels of semiliteracy and illiteracy among otherwise normal children."

Journalism and public policy aside, the main thing for parents is to make sure your child can read.

  • "We cannot continue to fail our students by not making explicit scientifically-based reading instruction a national priority," says Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. And check out these MRI photos.
  • "There is no reason a child cannot read before they are in third grade, but our teachers have to teach based on the science of reading, and that is not happening across this state," says Oklahoma state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. "It is happening in pockets. ... No child needs to struggle to read if we are teaching them properly."
  • "Evidence shows that virtually anyone can learn to read if they are taught to associate letters with particular sounds (phonics) and that trying to teach students to read using the whole language approach works poorly," Erik Gilbert writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education ("How Ed Schools Became a Bastion of Bad Ideas"). "Still, colleges of education continue to resist phonics."
  • Joy Hofmeister weighed in on this topic again. "The science of reading is not being taught in every classroom," she said. "There are veteran teachers who believe they are teaching reading correctly, and actually some of the methods are compounding the difficulties with children who struggle to read. And they’re doing that without realizing it."
  • "[S]tate officials say many teachers still use reading-instruction theories that brain research has shown don’t work and can be detrimental," Oklahoma Watch reports. "We see that struggle persist year after year," says state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. "We can overcome dyslexia and other struggles only through explicit systematic phonics instruction."

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