New Literacy Law-Too Much and Too Late?

Literacy! Children reading together

Literacy! Children reading togetherIn the continuing effort to get our children reading, fourteen states have enacted a policy requiring third-graders who do not meet a reading standard to attend summer school and/or be held back. Summer school is costly and studies show that students held back often drop out of school. Is there a solution? This appears to be a complicated issue for many.


Although some say that summer school might improve student literacy, many wonder where the extra funds will come from. In North Carolina, districts could not rely on state funds to cover the extra expenditure. Non-profit foundations were needed to supplement the summer schools costs.


Most educators feel that checking student reading proficiency in third grade and then “punishing” a student, who is not up to par with summer school or the threat of being left back, is not only unfair but also deals with a serious issue too late in the educational process.


Educational protocol has always been that a 6-years-old should begin to learn to read. Third grade is the turning point. It is when people move from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”. Testing at this point puts everyone involved at a disadvantage.


Since 2002, Florida has required reading assessments starting in kindergarten. Those students who are shown to already be falling behind are offered extra support. This policy increased fourth grade literacy from 27% to 39%.


It is known that babies who are read to will generally learn to read without a problem. So, what is going on in our school systems? Have budget cuts, which caused larger class sizes, helped children to fall through the cracks? Are parents working too hard and don’t have time for their children? Are people too busy with their smart phones to help their children get smart? Why has literacy become a greater challenge with every passing year?


Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions.

12 Responses to New Literacy Law-Too Much and Too Late?

  1. Brad Corrodi says:

    Your article outlines the essence of the dilemma well. Few would argue with the importance of literacy to virtually all aspects of an engaging and fulfilling life. It is also understandable that these legislatures are demanding some basic accountability for this top-priority educational outcome — nobody wants to see children passed along through the system with nobody taking responsibility for whether they have the basic skills needed to even participate in the “reading to learn” grades. On the other hand, the prescribed measures (non-promotion, summer school) are likely to stigmatize and make those children less engaged in learning — both an unfair “penalty” and possibly counterproductive.

    However – your assertion that “It is known that babies who are read to will generally learn to read without a problem” is unfortunately false. Studies do show that early exposure to language, and the depth of exposure does indeed correlate with a population’s aggregate measures of reading level at a certain age (e.g., developmental delays are less likely). That is not inconsistent with other research which shows physiological differences in the brains of students who demonstrate difficulties in decoding text (now directly observed through fMRI imaging). There is strong evidence (e.g., differences among siblings raised with essentially the same exposure to language) to suggest that for many struggling readers, no amount of early exposure to language would have enabled them to “learn to read without a problem”.

    The challenge is that text-comprehension ability is essentially an aggregate measure, which is affected by multiple factors (including early language exposure, quality of phonics-based early reading instruction, maturity level, concentration/time on task ability, and physical brain characteristics) which are not easily disentangled in those critical K-2 years. We will likely struggle to make progress against this critical challenge until we recognize the importance of discerning and addressing different “root cause” issues with appropriate instructional approaches – rather than continuing to apply “wait and see” across all cases — the educational equivalent of “take two asprin and call me in the morning”.

    • Tsivya Fox says:

      My note about early exposure to reading helping to bring literacy success was more geared towards the average person and not someone with learning disabilities. Though, I do believe that everyone benefits from early exposure to the written word. Thanks for sharing, Brad.

      • Brad Corrodi says:

        With all due respect, Tsivya, I am afraid that your response is indicative of (part of) the problem. The point is that there is no “average person” when it comes to “literacy success”. Every child learns differently, and part of our challenge is to find a way to address that diversity appropriately within the practical constraints of a public education system. Whole-population screening studies identify text-decoding issues (of varying degrees) in 15%-20% of 2nd graders. Sadly, in most districts only 3-5% of students have learning disabilities identified, and even those do not receive the remediations, accommodations and peer support that have been demonstrated elsewhere to yield student success.

        That is not to say that the un-diagnosed LD population is the only group that is poorly served by a “one size fits all” approach to literacy. Other comments have rightly identified situations (often poverty-related) where other supports (e.g., after school programs that would offer engaging exposure to items such as those mentioned by others in their comments – storytelling, group problem solving, creative exploits) may well be the missing spark to engage young minds in the joy of learning.

        Inspiring young minds is very challenging work demanding both talent and training. But the sooner we recognize that (and reject the “assembly line” approach to the “average” child) the sooner we can get to work on creating that kind of learning environment.

  2. Cheryl Vitali says:

    Part of the problem with literacy these days is happening before children ever enter school. Parents often rely on the quickest fix for engaging their children’s attention often a tablet or cell phone. They may take car trips and feel great when they limit the electronic time until after at least 2 hours have passed. I actually read this in the Wall Street Journal awhile ago. What does that mean? Many parents are not reading to their children as much as they did in the past.

    My mother promoted literacy without even realizing it. First she subscribed to some book clubs, Dr. Seuss and later ones with biographies and historical information. We waited for them and read them multiple times. I taught my first child to read when I was 6, my 4 year old sister, just by enchanting her with Green Eggs and Ham, and so forth over and over. Children need repetition and learn from hearing the fluency of language.

    What else did my mother do? On car rides we entertained each other singing rounds and Girl Scout songs, long before we were scouts. And my parents took car vacations of over 2,000 miles at times way off the beaten path when that was not the norm. She also entertained us by buying books of Native American legends and sometimes grizzly tales of earlier times in our nation. She was our taped books in travel and we were spellbound. What did that take? Active interaction, dialogue, and conversation.

    Nowadays children do not know how to converse naturally, although they can whizz around their elders on a cell phone from a very early age. Educating parents on how they are the first and most important teacher in their child’s life is important.

    Children also do not have enough experiences to attach to their learning. I recently returned from a trip to China where in one city I saw an entire junior high school descend on the Panda Breeding Center we were visiting in Chengdu. All had similar shirts and scarves and our personal tour guide mentioned this was common to have a half day of instruction and a half day of intensive learning in the field. I saw the same type of thing in Japan on a Saturday. From what I saw, this was common in these countries.

    In the US, children do not read at home on their own like they used to, and it takes a lot to get them to do so. Nor do they go outside to play and just explore, instead many are inside playing twitch games as my husband calls them. Cure to literacy issues, actively disconnecting children from our highly connected world to more actively engaging in the world around them might just be the starting point to making a much needed shift. Speaking of which, I have hit my quota for the day!

    As an educator for 37 years (just retired) spending most of it working with students who struggled with literacy and hooking them on it, it takes actively engaging them and helping them discover that the process of discovery through reading and writing can be much more exhilarating than being spoon fed with a YouTube video or app on the phone.

    • Tsivya Fox says:

      Thank you, Cheryl, for your very well thought out reply. I agree with everything you have noted. I especially appreciate the comment, “Educating parents on how they are the first and most important teacher in their child’s life is important.” I believe this is a crucial step in increased literacy. How do we get the parents to listen???

  3. Don Berg says:

    The laws that you refer to appear to be using the intuitively seductive delivery theory of education. They mandate exposure to instruction as if that will magically solve the problem. This is not at all surprising since delivery is the dominant theory of education in the country today (it was famously referred to as the banking model by critic Paulo Friere). However, that theory is wrong, so it is unfortunate that children will be forced to suffer further due to the misguided efforts of policy makers.

    Cognitive scientists use the cognitive cartography, or mental map-making theory, of learning. The brain has maps everywhere they look according to V.S. Ramachandran, a to neuroscientist. Making useful maps in the context of education means that teachers have to account for the learners goals (not an arbitrary goal from someone else), the resources that are available to pursue the goal, and the relationship of the learner to both their goals and the resources. Immediately, it is obvious that just because policy makers expect kids to read at an arbitrary age does not mean that they will do so. And exposing them to instruction is not an appropriate response unless the children themselves have made a meaningful comittment to pursuing the goal of learning. It is very sad to see so many legislators acting against the learning interests of children. It is truly a tragic situation.

  4. Rick Stein says:

    Okay, I get the learning theory comments and what we can do as parents to improve a child’s opportunity for early literacy growth. They are sound responses when viewing the problem from the tip of the illiteracy iceberg.

    However, the real problem (in my opinion) is two fold. First,children in poverty often find themselves in settings where generational poverty has taken root. This poses a whole series of issues which must be systemically addressed. Next, the structure of school is totally out of line with the 21st Century needs of those we must educate. When combined with poverty, a deadly combination is formed which assures continued failure to meet the literacy challenges posed by America’s children.

    • Tsivya Fox says:

      Thanks for sharing Rick. Any practical ideas for breaking through the issues involved with poverty and parental illiteracy or how to better restructure our schools to serve our children’s needs?

  5. Gabor Szucs says:

    Age 6 to introduce children into learning to read is an absolutely arbitrary age. I have a 4-year-old child, whom we have been reading to relentlessly since her early days and she is now able to read any level 1 reading exercise without much help. We are both working professionals, my daughter is in daycare but we still can manage to read to her every morning and evening several books. I often pretend that I’m stuck at a word, and she ‘helps’ me out with great amusement. A child doesn’t need to be a genius to read at the age of 6. It’s also unfair to blame teachers for failing to accomplish what the parents don’t promote at home. Learning is an integral part of life and it shouldn’t just come from school. The home is the most efficient environment to introduce children into reading. There are so many toys that help children learn to read and are a great source of fun for the entire family. We always play word games, and spell out everything. My daughter signed all her Christmas greeting cards at 3 and this is not extraordinary. You just need to awake the interest in the child and the desire to read and learn will follow. We need to teach parents first.

    • Tsivya Fox says:

      You sound like you have done well as parents. Unfortunately, sometimes the parents themselves can be illiterate and/or reading is an irrelevant part of their life. Some homes have no books and going to the library is not part of their culture.

      I absolutely agree with you that educating the parents should be a top priority. Now, getting them through the door is the tricky part…

      Thanks for sharing.

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