While we grapple with the COVID-19 health crisis and the many social ills our country is facing, we cannot overlook the fact that one root cause of these problems is a crisis in literacy.
However, 66% of the nation’s 8th graders are not reading proficiently at grade level. While fortunately we no longer have racially-biased literacy tests for voting, the truth remains that struggling readers are effectively disenfranchised, as participation in our democracy requires people to read candidate position statements, ballot initiatives, voter guides and other information to be well-informed voters.
In several studies, we find nearly 50% of prisoners are functionally illiterate or non-readers due to dyslexia with poor literacy instruction and 30% more are under literate. 40% of the homeless population is illiterate due to dyslexia. Since there is no connection between dyslexia and intelligence, “elite” school segregation is a symptom of poor literacy instruction as well.
Many organizations are trying to plug holes in our literacy crisis. There are tutors, professional development organizations, publishing companies, book distribution agencies, mentoring organizations for kids with learning disabilities, organizations looking at culturally appropriate books and more.
Yet there remains a gap in identifying struggling readers early and equipping them with the basic tools to crack the code of written language. Let’s see if we can actually solve the crisis rather than continue to prolong it.
Solving the Literacy Crisis
Can we take advantage of remote learning to find our struggling readers in all schools and offer them the best literacy instruction available via the internet? For example, Nessy, a reading curriculum usually meant for use with teachers, offered free subscriptions to districts, teachers and families.
Results from online learning with Nessy during COVID-19 spring were quite remarkable, with students gaining a grade level’s worth of reading skills in six weeks, working remotely without a teacher. Dyslexic students using Nessy for six weeks during the COVID-19 spring made nine-tenths of a year’s progress.
When he was younger, attending a summer camp for dyslexic kids, my son gained a year of reading achievement in six weeks. Of course, he and his peers were also not in school being un-taught with strategies from so-called “balanced literacy” that are antithetical to learning to read.
Training New Teachers in Evidence-Based Reading Instruction
Can we create policies aimed at improving preservice education and licensing for K-3 teachers to ensure they have a solid background in evidence-based reading instruction?
Can we use teacher college accreditation and oversight of alternative pathways to teaching to hold teacher educators accountable for graduating new teachers who are well-equipped to help dyslexic and other struggling readers?
If we can do this, we would thus save districts like the New York City Department of Education the outrageous amount of professional development money they spend to train teachers in the science of reading developed back in the 1940s. We would also save the exorbitant special education costs in K-12 schools, and the remediation costs in high school and college. Another savings would come from reduced spending on mental health services needed for children who experience toxic shame in school, when what they really need is reading instruction that works.
If we can use all the tools at our disposal–including proven remote learning programs with a track record of success teaching dyslexic students–we could unleash untold human potential.