As early as 1983, the Reagan-commissioned report, “A Nation at Risk,” raised a host of concerns about U.S. education. Many of those concerns, such as a lack of teacher training, adequate pay, and a need for higher academic standards, still remain very much front and center. A specific insight of the report was the straight line drawn between struggling readers and eventual lack of readiness for college and the workforce.
Since then, numerous studies have pointed to reading literacy as the most essential tool for success in academics and the world beyond. We know that students who don’t read well by third grade are likely to feel disenfranchised in school, have low feelings of self-worth, experience early encounters with the juvenile justice system (85 percent of these youths are functionally low-literate) and eventually drop out of high school. Beyond that, life expectations include lower-paying jobs, poor health, and an unfortunate likelihood of passing along the legacy of minimal literacy to their own children.
Throughout the decades since “A Nation at Risk” was first published, education research has focused on seeking solutions to the dilemma of struggling readers. Four areas stand out, not only as keys to reversing the too-often inevitable life trajectory of the at-risk reader, but to equipping them with college and career readiness skills that have become a national priority.
Early detection of disabilities and gaps
A 2019 study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) notes the central role of early warning systems in preventing or reducing reading difficulties. Screening students in kindergarten can not only help flag early difficulties in prerequisite skills, but also alert teachers and parents to possible learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, autism, and ADHD. Early screenings, combined with evidence- and research-based interventions, can support learning-disabled students before they believe they’re unable to learn or suffer academic and emotional effects that occur when symptoms go untreated. A well-designed technology-based literacy program can screen students, supply them with automated lessons and assessments, provide regular and timely progress reports to teachers, parents and administrators, and allow a team of caring adults to monitor a child’s progress and celebrate milestones.
A personalized pathway
In “Reading Skills and the Career Readiness Gap: A Study of High School Students’ Preparedness for College and Career,” by the International Center for Leadership in Education, researchers note that “Student learning styles, interests and aptitudes are like fingerprints: no two are the same.” Too often, they say, many students will be only tangentially engaged in instruction and learning when reading certain materials or listening to a teacher. Students at a certain reading level will not improve their proficiency unless they are continually challenged by the text.
In the last several years, great strides have been made in personalizing learning. Due in large part to technology, which has facilitated broad screening and customized learning pathways, educators have gained the ability to provide students with instructional materials at appropriate levels and to continually monitor their progress, despite serving whole classrooms of students. This ensures that struggling students are not discouraged by material beyond their grasp, and that students at higher levels can avoid the drudgery of lessons on already-mastered concepts.
Ongoing reading for pleasure and education
In his 2018 piece, “The Hidden Success Factor,” best-selling author and professional leadership trainer, Dr. Alan Zimmerman, shares what he’s learned about the correlation between reading and success in the workplace. He notes, first of all, that “Poor reading skills … or a failure to keep on reading … is a set-up for failure…” citing today’s workplaces where constantly advancing technology requires workers to read well in order to adapt to changing circumstances. Without this ability, he says, individuals will be “hard pressed” to find good full-time jobs.
Reading, he says, opens up a world of opportunities for those in the workplace. Not only will they be better at their jobs, but they can become self-educated experts in a range of areas, and increase their preparation for new and different workplace options.
For parents, teachers, and other adults, it is also worth revisiting the benefits of reading for pleasure. Not only are students exposed to new experiences that broaden their world view and build empathy, but given opportunities to enjoy reading in the absence of screens and the pressures of school and other scheduled activities.
Specific college and career skills
In 2005, the ACT college entrance exam, designed to be an indicator of college readiness, isolated reading complexity as a critical missing factor after looking at the results of 1.2 million high school seniors who took the test that year. Only 51 percent of students were judged able to handle first-year college reading requirements.
Since then, the launch of Common Core State Standards in 2009 has aimed to rectify this shortcoming, with a greater focus on critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills.
Ideally, high school students receive solid preparation for reading complex texts, and understanding implicit messaging, character interactions, demanding vocabulary, and other higher-level reading skills. Even more ideally, students learn and practice these skills even at an elementary level.
Students, especially those with learning disabilities, who have been lucky enough to receive early screenings, and personalized reading pathways, and have acquired a love for reading, as noted above, will have a leg up on college readiness.