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3 Things Room to Read Gets Right About Reading that Many American Schools Get Wrong

Kerri Thomsen, Associate Director of Room to Read's Literacy Program

| April 01, 2019

Worldwide, 387 million primary school age children are not reaching a minimum proficiency in reading. The problem spans countries and income levels, with many U.S. students struggling. While this is a complex issue, part of the solution may be a simple shift in instructional philosophy that many schools struggle to make.  

Before we dig into tips, let’s look at Bethlehem, Pa. – a town highlighted in NPR’s recent story, “Why Millions of Kids Can’t Read, and What Better Teaching Can Do About It.” Focused on the reading abilities of local students, the story revealed that only 56 percent of children scored proficient on the state reading test at the end of third grade. The town’s educational leaders wanted to know why. They soon found that the popularized reading instruction methods relied heavily on a theory that research has shown to be wrong.

So, what exactly wasn’t working? Teachers had prompted students to use context and pictures to guess unfamiliar words. Understanding the general meaning of the story was considered more important than accurately reading the words on the page. But what were children to do when there was no picture, or the word was not apparent from the picture? Bethlehem teachers were not alone in this strategy. And their students were not alone in struggling—32 percent of U.S. fourth graders can’t read at a basic level. Around the world, 56 percent of primary school children cannot read proficiently.    

Many teachers in the American school system and around the world have been taught that reading is a natural process and that children who are exposed to enough text will figure it out. However, extensive research has found that, while learning to speak is a natural process, learning to read is not.

Having implemented its Literacy Program across nine countries around the world, Room to Read focuses on these three considerations when developing curricula and teacher trainings:

1. Room to Read’s Literacy Program is based on a scientific approach to reading instruction. Instruction in the Literacy Program focuses on five components of reading that have been identified as the most vital to reading success: phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. Unlike teachers in many American colleges, Room to Read teachers learn what these components are, why they should teach them, and how to teach them.

2. When confronted with an unfamiliar word on a page, a good reader uses their knowledge of the sounds the letters make to figure out the word. Phonological awareness—the ability to hear, identify, and change sounds in words—is taught through a series of short, oral exercises that feel like games to the children. In phonics instruction, teachers make an explicit connection between the sounds children have been listening for in words and the grapheme (written letter or letter combination). This allows the children to begin decoding—putting those letters and letter sounds together to read words—which they practice in activities that focus on two new letters each week. Teachers go through activities and examples in their professional development training to help them to understand the importance of hearing each sound in a word

3. A key part of Room to Read’s Literacy Program is the inclusion of decodable text. Written using just the letters that children have already learned, decodable text provides an opportunity to practice phonics skills, increase fluency through reading connected text, learn new vocabulary words, and practice reading for meaning and answering questions about a text. Decodable stories are the first stories that children can read by themselves, allowing them to identify themselves as readers and feel pride and satisfaction in their learning progress. Early success at reading can be motivating, leading to and more success! Decodable stories prepare children to begin reading books from Room to Read's libraries and building a habit of reading. Teachers spend a whole day of their training learning the how and why behind decodable stories.

Support Students Around the World

Room to Read's result are proof of the effectiveness of this methodology. Children at Room to Read schools read more words per minute and answer more comprehension questions correctly than children at comparison schools in every country that we work in.

On average, children in Room to Read schools read 2.1 times as fast and correctly answered 87 percent more comprehension questions than children at comparison schools. Schools in Bethlehem, Pa., now see the impact of scientifically-based reading instruction, too. After implementing teacher trainings, they saw more than a 30 percent increase in kindergartners meeting benchmark standards. Now they know what Room to Read teachers have known for years—systematic instruction in the five components of reading produces positive results!