Who's Going to Read Books in the Future?

It's a national scandal, or should be. After spending $6 billion on a program to help First, Second and Third Graders learn to read, the U.S. Department of Education has concluded that the program isn't effective.

As the Washington Post's Maria Glod reported last week, the so-called Reading First program has been one of the centerpieces of the Bush administration's entire No Child Left Behind effort, and it appears -- as far as I can tell -- to be a complete bust: Students in the program scored no better on reading comprehension tests than students outside the program. That's a bit like saying that patients who took an experimental drug fared no better than those who took a placebo.

You can read the Department of Education's report for yourself. It's pretty conclusive. The department tracked the reading progress of tens of thousands of students in Grades 1-3 at nearly 250 schools across the country -- a huge sample, one of the largest studies it's ever done.

True, the department tries to put a positive spin on its findings with this globbledy-gooky summary paragraph:

"The results indicate that Reading First produced statistically significant positive impacts on multiple reading practices promoted by the program, such as the amount of instructional time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction and professional development in scientifically based reading instruction. Reading First did not produce a statistically significant impact on student reading comprehension test scores in grades one, two or three. However, there was a positive and statistically significant impact on first grade students' decoding skills in spring 2007."

OK, right. Using our adult "decoding" skills, we can decipher what that's saying: The schools that shared in the $6 billion of Reading First funding devoted more teaching time to five skills deemed important in reading (awareness of individual sounds, phonics, vocabulary, reading fluency and comprehension). They also spent more money on training teachers. But what have they got to show for the increased instructional time and the increased training? Nada. "No statistically significant" change in reading comprehension in any of the three grade levels.


-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  November 24, 2008; 5:00 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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I am a voracious, lifelong reader. I can probably pinpoint it to when I was a baby/toddler, and my mom read to me for hours. I started to entertain myself with books very early on. In first grade I had a great teacher who let us read *novels* (like Little House in the BIg Woods) in addition to the school provided reader. This made a huge difference to me. I think love of reading really does begin with being exposed to books at an early age.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | November 24, 2008 10:27 AM

I recently heard that Dolly Parton gives a book each month to some children in Tennessee, until they are a certain age. Does anyone know any more about this?

Posted by: Elaine10 | November 24, 2008 12:15 PM

A long term follow-up is needed.

Anyway, if your family or social environment isn't supportive....

Posted by: cmecyclist | November 24, 2008 3:09 PM

I think that family plays a huge role, but that's where schools need to make reading FUN, not just phonics. I HATED phonics, did awfully at it, and went on to major in English literature. Of course grammar and phonics are important, but in the early years kids will learn more from exposure to well-written stories than they will from a bunch of grammar workbooks.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | November 25, 2008 9:30 AM

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