Recent reading tests report that students’ reading comprehension scores show that just over one-third of students in grades four, eight, and 10 are proficient at reading. Researchers and education policy makers ponder the significance of little to no improvement in reading scores for students as a whole and the widening gap between our high-performing and low-performing students. What many of these thinkers fail to consider is the way education has changed. The system ignores that developmental psychology says when we push students too much and too fast we do more harm than good. The reading pressures we put on students may be one major cause of the stagnant scores.
In the 1970s, kindergarten ran for half days and focused on play, walking in lines, and naps. Only 15 percent of students attended full-day kindergarten programs. By the mid 2010s, more than double that percentage of students attended state-run full-day pre-K programs. Pre-K standards are now kindergarten standards, and kindergarten standards are now first grade standards. But, the biological development of four- and five-year-olds has not changed. Our expectations are unreasonable. Our students suffer failure after failure because we are in the wrong, and many develop anxiety about reading from their first experiences with it.
By kindergarten, students should be able to make sound-letter associations. Yet standards in many states require that kindergartners know all letters and all of their associated sounds by Christmas. Lists of site words for memorization begin with pre-K. Both of these tasks require rapid memorization that activates short-term memory and makes learning to read drill based instead of inquiry based. When it comes to reading, we move so fast that kids have little opportunity to become comfortable and find the joy in reading. Instead they are moved into analysis, being asked questions about main idea and inference in early elementary school. Learning anything too quickly creates holes in knowledge and skill that result in lower proficiency.
Beyond early elementary school, reading is assigned at a rate that just becomes too much. By third grade, students are expected to read to learn across content areas. By sixth grade, students have different teachers for each academic area. All of these teachers expect students to complete homework, read assignments, and respond to questions. If students become discouraged by the sheer amount of academic reading, they just won’t do the assignments, let alone read voluntarily. The less practice they get, the lower their reading proficiency will be.
Reading has long been a privilege and a way to pass time and share culture. Recently it has become a forced method of information acquisition, and not much more. We make students read so young, so fast, and so much that they become discouraged and stop wanting to do it. It is nearly impossible to become proficient in something you just don’t want to do.
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