July 11, 2024

Nancy Bailey: The Comprehension Problem with New Reading Programs: Ignoring the Books Children LIKE to Read!

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Nancy Bailey looks at a gap in current reading instruction. Reposted with permission. 

I’m not a gambler, but if I were, I’d bet that a lot of parents whose elementary school-age children are getting explicit phonics instruction, memorizing rules, and who can define words like diphthong and schwa will be disappointed when their children get to high school and couldn’t care less about reading.

New reading programs promising the Science of Reading don’t cover what children need to become good readers. What’s missing are reading comprehension and the incentive to read because it’s fun and interesting.

When critics of public schools and teachers debate how to teach reading comprehension today, they chatter about knowledge building (of course, previous knowledge is important) and raise questions like, should you teach a child about the main idea? (of course, you should), as if teachers haven’t taught children to read (and write) in the past.

The difference is that, today, they often ignore the main star: books children like to read.

There are several reasons for this.

1. Many programs being chosen to teach reading in the name of the Science of Reading fail to place reading comprehension, vital to children’s learning to read, at the heart of learning. 

The Atlantic’s recent The Schools That Are No Longer Teaching Kids to Read Books, by Xochitl Gonzalez, showed how bad it has become:

The city [NYC] has adopted a new literacy regimen under which many public elementary schools are, in effect, giving up the teaching of books—storybooks, narrative nonfiction books, children’s chapter books—altogether. The curriculum is part of an initiative from the Eric Adams administration called, ironically, NYC Reads.

Gonzalez discusses the chosen reading programs. EL Education (which I have written about) and Wit and Wisdom use fiction and nonfiction to discuss real-world issues and pique curiosity, but these programs are controlled. Children read what they’re told to read.

According to the author, another program called myBooks has a questionable amount of book reading. The students get mostly phonics and excerpts of longer narrative decodable readers.

Children don’t appear to get chapter books, which provide reading practice with stories they love before moving on to more difficult reading material. It also doesn’t sound like there’s much exploratory reading or writing for expression either.

What’s chilling, the Department of Education consultants police classrooms to make sure teachers are using the materials they’re told.

Gonzalez makes excellent points, but it’s unclear why they’re critical of balanced literacy, where understanding text and reading books is highlighted and a prominent feature of learning to read.

2. Reading instruction has been influenced by  nonprofits and for-profits, people who write about it, cognitive psychologists, corporations and others who usually don’t teach.

I’ve never been opposed to viewpoints from beyond the classroom, but there’s real concern today that the Science of Reading is politicized

In light of the Gonzales report, the new programs receiving the stamp of approval from EdReports, should raise questions.

EdReports is funded by Broadcom Corporation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Helmsley Charitable Trust, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Overdeck Family Foundation, the Samueli Foundation, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Oak Foundation.

Many individuals representing these corporations have favored school choice, charter schools, and reduced requirements for teachers (they’re fans of Teach for America). So when they tell Americans how reading should be taught, shouldn’t red flags fly?

How much input did teachers and parents have in choosing these programs that will dominate how their children will learn in school? Did their voices count? If they did, why would they neglect the use of books and the stories that help children thrive?

3. It’s a global problem.

Casting reading comprehension aside, has been described as a global problem, as New Zealand’s guest blogger Ian Powell recently noted in the 2024 Hegemony, Meaning, and Structured Literacy.

Powell states:

Phonics has in various ways previously formed part of literacy learning in New Zealand. It can be a useful additional aid for some children. However, structured literacy places it at the centre; the be-all and end-all. Meaning is a casualty.

New Zealand ended its successful reading program including Reading Recovery which has been criticized by SoR advocates, for children experiencing reading difficulties. As in this country, the changes have focused on unproven political ideology and reduced reading for meaning to phonics.

3. Commercialized programs, many on screens, are replacing teacher expertise, stealing their autonomy for innovation, and further eroding teacher professionalism.

Without teachers to encourage children to read good literature, to discuss novels, read together in class, and help children choose books, children will not care about reading.

The same folks who cast aside three reading programs, seem impervious to the pricey so-called SoR advertised programs being bought up in school districts that disregard reading for pleasure.

There’s little accountability and even less proof that these programs will work.

Parents disliked so much computer time during the pandemic, why do they not object to it in their child’s classroom?

 4. Emphasizing isolated phonics skills and rules without understanding that reading comprehension, reading interesting material for meaning, must be consistently integrated with skill acquisition.  

One misconception is the idea that children must learn to decode early, so they’re flooded with phonics sounds and rules, and then switch to reading to learn by third grade, where they might fail a test.

Children comprehend text also while learning to read, auditorily and visually, and reading comprehension is as critical as phonemic awareness and decoding from the start.

Also, children continue to become better readers after third grade. Even adults can improve their reading skills.

Decodable books reinforce phonics skills, and determining the level of a book to help children build confidence can help too, although both decodable and leveled books can be boring.

It’s a better bet to determine the readability of a quality trade book, that the child will find interesting, where they can read and conquer.

The real joy for children is to let them choose books or reading content they want. A good librarian or teacher can help them do this. Provide opportunities for children to read both at home and in school.

This doesn’t mean that they always read alone, or they’re not taught skills to improve reading. But schools should include time to read and have great school libraries where children can browse books and reading material.

As Pfost and Heyne (2021) note, the Matthew Effect bears this out. Pay attention, especially to the last sentence which I highlight.

First, individual differences in reading skills may follow a cumulative developmental trend. Children who start school with better reading skills tend to improve their reading skills faster than their schoolmates who do not have these skills. Therefore, individual differences in reading skills between children increase as students grow older. Second, the mechanism behind this developmental trend is reciprocal causation or a positive feedback loop. That is, students who show better vocabulary and reading skills experience more enjoyment from reading and develop better competence beliefs, leading to higher levels of reading motivation and more reading. Finally, the activity of reading itself contributes to the development of students’ vocabulary and reading skills.

Children who miss out on learning how to read books and how enjoyable that process can be, who are restricted in the kinds of book they’re permitted to read, or who have little access to reading material, probably won’t comprehend the meaning of those books or care about reading books later. Why should they?


Gonzalez, X. (2024, June 24) The Schools That Are No Longer Teaching Kids to Read Books. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2024/06/nyc-schools-stopped-teaching-books/678675/

Pfost, M., & Heyne, N. (2023). Fostering children’s reading comprehension: the importance of fiction reading. Zeitschrift Für Bildungsforschung (Internet)13(1), 127–137. https://doi.org/10.1007/s35834-022-00376-0

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