In Response to Hard Words

illustration of a maze and a character about to enter it

As a speech-language pathologist, I follow carefully both the scientific research and the articles on language learning that appear in the media. Among the latter, it’s gratifying to find journalists who ask hard questions and publish articles that are both accessible and well-informed.

Emily Hanford is such a journalist. A Senior Producer and Correspondent for American Public Media (APM), she has written before on the subject of dyslexia and just released another great report, “Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?

Hanford’s article offers some discouraging figures: “More than 60 percent of American fourth-graders are not proficient readers.” This is not good news. “Research shows that children who don’t learn to read by the end of third grade are likely to remain poor readers for the rest of their lives, and they’re likely to fall behind in other academic areas, too.”

Where does the reading problem lie?

This is not a problem that can be blamed on poverty, Hanford explains. It has to do with how children are taught – and how teachers are taught to teach them. This is important because “learning to read is not a natural process. We are not born wired to read.” In fact, “structures in our brain that were designed for things such as object recognition have to get rewired a bit” and “the starting point for reading is sound.” The bottom line? “According to all the research, phonics is crucial when it comes to learning how to read,” but it’s not enough on its own.

Unfortunately, parents are still struggling to get access to effective services for their children and many children with language-processing disorders are not learning to read, even with multitudes of private schools, private practitioners, and published “programs” that cater to students with dyslexia.

I have come to view the lack of dyslexia services in public schools as an unintended consequence of 1) the way education is administered in this country and 2) the way the federal special education law is written.

In the U.S., primary and secondary education is administered locally by about 17,900 local education agencies. The effect of this decentralization on education policy is illustrated by the struggle to implement the Common Core State Standards, as well as the state-by-state efforts to pass dyslexia screening laws. Most state dyslexia screening laws in the U.S. have not included any funding to develop a screener, carry out annual screening, track data, etc.

Contrast this to England, where all students are screened for phonics knowledge in June of the year in which they turn 6. The government funded the research, as well as the construction and administration of their screener. Since England started using their screener in 2011, fewer and fewer students have failed the screener each year, suggesting that screening for phonics knowledge has had the effect of improving the way young children are taught to read.

Emily Hanford suggests that parents are not finding easy solutions but are asking the same hard questions. Below, I suggest some answers:

  • How can I figure out how my child’s school teaches reading? How do I know if their approach is backed up by science?

    Be sure the approach has all three “legs.
    For dyslexia, a structured literacy approach is supported by research.

  • What do I do if my child’s school is not teaching reading in the right way?
    Early intervention is so important. Parents can spend months or years trying to get a school to improve their instructional approach, losing precious time for their struggling readers. In this case, for the child’s sake, the best advice is don’t wait. Seek help outside the school.

  • I want to do some phonics and phonemic awareness activities with my child at home? What do I do?
    There is no shortage of free information and advice about how to do these activities (Reading Rockets,, etc.). A Google search returns 2,070,000 results!! But students with language processing difficulties may resist doing these activities and parents may need help adjusting them to their student’s needs. Consult a qualified specialist, someone with experience using structured literacy methods. An analogy: Parents should provide a healthy diet for their child, with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables; but if their child develops diabetes, parents should get professional help.

  • I think my kid is struggling with reading. How do I know? What do I do? If my school won’t help, what do I look for in a private tutor or a private school, or a commercial program?
    Here is the free, online Lexercise screener for students ages 6 and older. Intervention should produce noticeable results pretty quickly, certainly within the first eight weeks. Parents should look for professionals who welcome their active participation in their student’s intervention. Parents who learn structured literacy methods along with their child can support their child; that will speed up their child’s progress and will help parents judge their child’s progress more accurately.

  • I want to do something to help change the way reading is taught in schools. What do I do? Who do I contact?
    Decoding Dyslexia is a good place to start.

I am extremely grateful to Emily Hanford for her thoughtful treatment of this difficult and complex subject. I encourage you to read her insightful article and to contact us at Lexercise with your concerns about your child’s progress or challenges with reading.

Addendum:  See all three of Emily Hanford’s APM audio documentaries about how reading is taught in the USA:

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Sandie Barrie Blackley, MA/CCC

MA/CCC - Cofounder and CKO

Sandie is a speech-language pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in the private practice sector. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences & Disorders at University of North Carolina Greensboro, and founder/owner of the Language & Learning Clinic, PLLC, a private practice in Elkin, NC, and Greensboro, NC, specializing in communication disorders, including disorders of reading and written language.