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Scientific Gravy-Train? June 2, 2008

So, according to the Institute for Education Services, the federal government's $1 billion-per-year initiative to help our children read has yielded “no statistically significant results”! Mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the Reading First Program set out to promote reading instructional practices that have been “validated by scientific research”. Backed by a $1 billion-per-year gravy train, Reading First grants were awarded to schools to implement the scientifically-validated reading instructional practices to children in Grades 1, 2 and 3. Now we learn that these scientifically-validated instructional practices have yielded no scientifically-validated results. One can only wonder how these scientifically-validated practices were validated if not by scientifically-validated results … which quite clearly they were not!

Reading First funding can be used for:
• Reading curricula and materials that focus on the five essential components of reading instruction as defined in the Reading First legislation: 1) phonemic awareness, 2) phonics, 3) vocabulary, 4) fluency, and 5) comprehension;
• Professional development and coaching for teachers on how to use "scientifically-based" reading practices and how to work with struggling readers;
• Diagnosis and prevention of early reading difficulties through student screening, interventions for struggling readers, and monitoring of student progress.

Reading First funding started in 2002 and this is what the billions of Dollars has yielded :
• Reading First did not improve students' reading comprehension.
• Reading First increased total class time spent on the five essential components of reading instruction promoted by the program. So the extra 45 to 60 minutes a week spent on developing reading skills netted zero results.

Bear in mind that the whole Reading First Program is restricted to improving the reading skills of Grades 1, 2 and 3 only. That's it! After grade 3, you're on your own and are expected to survive with the reading skills you have. Small wonder that teenagers think that reading sucks - they're reading with a skill that's not much better than an 8 year-old.

And so we come to our crop of struggling high-schoolers - the “at-risk” students. Why are they “at risk”? Quite simply because we let science supersede common sense. “A common variable among low performing students is their low reading level. Most of our low test scores are related to reading problems.” says CMS teacher Dr T.

“Unless we give the students diagnostic reading tests such as these (at ExecuRead.com), we may never know their reading entry level. Is it really fair to assign ten pages of reading to a student who reads less than 100 words a minute (it will take that student 4 minutes to read a text-book page of 400 words, or a total of 40 minutes to read ten textbook pages.)?” asks another teacher.

Come on people! Have you ever seen a teenager struggle with the instructions on the latest computer- or Play Station game? Or abandon the sports-page on the eve of the Superbowl? And where were all these scientifically-validated instructional practices 50 years ago? When it comes to human nature, you simply cannot throw science and money at it and expect results. And when it comes to reading, all the science and all the money in the world will not make one iota of difference IF YOU CANNOT CHANGE ATTITUDES.

“Reading will improve when students want to read, when they see the value & enjoyment of reading and what reading will do for them. It’s all motivated by self-interest and self-gratification. And it’s a “sell-job”. We don’t sell Coca-Cola by pushing the product. We sell feelings – refreshment, exhilaration, satisfaction, vibrancy. Similarly we can’t sell reading by telling students to read the books that we want them to read. If we talk fun, excitement, satisfaction, entertainment, reward – the excitement of the destination, with reading merely being the portal – then books are no longer perceived as chores, but rather as tickets to the “theater of the mind”.

And it starts at home. This process of developing attitudes. Parents who have replaced reading-evenings with TV-evenings create an attitude about reading. Parents who complain about having to bring office-reading home and who can't play with the kids because they have office-reading to do, create an attitude about reading. And they end up with kids who prefer TV to books and who see reading as a chore that they'll have to face when they become adults. And it continues at home. With TV it's what they WANT to watch. With reading it's what the teacher WANTS them to read. And if you've ever looked at the erudite literary yawn-stuff that teachers are peddling, you don't need a scientifically-validated process to recognize a disaster in the making.

With my kids I find that the best way of getting them to do something, is to find out what they want to do and then suggest it! I didn't force them to read Tolstoy, Conrad, Joyce, Twain and Poe, but when they begged to go to the library or book-store to get the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, there was no resistance from my side. Neither did I have to enforce reading time. More often than not, I have to physically remove the book at 2am on a school-night, in spite of the pleas of “Oh Dad, I'm almost finished the book!” Once I had instilled in them a passion for reading, a realization that reading can be as exciting and rewarding as TV and movies, then came the process of gently manipulating their interests and once there is interest, there is a motive for wanting to read. And this is all a lot easier in a home where there is a culture of reading.

The bottom line is that attitudes are built at home and in the absence of a positive attitude about reading, all the money in the world spent on “scientifically-validated” instructional practices will continue to yield “statistically insignificant results”.


Although I read everything in sight to my sons, starting from birth, they all struggled with reading. I figured that I had read too fast for them to learn. Towards the end of grade two, my oldest son was tested for disabilities and we were told that he could comprehend at a late 8th grade level if a book was read to him but only at early 1st grade level if he read to himself. Through chance we learned of an eye doctor who tested visual perception. Long story short was that his eyes were not focussing together. This caused a word to look different depending where it was on the page. My son was prescribed glasses to force his eyes to focus together. This made all the difference. Apparently, this is not at all uncommon and there are many "focussing" problems which can occur. If your child struggles with reading or seems disinterested, I suggest that you have his or her eyes checked. Be careful. My son has 20/20 vision out of each eye. It is how they work together that is the problem and not all eye doctors check for this problem. You have to do your homework. In my case, this seems to be a family trait and I heard that the problems occur more often in boys than in girls. Turns out my father had the problem but it wasn't discovered until he was an adult. In my opinion, this issue needs to become common knowledge and teachers must become aware of it and trained to recognize the problem so kids can get help early.

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