1/3 of US children are good readers as reading ability declines

One third of US  fourth and eighth graders scored in the “proficient” range or higher for reading, according to a nationwide test given earlier this year.  Two-thirds of US students are reading at either a basic level or below grade level.

These findings come from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test sometimes referred to as the nation’s Report Card because it samples students in fourth and eighth grades across the country.  Its results were announced today.  Evaluating progress in reading and math, these tests have been given since 1994.

Reading scores across the US fell in more than half the states in 2022, with no state showing good improvement, according to the test results.

These test results are the first since the pandemic closed schools and led to online learning for many students.  According to the test, 66% of fourth graders and 69% of eighth graders scored below a proficient level in reading.

Test results vary greatly by location, though factors leading to these differences can be complex.  Even so, here are results, state by state, showing proficiency levels.  Proficiency means “demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter,” or high achievement.

Proficiency levels in reading, 2022

State 4th grade 8th grade
National Average 33% 31%
Alabama 28% 22%
Alaska 24% 26%
Arizona 31% 28%
Arkansas 30% 26%
California 31% 30%
Colorado 38% 34%
Connecticut 35% 35%
Delaware 25% 24%
Dist. of Columbia 26% 22%
Florida 39% 29%
Georgia 32% 31%
Hawaii 35% 31%
Idaho 32% 32%
Illinois 33% 32%
Indiana 33% 31%
Iowa 33% 29%
Kansas 31% 26%
Kentucky 31% 29%
Louisiana 28% 27%
Maine 29% 29%
Maryland 31% 33%
Massachusetts 43% 40%
Michigan 28% 28%
Minnesota 32% 30%
Mississippi 31% 22%
Missouri 30% 28%
Montana 34% 29%
Nebraska 34% 29%
Nevada 27% 29%
New Hampshire 37% 33%
New Jersey 38% 42%
New Mexico 21% 18%
New York 30% 32%
North Carolina 32% 26%
North Dakota 31% 27%
Ohio 35% 33%
Oklahoma 24% 21%
Oregon 28% 28%
Pennsylvania 34% 31%
Rhode Island 34% 31%
South Carolina 32% 27%
South Dakota 32% 31%
Tennessee 30% 28%
Texas 30% 23%
Utah 37% 36%
Vermont 34% 34%
Virginia 32% 31%
Washington 34% 32%
West Virginia 22% 22%
Wisconsin 33% 32%
Wyoming 38% 30%

 

 

 

1651 book titles targeted to be banned in 2022

Efforts to ban books in US libraries have reached an all-time high with 1651 books targeted so far in 2022, according to the American Library Association, a group of librarians and library professionals.  In 2021 there were 1597 such titles targeted.  PEN America, an organization advocating for literary freedom, concurs.  What is different in 2022 is the increased organization of the groups wanting to ban books and the targeting of not one book at a time but of whole groups of books.

Targeted books fall into three groups, according to PEN America:

  • 41% contain material related to LGBTQ issues or characters,
  • 40% contain main or important characters who are not white, and
  • 21% address racism.

Most of the efforts to ban books have been led by about fifty groups, many  formed in 2022.  Social media is helping to spread the message and to propagate  groups like Moms for Liberty whose branches are popping up all over the country.  Conservative politicians seeking public office are also demanding that books be banned.

This 1,000-piece puzzle by Re-Marks Puzzle shows 55 covers of books that have been banned at various times in the US .

In addition to books targeted because of their 21st century gender content and racial content, many so-called “classic” biographies and novels have been targeted.  Here are some examples:

  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One Texas library has even removed the Bible from its shelves.

This display in my neighborhood bookstore shows banned books.

Celebrate Banned Book Week September 18 to 24 by reading a book, banned or otherwise.

 

Two games make phonics fun for beginning readers

With young students, games are the easiest way to maintain interest and learn at the same time.  I’d like to suggest two games to teach beginning reading (CVC words).  Neither game is new, but both attract youngsters, from my experience.

One game is BLAH BLAH BLAH Word Game, Level 1000.  This game consists of three sets of playing cards, color coded according to level.  Each card consists of one word printed in the middle, and individual letters of that word printed in the corners.  A player needs to match one letter on a card in his hand to one letter on the face-up word in the middle of the table (hat and tug, for example).

This game has three levels:  CVC words; CVC words with blends; and words with long vowels (oa, ai, ee, oo, etc.).  It does not include words ending with silent e at the 1000 level.  When a player matches a letter, he must place his card over the face-up word already played and read the word aloud.  The next player must match one of the letters on the just matched card.  However, other cards (skip a turn, take four cards, change order) allow a player without a match to play.  The first player to play all his cards wins.

I have played this game with an about-to-start kindergartener, who sounds out each word as he plays.  He uses the “joker” cards strategically to stop a player from winning or to enact revenge on a player who interferes with his goals.  But it could be used with a child learning his letters but not yet able to read words.

The only drawback I have found is the size of the cards.  For little hands, regular-sized playing cards are too big to fan.  Too bad the deck isn’t smaller-sized.

The other game my almost kindergartener and I like is Zingo!  Each player receives a BINGO-like card with six words printed on it.  However, one of the letters of each word is missing as in “_ig” or “c_t.”  A player must take letter tiles distributed from a machine-like device and use them, one at a time, to create words by covering the blank spaces on his card.  Consonants are black and vowels are red.  The first player to cover his card wins.

This game offers two levels, one on each side of the BINGO card:  CVC words and CVC words with blends.  The machine-like device which distributes the tiles is attractive to little hands, and can easily distract a youngster from the purpose of the game.  This game is harder than the previous game since it requires the child to read several incomplete words at each turn and to try to figure out where placing a tile makes sense.  For beginner readers, this requires help.

I like to use games like this at the end of a lesson to extend the lesson time.  Little kids have short attention spans, so ending a lesson with games like these continues the learning.

Do typefaces specifically designed for readers with dyslexia really help them to read faster or better? 

My honest answer is that I don’t know, and I won’t be able to know until  more rigorous research is conducted.

The designers of new fonts for dyslexic readers start with the underlying belief that dyslexia is a visual problem.  Change the font to aid the eyes, and dyslexia goes away or at least decreases.

But others say dyslexia is not an eye problem but a brain processing problem.  For them changing a font is a simplistic and perhaps useless approach to a complicated brain problem.

Because type faces meant for readers with dyslexia are new (most not yet ten years old), more research needs to be done to see if they have any significant effect on reading ability.  In the meantime, some adaptations that help all readers can help dyslexic readers:

Use generous spacing between lines of type (called leading), between words, and between letters.

Avoid italic type faces.

Choose typefaces with letters perpendicular to the horizon (not slanted and not curvy).

Use sans serif type faces, those plain type faces without the tiny projections at the ends of letters.Use larger type, including type which shows the middle parts of letters larger in proportion to the ascenders and descenders.

Use strong contrast of black (not grey) lettering against a white background. Avoid white lettering against any background.

Provide good back lighting on a computer screen or with high wattage bulbs in old fashioned reading lamps.

 

 

What fonts might help dyslexic readers read better?

Many easy-to-read fonts already exist on computers.  They incorporate the characteristics of sans serif, upright, monospaced typefaces, recognized as features enabling easier reading for people with dyslexia.

OpenDyslexic font

Newer fonts designed specifically for dyslexic readers have become available within the past decade.  Some are free; some are available for a fee.  These fonts assume that dyslexia is a visual problem, a problem solved by changing the size and shape of letters.  These fonts are designed so letters don’t seem to move.  A “d” can’t flip to a “b”; a “p” can’t flip to to a “b.” A “u” can’t rotate to an “n.”  Letters are less likely to switch places as in “saw” and “was.”

According to research, the following characteristics improve reading for dyslexic readers:

  • Sans serif typefaces. Serifs are tiny projections at the ends of letters.  Sans serif typefaces do not have serifs.  Times New Roman is a typeface with serifs.  Arial is a typeface without serifs.  Sans serif fonts are easier to read.
  • Upright fonts. Upright fonts (sometimes called Roman fonts) show the ascenders (upright lines as in b, h and k) and descenders (descending lines as in j, p and q ) at 90 degree angles from the horizontal.  Upright fonts are easier to read than italic or oblique fonts which show the ascenders and descenders as diagonal lines from the horizontal.
  • Monospace fonts. Monospace fonts show each letter taking up the same amount of horizontal space.  So a “w” and an “i” occupy the same amount of space within a word.  Most typefaces, including the one you are reading now, use proportional or variable width spacing, allowing a wider letter to occupy more horizontal space than a narrower letter.  Monospace fonts are easier to read.

Fonts created for dyslexic readers add a fourth typeface characteristic.  They distinguish between letters often confused, like “b” and “d” with additional  differences, such as angling slightly the round parts of the letters, or shaving off the thickness of parts of letters.  Some of these fonts make the bottoms of letters thicker and heavier -looking than the tops.

Another typeface characteristic making for easier reading is the size of the middle part of letters (letters minus the ascenders and descenders, such as the rounded parts of a, c, d and p).  The larger these mid-parts are in proportion to the ascenders and descenders, the easier the typeface is to read.

With these characteristics in mind, what are free recommended fonts you might  set as default fonts on computers used by dyslexic readers?

  • Arial, Helvetica and Verdana are san serif, upright fonts, but they do not use monospacing.
  • Courier is an upright, monospaced typeface, but it uses serifs.
  • OpenDyslexic is freely available to download. It is sans serif and upright for the ascenders, but it does not use nonospacing.  Its letters get wider and heavier (like bell-bottomed jeans) as they go from top to bottom, giving letters a weighted look.

But do typefaces designed for dyslexic readers make that much of a difference in enabling them to read? We will look at what the research says in our next blog.

 

Six writing problems—and solutions—for children with ADHD

 

Writing, like reading, is really many skills used together to produce a product.  These skills include:

  • prewriting skills (deciding on a topic, narrowing it down to one main idea, gathering information, and sequencing it)
  • composition skills (figuring out how to begin, sticking to the plan, concluding, writing in complete sentences, including details, and using good vocabulary, grammar, spelling and punctuation),
  • revising skills (adding missing information, reordering ideas or sentences, deleting off-topis information, and confining or expanding to the desired length),
  • editing skills (checking for grammar, spelling and punctuation),
  • handwriting legibly, and
  • finishing by the deadline.

For children without ADHD, integrating all these skills produces anxiety.  But for children with ADHD, writing might produce tears, temper tantrums, and shut-downs.  Yet there are ways to mitigate the fear of writing, and with time, to overcome it.

Some of the most noticeable problems ADHD students face when writing and some solutions to those problems include

  • Staying focused long enough to remember what to say. One solution is demanding that students create a written prewriting organizer.  It can start as a list of ideas/details related to the topic.  Then students can group the related details, using colored highlighters to identify what ideas go together.  Lastly the student can number the colors in the order in which he/she wants to use them in the writing passage.  Teachers need to model how to create such organizers and how to implement them, over and over, until students realize organizing before they begin is as much a part of writing as using a pencil is.  Later, as students advance, writing a thesis and subtopic sentences can become part of the prewriting organizer.

 

  • Figuring out how to start and how to conclude. Looking at that blank piece of paper can be daunting.  One solution is for a teacher or parent to brainstorm various ways to begin and end with the student, and to write those beginning sentences and ending sentences as options.  You might think, but the student is supposed to do the work himself.  Eventually, yes, but not when the student begins.  When you learned to walk, didn’t you have an adult right there to catch you when you stumbled, and to lift you up again?  When you learned to ride a bike, didn’t you have an adult running at your side to keep you balanced and to “launch” you?  Students need adults “launching” them in the writing process too.  With enough practice, students will gain the skills to start writing and to conclude on their own.  But at first, they need an adult to provide models of good writing.

  • Sticking to one main idea. Following organizers will keep students on course.  An adult should ask the student to read aloud his in-process work, and the adult should match the sentences with the organizer.  Students might not realize they have drifted off-course.  It’s important to discover off-topic information quickly, before students have invested too much time and too many sentences into information that needs to be deleted.

 

  • Using correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. One method to deal with these kinds of errors is to allow students to write without regard to them.  Then, after the compositions are finished, go back and help students fix some of them.  One time, focus on run-on sentences.  Another time focus on apostrophes.  If the student is expected to fix all his errors as he goes along, he will lose the flow of his writing and might never finish.  Another method to deal with grammar, spelling and punctuation errors is to give two grades—one for composition and one for conventions.  Or give one grade for composition only.

 

  • Taking time to revise and edit. ADHD students are impulsive.  They tire quickly of activities where they need to sit still and focus.  Yet revising and editing are necessary steps to produce good writing.  One solution is to separate the revising process from the composing process.  Do composing today and revising tomorrow.  Do twenty minutes before recess and twenty minutes after.  Write post-it notes to students identifying one problem for each student.   If Jimmy can’t identify run-ons, underline the run-ons he needs to fix and ignore the other problems.  If Mary can’t figure out when or how to use apostrophes, underline the words which might need them.  Help them start on the revision process so they needn’t start from scratch.  Not every piece of writing needs to be perfect.

  • Writing legibly. Allow students to use computers, laptops, iPads or other electronic devices to write school assignments.  Not only allow them, but teach them how to use these devices during writing classes.  Show them how to swipe a sentence and move it to a better location.  Show them how to look up spelling or synonyms.  Show them how to indent or double space or whatever helps them to write better.

Like all skill-based activities, writing well depends on practice.  If a teacher assigns one writing assignment a month or a semester, the student will not improve.  Yet, this is often the case since reading and marking student writing is time-consuming.  If your child is not assigned writing weekly, then you, as the parent, can assign it.  If you think you are not qualified, may I suggest you buy my writing instruction book, How to Write a 5th Grade (or Any Other Grade) Essay, available on Amazon.  Everything I’ve talked about here is included there but in more detail.

If you hope your child will attend college or professional school, he or she will need to be able to write.   Reading and writing are two of the most basic skills your child needs to do well in life.  Don’t let fear of writing (his or yours) handicap your child.

 

Teaching ĭ CVC words and ĕ CVC words

Ĭ and ĕ are the two hardest vowel sounds to distinguish.  Here is how I suggest you work with children to differentiate these sounds.  Mix the ĭ CVC words with the previously learned ă, ŏ, and ŭ CVC words.  Then mix the ĕ CVC words with the previously learned words, not including the ĭ words.  Lastly mix only the ĭ CVC words with the ĕ CVC words.  Repeat these steps indefinitely until your child can read the majority of ĭ and ĕ CVC words correctly.  Learning the ĭ and ĕ CVC words can take longer than the other three letter sounds combined.

Sample ĕ words

bed fed led red Ted
beg egg keg leg Peg
Ben den hen men pen
bet get jet let pet
bell dell fell Nell sell
Bess less mess Tess yes

Sample ĭ words

bid did hid kid lid
big dig fig pig rig
dim him Kim rim Tim
bin din fin pin tin
dip hip lip quip zip
bit fit it pit zit

Problem: Distinguishing between nearly identical sounds and words

Short ĕ and short ĭ are difficult sounds to distinguish for most beginning readers.  When I teach these sounds, I rely on two game-like activities.

For one of the activities, I gather the pictures of  words which start with ĕ and ĭ, or which use them in the CVC pattern.  I put these Ee and Ii cards in front of the child and we practice saying those letter sounds.  Then the child sorts the deck of cards I have created, putting cards under one of the two letter sounds.  We say the word aloud to reinforce the letter sound.

For another activity, I have created BINGO-like cards of ĕ and ĭ words.  I limit each BINGO card to nine words.  More words can seem overwhelming.  I say one of the words and the child finds and covers it, using a marker.  To extend this activity, the child and I exchange places.  The child says the words and I find the correct spelling.

big beg dig
set sit bet
lit let bit

Learning to read, one sound at a time

A six-year-old kindergartener learning to read VC and CVC words worked with me yesterday for the first time.  We met the day before via zoom.  He was nervous, sitting on his grandmother’s lap for support.

I started by assessing his phonics skills.  Because he doesn’t know me and has not worked online, his responses to the phonics assessment I did might not be spot on.  After a few lessons, when he is more relaxed, I will have a better idea of his skill level.

 

But for now he was able to show me he knows letter names, consonant sounds and short vowel sounds.  He can sound VC words easily.  When he reads CVC words, he cannot “slide” all the sounds together to form words.  So that is where my reading instruction will begin.

 

Yesterday we worked using letter tiles.  I put before him the word “at,” and then I added one onset letter sound at a time, forming words like “fat” and “rat.”  He sounded out words from several word families using short a, o, and u.  After 20 minutes, his squirming became excessive, and we ended the lesson.  Today I will teach him again for another short lesson.

 

His grandmother showed me a “beginner” picture book the boy has, but as is often true, that book is not a good “beginner” book for students learning phonics.  In that book, advanced reading words are mixed in with sight words and CVC words.  I recommended she set it aside for a few months.

 

She wondered if she should use flash cards with words printed on them to help her grandson learn.  If the words are sight words which cannot be sounded out phonetically—words like “are” and “the”—then yes.  But if the words are capable of being sounded out, I said the student should learn them by sounding them out.  Otherwise he might think he should memorize the look of a word to pronounce it.

 

Should he guess at words?  No.  If a child learns to read following the rules of phonics, eventually he will be able to sound out almost any word, even long words like “dinosaur” and “alphabet.”  Teaching a child to guess introduces a habit which will hobble him the rest of his reading life.

 

This student has learned to read the way phonics experts recommend, sounding out each letter.  With time, almost all CVC words will become sight words for this student and he will no longer need to sound them out.  But to reach that stage of reading, he needs practice sounding out words.

Teach ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ

Suppose you have taught your child VC (vowel-consonant) and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words using ă and ŏ and the 16 consonants that always sound the same at the onset of words.  You have had your child read lists of words with ă and ŏ shuffled.  Your child is able to pronounce those words correctly.

Now it is time to move on to ŭ.  I recommend teaching ŭ before teaching ĕ and ĭ.  In my teaching experience, children recognize the sound associated with ŭ quicker than the sounds of either ĕ and ĭ.  Some children do have trouble pronouncing ŭ, but they don’t confuse the sound with either ĕ or ĭ.  They can distinguish a difference between ŭ and ĕ / ĭ.  Children have a harder time distinguishing between the sounds of ĕ and ĭ.  So I recommend teaching ă, ŏ and ŭ in that order.

Some of the commercially available support materials you might use with your child do not sequence the short-vowel words in this order.  In that case, I recommend you jump ahead to the ŭ word section and return to the ĕ and ĭ sections later.

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words include:

up hub pub rub tub
bud dud Judd mud Rudd
bug dug hug jug lug
dull gull hull lull null
but cut gut nut rut

Sample ŭ  VC and CVC words with ă and ŏ in sentences include:

  • Judd cut a nut.
  • Rudd dug up a bug.
  • Tess can run in the mud but not Tom.
  • Tom dug a rut.
  • Jan can hug a mutt.

How to teach words using ă and ŏ

Suppose you have taught your child the 16 consonant sounds which don’t vary at the beginning of words: b, d, f, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, qu, r, t, v, x, and z.  Now you are ready to teach vowel sounds.

Explain what vowels are

Because you will be using the words vowel and consonant with your child as you teach, make sure you take time to explain what these words mean.  Vowel refers to five letters all the time (a, e, i, o, and u) and two letters sometimes (y and w).  Consonant refers to all the other letters and to y and w most of the time.  For now you can leave out the y and w, but when you teach small words like by and now, mention that y and w act as vowels sometimes.

Should you say short / closed vowels?  Or long / open vowels? 

Today many support materials refer to vowels followed by a consonant in the same syllable (cat, hot) as closed vowels.  Years ago these vowels were called short vowels, and they were pictured with a curve over the vowel as in ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ.  Similarly, vowels coming at the end of a syllable (go, hero) are today called open vowels by some reading support workbooks.  Previously they were called long vowels and pictured with a horizontal line over them as in ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū.  I will use the terms short and long since those are the terms most parents recognize.  I will use markings over vowels such as ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ and ŭ when referring to a particular short vowel sound and ā, ē, ī, ō, and ū when referring to a particular long vowel sound.

Naming vowel sounds as short or long is important because we need a vocabulary to use with children when we refer to vowels pronounced like their letter names and vowels pronounced more softly.  Whichever terms you use, make sure your child understands them.

Teaching words with a ă sound

While you are teaching the 16 consistent consonant-letter sounds, you can begin to teach one short vowel sound.  I recommend starting with the letter ă because almost all phonics support materials start with the vowel ă, and because ă might be the easiest short vowel sound to master.  The support materials I suggest for my students are the Explode the Code series.  That series starts with ă words.

When I am teaching in person, I use flash cards with pictures of words beginning with ă such as alligator, astronaut, and apple.  I recommend you teach your child to say “ă as in apple” to reinforce the letter connected to the sound.

Choose five or six consonant letter sounds your child has mastered.  Using letter tiles, form two and three letter words such as am, an, at, bat, bam, tan, and mat, etc.  Place the letter tiles for one word an inch or so apart and ask your child to say the sounds, keeping the picture of the apple on the table too, for reference.  Repeat saying the sounds as you slowly move the letters closer and closer together until the child says the word.  It might take many tries, but usually there is a Eureka! moment when the child realizes she is reading a word, not just letter sounds.  Reading teachers call these tiny words CVC words, meaning consonant-vowel-consonant words.

Gradually add more consonant sounds and form more words with ă as the vowel sound.  If the child loses interest, one way to extend the lesson is to use her name and write a goofy sentence such as Kim is a pan or Kim is a map.  Another way is to use your name and have her end the sentence.  Mom is a ____.  Teach her that the vowel goes first or in the middle.  Try mispronouncing a word she writes and ask her if you said it correctly.

You can buy magnetic cards which you can cut into small rectangles to attach to the back of letter tiles.  Then you can work in a metal lasagna pan or pizza pan or on the refrigerator.  If your child is four or five, a short lesson (ten minutes) teaching in one mode followed by another short lesson in another mode (writing words on an iPad or laptop, writing in a workbook) might be all she can handle for one session.  I have given one-hour lessons to a four-year-old, but I needed to have six mini-lessons to sustain her interest.

Teaching words with a ŏ sound

When, after several days or weeks, you are sure your child can read ă words, move on to ŏ words.  Create a reference card—an octopus, for example.  Work on two and three letter ŏ words such as on, off, odd, Oz, nod, fob, and Bob, etc.  After several days or weeks—whatever it takes—mix ŏ words with ă words.

To reinforce your work, read together picture books.  When you come to a word she can pronounce, point to it and ask her to say the word.  Two or three times are enough to show her that what she is learning applies to her real world.