A new epidemic has surfaced in recent years: children are no longer reading at their grade level and national literacy rates have plummeted. Although the exact cause of this can not be determined, professionals and early education experts have long speculated that the education system, particularly the way we teach young kids to read, is flawed and may be at the root of this problem.
There are two main methods in teaching children how to read; the phonics method and the whole word method, sometimes also referred to as sight reading. During our early years we were often told that when we came to a word we did not know, that we had to ‘sound it out’, this is the Phonics method. It teaches the relationship between graphemes, letters, and their corresponding phonemes, which are distinct units of sound. After a while, the cognitive processes needed to translate between letters and sounds become familiar and the procedure becomes faster. On the other hand, sight reading requires the children to recognise the written form of a word and memorise its meaning via frequent exposure to it; they form a ‘word bank’ in their mind and then when they come across the word they can automatically comprehend it without sounding it out. Not all words in English are spelled the way that they sound, therefore some level of memorisation is needed either way.
National literacy rates are cause for concern, with around 40% of students in America not being able to read at a basic level. Reading scores have plummeted to a low, only ever seen in 2005 and math scores have decreased by 8 points, which is a level not seen since 2000. 20 states reported decreasing scores and no states recorded any increase or improvement. For students from 4th to 8th grade there were unexpected dips in math and reading achievements.
In recent years, increasing reliance on electronic devices has contributed significantly to the decline in literacy among children; many students confess that they choose not to engage in daily reading due to alternative pastime options, most of which are online. Surprisingly, 23% of American Adults admit to not having read a single book in the past year. Consequently, between 2019 and 2021 there was a 17% increase in social media use in teens and tweens, compared to a 3% increase from 2015 to 2019. The average screen time in 2021 was over 8 and a half hours for children aged 13 to 19 and online video viewing increased 23 minutes a day.
While many argue that the learning loss is an effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, others state that this issue long predates the health crisis. For the past several decades, there has been a longstanding debate on the best instructional method for reading, specifically whole word versus phonics. Now, 72% of early-grade teachers use outdated teaching methods that cognitive research scientists debunked years ago. Mississippi’s implementation of phonics in 2013 saw significant improvement in 4th grade reading score. Nonetheless, 29th position in the Nation still only proved their basic skills and emphasised inadequate reading abilities.
Beyond the recent trends, phonics has been overshadowed for decades by the cueing method: a technique that highlighted contextual and meaning-based language, leaving many students without the necessary decoding skills. The observable predominance of cueing in education programs further aggravated the situation, leaving teachers ill-equipped to address difficulties students had with reading. When students move on to secondary school, those already behind on reading face significantly more challenges and have a meagre chance of catching up unless the school district is able to pay money to hire someone to assist them.
Around 130 million American adults reading below a sixth-grade level evidenced the literacy problem, revealing the extent of the issue across generations. The disruption caused by the pandemic has further exacerbated the situation, and can be felt by millions of students. Students in 4th to 8th grade in particular, experienced unexpected declines in both math and reading achievements. These circumstances have widened educational disparities and highlighted the need for interventions to counter the challenges hindering literacy development. Addressing this crisis will require an approach that considers both the impact of electronic devices and outdated teaching methods, but also the systemic issues that are responsible for the widening literacy gap.