About one in three children in the United States cannot read at a basic level of comprehension, according to a key national exam. The outcomes are particularly troubling for Black and Native American children, nearly half of whom score “below basic” by eighth grade.
“The kids can’t read — nobody wants to just say that,” said Kareem Weaver, an activist with the N.A.A.C.P. in Oakland, Calif., who has framed literacy as a civil rights issue and stars in a new documentary, “The Right to Read.”
Science of reading advocates say the reason is simple: Many children are not being correctly taught.
A popular method of teaching, known as “balanced literacy,” has focused less on phonics and more on developing a love of books and ensuring students understand the meaning of stories. At times, it has included dubious strategies, like guiding children to guess words from pictures.
The push for reform picked up in 2019, when national reading scores showed significant improvement in just two places: Mississippi and Washington, D.C. Both had required more phonics.
But what might have remained a niche education issue was supercharged by a storm of events: a pandemic that mobilized parents; Covid relief money that gave school districts flexibility to change; a fresh spotlight on racial disparities after the murder of George Floyd; and a hit education podcast with a passionate following.
“There is this urgency around the story, this unbelievable grief,” said Emily Hanford, a journalist at American Public Media. Her podcast, “Sold a Story,” detailed how stars of the literacy world and their publisher diverged from scientific research. It racked up nearly 5 million downloads.
The movement has not been universally popular. School districts in Connecticut and teachers’ unions in Ohio, for example, pushed back against what they see as heavy-handed interference in their classrooms.
“Well, it’s kind of too bad that we’ve got the smartest people at our universities, and yet we have to create a law to tell them how to teach.”