Why are Madison’s Students Struggling to Read?

Jenny Peek:

Mark Seidenberg, a UW-Madison professor and cognitive neuroscientist, has spent decades researching the way humans acquire language. He is blunt about Wisconsin’s schools’ ability to teach children to read: “If you want your kid to learn to read you can’t assume that the school’s going to take care of it. You have to take care of it outside of the school, if there’s someone in the home who can do it or if you have enough money to pay for a tutor or learning center.”

Theresa Morateck, literacy coordinator for the district, says the word “balanced” is one that’s been wrestled with for many years in the reading world.

“I think my perspective and the perspective of Madison currently is that balanced means that you’re providing time to explicitly teach those foundational skills, but also that’s not the end-all be-all of your program,” Morateck says.

According to the district, students in elementary school get 120 minutes of daily literacy instruction.

Lisa Kvistad, the district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, lays out what those two hours look like for kindergarten, first and second grade. For 30 minutes, students focus on foundational skills including print awareness (the difference between letters, words and punctuation), phonemic awareness (the ability to hear, identify and make individual sounds), and phonics (correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters).

Then teachers move into a 15-minute group lesson on a topic the class is focusing on. That’s followed by a workshop in which students are broken up into different groups for 20 to 40 minutes.

In these workshops, says Kvistad, “students are in varying groups and approaching literacy acquisition through opportunities to work with the teacher, read independently, and engage in word study.”

That independent learning allows students to choose books at their assessed skill level, Kvistad says. The district also offers a supplemental online program called Lexia for students who want to work on phonics.

At the end of the workshop, teachers bring students together again to connect their independent or small group study with the mini-lesson they started with.

After reading, 30 to 50 minutes are dedicated to writing, which is also done in a workshop model. The 120 minutes are rounded out by about 20 minutes of “speaking, listening and handwriting.”

For third, fourth and fifth graders, the 120-minute block looks similar, except no time is spent on foundational skills — except for the continued ability to use Lexia.

Kvistad explains that getting the right balance of foundational skills and exposure to grade-level curriculum is an art.

“There’s always a temptation to do more phonics,” Kvistad says. But she says there are drawbacks to that: “Those little ones never get a chance to access grade level curriculum, to engage in rich dialogue with the students in class, to have experience with grade-level vocabulary.”

But for those who advocate for a purely science-based approach to teaching reading, children need to master foundational reading skills before they have any hope of progressing to the more advanced skills that are emphasized with balanced literacy.

Steven Dykstra of the Wisconsin Reading Coalition, an organization that advocates for science-based reading instruction, pulls no punches, calling balanced literacy the “current name for the bad way to teach reading.” He says it evolved from “whole language,” a now-discredited type of instruction.

“In whole language you would have taught no phonics, and when you read books with kids you would have taught them to guess and use pictures,” Dykstra says. “In balanced literacy you teach some phonics, but when you sit and read a book you still give priority to guessing and pictures as a way to identify words. And you resort to phonics as a last resort.”

The UW’s Seidenberg explores the complex science of reading in his book Language at the Speed of Sight.

“What happens when you become a skilled reader is that your knowledge of print and your knowledge of spoken language become deeply integrated in behavior and in the brain,” he tells Isthmus. “So that when you are successful at becoming a reader you have this close, intimate relationship between print and sound.”


2018: “The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”.

Plenty of resources”. Madison has long spent far more than most taxpayer supported K-12 school districts, between $18 to 20K per student, depending on the district documents one reviews.

2005: When all third graders read at grade level or beyond by the end of the year, the achievement gap will be closed…and not before


The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has granted thousands of elementary teacher reading content knowledge waivers.

Wisconsin elementary teachers are, by law, required to pass the Foundations of Reading exam. This requirement – our only teacher content knowledge imperative – is based on Massachusetts’ highly successful MTEL initiative.

An emphasis on adult employment.