Dismantling the Myth of Learning to Read and Reading to Learn
Reading is a crucial skill that we use daily to gain knowledge, understand information, and communicate ideas. In our society, literacy is access. This key life skill opens the door to progress, power, privilege, and opportunity across a lifetime (National Institute for Literacy, 2009).
The Focus on 3rd Grade
Educators agree that reading by the 3rd grade is an imperative milestone.
We have known for decades that the majority of children who struggle to read in 3rd grade continue to struggle throughout high school (Francis, Shaywitz, Stuebing, Shaywitz, & Fletcher, 1966). Yet, despite 40 years of knowledge and focus on early reading development and the No Child Left Behind Act's commitment to ensuring that every child can read by the end of 3rd grade, many U.S. children are still not proficient readers. According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (2011), two-thirds of the nation's 4th graders cannot successfully read grade-level texts.
A Myth Is Born
During the 1990s, research led by Harvard professor Jean Chall described how children learn to read, and the instruction supporting reading success was translated into a short, catchy phrase: "In K–3 children are learning to read, and in 4–12 children are reading to learn" (Chall, Jacobs, & Baldwin, 1990; Chall and Jacobs, 2003).
However, this distillation of reading acquisition and proficiency greatly oversimplified the complexities of reading development and fostered misunderstandings within the education world. Although reading does become an increasingly important skill in helping students expand their knowledge after 3rd grade, learning to read hardly comes to an abrupt halt at the end of 2nd or 3rd grade. Reading experts have referred to this oversimplified statement as a myth and asserted that buying into this allegory will not promote long-term, ongoing reading development in children:
The myth and its practices aren't working. What many researchers have now shown is that for all children, learning to read and reading to learn should be happening simultaneously and continuously, from preschool through middle school—and perhaps beyond. (Robb, 2011)
Assigning to early primary teachers the responsibility of teaching children to read resulted in a lack of reading instruction from grade 4 on and an intensive focus on narrow skill development. Teachers after 3rd grade viewed the statement as permission to abandon reading instruction in all content areas, believing that it was the primary teachers' job to teach reading. This outlook greatly diminishes the reading potential of our nation's children.
Balancing Learning to Read and Reading to Learn
Reading proficiency changes most dramatically in the earliest years of a child's education, from preschool through grade 3, and those falling behind have immense challenges to catch up. Therefore, it is essential that reading instruction in these early years be strategic and effective so that it establishes a foundation for continued success (Musen, 2010). This requires a delicate shift in the balance of instruction from finite skills, those that can be mastered within a prescribed period of time, to the lifelong development of comprehension.
Finite skills include skills that can be mastered by 2nd or 3rd grade, such as concepts of print, phonemic awareness, phonics and the alphabetic code, and word analysis strategies. In contrast, comprehension skills develop over a lifetime and include fluency and automatic word recognition, vocabulary development, comprehension acquisition, and strategy development (Stahl, 2011).
Teachers during the early years must balance the instruction of finite skills with the development of a strong foundation of lifelong skills, including prior knowledge development, strategic thinking, and problem-solving strategies, that instill the perseverance and efficacy necessary for children to read and sustain, even when text is difficult (Graves, Juel, Graves, & Dewitz, 2010). A misunderstanding of this balance may have contributed to the myth. Even after children have mastered finite skills, educators must continue to teach lifelong skills.
For teachers who believe that teaching reading falls solely within the primary teacher's domain, reading after 3rd grade becomes an application or assignment, not an opportunity for teaching and learning. To further students' reading level, educators must give explicit instruction about how text is structured and effective and how students can ask questions and use strategies to make text more meaningful.
Aligning to the Common Core
The Common Core State Standards heavily emphasize students' ability to read complex text independently and proficiently at every level of development, from kindergarten through grade 12. This will only happen if educators explicitly teach reading skills and strategies with an understanding that "learning to read by grade 3" and "reading to learn in grades 4–12" is not only a myth but also a disservice to the children in our care.
More than 20 years of research indicates that true reading ability only happens through a sustained, instructional focus on comprehension and vocabulary development taught through authentic texts with wide reading practices.
Learning to Read and Reading to Learn Is a Lifelong Endeavor
We assert that reading proficiency develops over a lifetime. Throughout students' academic careers, learning to read and reading to learn is the responsibility of all teachers and must occur simultaneously and continually—all day, every day—to adequately prepare students for the demands of college and the workplace. As students move through their educational journey, they develop reading knowledge, skills, and habits, while continuing to build their prior knowledge and expand their vocabulary, which promotes reading proficiency.
Now is the crucial time to change our practices and positively influence student achievement. It is our responsibility as educators to foster and develop reading, both in learning to read and applying that knowledge in reading to learn, for all students. Leaving the myth of "learning to read and reading to learn" in the past and moving forward with that commitment to continual learning will promote the greatest potential for reading proficiency in the 21st century.
Chall, J., Jacobs, V., & Baldwin, L. 1990. The reading crisis: Why poor children fall behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Chall, J., & Jacobs, V. (2003, Spring). The classic study on poor children's fourth-grade slump. American Educator, 27(1). Retrieved from http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/spring2003/hirschsbclassic.cfm
Francis, D. J., Shaywitz, S. E., Stuebing, K. K., Shaywitz, B. A., & Fletcher, J. M. (1966). Developmental lag versus deficit models of reading disability: A longitudinal, individual growth curves analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(1), 3–17.
Graves, M. F., Juel, C., Graves, B. B., & Dewitz, P. (2011). Teaching reading in the 21st century: Motivating all learners (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Musen, L. (2010). Early reading proficiency. Providence, RI: Brown University.
National Assessment for Educational Progress. (2011).
National Institute for Literacy. (2009). National reading achievement goals inform early literacy instruction. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/01/08/idUS254502+08-Jan-2009+PRN20090108
Robb, L. (2011). The myth of learn to read/read to learn. Scholastic Instructor. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/myth-learn-readread-learn
Stahl, K. (2011). Applying new visions of reading development in today's classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 65(1), 52–56. doi: 10.1598/RT.65.1.7
Bonnie D. Houck, EdD, is a professor-lecturer at the University of Minnesota and a literacy consultant. Kari Ross is the state content specialist for reading at the Minnesota Department of Education.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 11. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.