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Struggling Readers

Struggling Readers


Children begin learning to read by being read to at home, sounding out words, recognizing common vocabulary from books and teachers instructing them with the reading curriculum at school.  Reading skills increase when children develop and grow their word recognition skills and their language comprehension.  Every child does not seamlessly develop these skills. Why is that the case?  Read the article, from APM Reports, "What the Words Say," by Emily Hanford. It takes an in-depth look into reading development and how we meet the needs of children of color.


What the Words Say

Many kids struggle with reading – and children of color are far less likely to get the help they need

Many kids struggle with reading – and children of color are far less likely to get the help they need
Illustration by Rachel Sender for APM Reports

A false assumption about what it takes to be a skilled reader has created deep inequalities among U.S. children, putting many on a difficult path in life.

What the Words Say
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Sonya Thomas knew something wasn’t right with her son C.J. He was in first grade and he was struggling with reading. “Something was going on with him, but I could not figure it out,” she said. 

Teachers and school officials told her that C.J. was behind but would catch up. They told Sonya to read to him at home. But she did read to him. C.J. liked the Veggie Tales stories and “The Big Friendly Giant” by Roald Dahl. His older sister read the Goosebumps books to him. 

C.J. went to Amqui Elementary, a public school in Nashville, Tennessee, where 80 percent of the students were Black or Hispanic and almost all of them were from low-income families. Test scores show most children in the school were struggling with reading. But Sonya didn’t know that. She sent C.J. to Amqui because she liked the school and it’s where her best friend’s son went; her friend picked the kids up after school because Sonya worked late as a nurse. 

C.J. is the youngest of Sonya’s four kids. The three older ones had no trouble learning to read but something was different with C.J. “I started asking myself, does he have a learning disability?” She sent a handwritten note to the school, requesting that he be tested. Records show the school didn’t do it. 

Second grade came and went. Then third and fourth grade, and C.J. was still having trouble reading. Sonya didn’t know what to do. Tutoring? Private school? Those weren’t things she could afford. She was desperate. 

And she knew something about how C.J. felt. She’d struggled to learn how to read, too. 

As she grew older, she says it wasn’t that she couldn’t read the words; it’s that she didn’t know what a lot of the words meant. Not just when she was reading, but when people were talking, too. She noticed it with colleagues at work. “Sometimes when they would have conversations, I didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said. “I would find myself Googling words.” It was embarrassing. She did not want this to happen to C.J.

Sonya Thomas
Sonya Thomas Kristina Krug for APM Reports


But the schools kept telling her C.J. was doing fine. His grades were good. He was a well-behaved kid. Then, seventh grade, 2018. C.J. had moved to a new school that year, a public charter school in Nashville. C.J.’s adviser called Sonya in for a meeting. She told her that C.J. was reading on a second-grade level. 

“I lost it,” Sonya said. “I sobbed.” Remembering the moment during an interview brought tears to her eyes. 

The adviser said the school would help C.J., and Sonya wanted to believe it. But she’d put her faith in the school system for years, and now she had a seventh grader who was reading on the level of kids nearly half his age. 

Sonya was determined to figure out what happened with C.J. — and to help other families in the same situation. “Nobody else should walk away feeling like that,” she said.


The kids left behind

There are kids like C.J. all over the country. Learning to read does not come easily to them. Schools tell their parents: Read to them. They’ll be OK. But many won’t be.

Reading is essential — not just for school success, but for life. When children have trouble learning to read, it can kick off a devastating downward spiral.1 Struggling readers are more likely to report feeling sad, lonely, angry, anxious and depressed.2 Their poor reading skills make it hard for them to keep up in other subject areas. They’re more likely to have behavior problems, to drop out of school and to end up in the criminal justice system.3

Despite the high stakes, lots of kids in this country can’t read very well. You can see it in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to measure the reading comprehension of American students. More than a third of fourth graders don’t read on a basic level.

U.S. fourth-graders' reading levels over time
SOURCE: The National Assessment of Educational Progress. *In 1992 and 1994, testing accommodations were not permitted.

Why are so many children struggling with reading — the most basic, most fundamental academic skill? 

It’s a question I’ve been reporting on for several years. What I’ve found is that reading instruction in many schools is based on a belief that if children are read to a lot, reading should come pretty easily for them. Decades of scientific research on reading shows this isn’t true. Some kids learn to read easily, but many children struggle. It doesn’t matter how much they are read to or the number of books in their home. They will not become good readers unless they are taught how their written language works.4 

But prevailing approaches to early reading instruction in this country minimize direct instruction.5 The teacher’s role is mainly to guide students, to create an environment that is conducive to learning how to read: setting up reading groups, reading with kids, helping them find books on their reading level. 

This approach creates a lot of struggling readers. Some of these struggling readers get the help they need but a lot can depend on their family income, their race and ethnicity, and what kind of school they go to. Family income matters, because if a school isn’t teaching a child how to read, there are other options such as paying for tutors or private schools. Race matters, because white children are significantly more likely to go to public schools where more kids are successful with reading; that means when white kids struggle, their reading problems tend to stand out and get attention.6 And if a child has a reading disability, a white child is much more likely to get special education services. 

America’s approach to reading instruction is having an especially devastating impact on Black, Hispanic and American Indian children.

U.S. fourth-graders' reading levels by race/ethnicity
SOURCE: The National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2019.

The downward spiral that can start with early reading problems is a source of profound inequality in our society. This could be prevented if more educators and policymakers understood what cognitive scientists have figured out over the past several decades about what’s going on when kids struggle with reading.


A proposal for understanding reading difficulty

Wes Hoover is a cognitive psychologist who first got interested in reading when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas in the 1970s.7 At the time, a big debate was going on among academics about what children need to learn to become good readers. The fight was focused on phonics instruction. 

One side said: If kids know how the sounds in words are represented by letters, reading comprehension will follow. Teach kids decoding. 

The other side said: If kids are focused on the meaning of what they’re reading, they can figure out what the words say. Teach kids comprehension.  

Hoover studied under a professor, Philip Gough, who was trying to figure out the relationship between decoding and comprehension.8 Gough was particularly interested in why some people have a hard time understanding what they read. He was interested in reading difficulty. 

What Gough knew was this: When children start school, the vast majority of them are already quite good at speaking their native language. “The average American 6-year-old,” he wrote in a paper, “has a mastery of English [that] would be the envy of any college graduate learning English as a second language.”9

But young children don’t know how to read most of the words they know how to say. If children can learn to decode, Gough thought, they should be able to comprehend text up to the level at which they can comprehend spoken language. 

In 1986, Gough and a colleague, William Tunmer, came up with an equation to describe this idea. They called it the Simple View of Reading.10 

The equation says that a person’s ability to comprehend what they read is the product of their decoding skills and their language comprehension ability. 

Language comprehension is your ability to understand meaning when someone is talking or when text is read out loud to you. 

Decoding is your ability to read printed words quickly and accurately. (Decoding is more commonly referred to now as “word recognition” in the Simple View equation, because scientists have discovered that readers become so skilled they don’t have to sound out most of the words they see; they know the words instantly, on sight.)11

The Simple View doesn’t say that reading is simple. It says that reading comprehension can be divided into two parts. 

“It’s the big idea of reading,” Hoover said. “Word recognition is complex. Language comprehension is complex. But the big idea of reading is that if you can master those two complex skills, then you can master reading comprehension. That’s the hypothesis.” 

The hypothesis was first tested and verified in a study Hoover published with Gough in 1990.12 It’s been confirmed in more than 150 studies since.13 The studies show the only way to be a good reader is to have both good language comprehension ability and good word recognition skills, as this figure illustrates.

Word Recognition x Language Comprehension
SOURCE: The Cognitive Foundations of Reading and Its Acquisition, 2020. Adapted with permission.

The Simple View doesn’t say how word recognition or language comprehension skills develop. And it does not say how they should be taught.14 But it makes clear that the first task of the beginning reader is to learn how to decode the words he or she knows how to say. 

Children who don’t learn to decode in the early grades can easily grow into adulthood without knowing how to read. I met some of these kids at a juvenile detention facility in Houston. They’re being taught to read as part of an ongoing study by researchers at the University of Houston who are investigating the links between reading problems and involvement with the juvenile justice system.15


Stumped by the words

I visited the Burnett-Bayland Rehabilitation Center in February 2018. It’s a large, tan building surrounded by metal fencing. The lobby reminded me of an auto repair shop: worn-out stuffed chairs, old magazines, a chemical odor. 

I was led through two large locked doors by a staff member, who took me on a tour. It was all boys, as young as 10. More than 90 percent of them were Black or Hispanic. They walked the halls in blue jumpsuits, their hands clasped behind their backs. We passed the units where they slept on thin plastic mattresses and the isolation room where they were sent when their behavior was out of control. And then we got to a windowless cinderblock room with heavy locked doors on each side. Inside were a table and two green chairs. This was where the boys visited with their families once a week. It was also where some of them were finally being taught how to read.

Burnett-Bayland Rehabilitation Center
At left: Burnett-Bayland Rehabilitation Center. At right: A room where boys are being taught how to read. Emily Hanford | APM Reports


I sat in on a few of these tutoring sessions. They included short lessons on concepts as basic as how two letters can represent one sound. There were vocabulary building activities. Then the students did some reading. Some of the boys could barely read.16 

“B-l-ee …” said one boy I’ll call Mateo, struggling to read the word “bleak.” I wasn’t allowed to use the boys’ real names or ask why they were here. Mateo was 15 at the time, short and skinny with a shadow of a mustache above his lip. 

He was trying to read a story about a man taking a bus ride. Occasionally, he’d successfully sound out and there’d be a flash of recognition. “Woman!” he exclaimed after slowly decoding the word. But it was clear from earlier in the lesson that Mateo didn’t know the meaning of a lot of the words he was trying to say: fleet, sneer, gloat. If someone had read the story out loud to him, he wouldn’t have understood it all. Mateo had a reading comprehension problem because he was having a hard time with both word recognition and language comprehension. 

But if Mateo had been taught how to sound out words earlier in his life, it’s likely he would have known the meaning of a lot more words at the age of 15. 

That’s because of something reading researchers call “Matthew” effects, a term borrowed from the Bible.17 It’s the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Here’s how it works in reading. 

Let’s say you start school, and you get off to a good start learning how to decode words. Now you can read the words you know how to say, and through reading you begin to learn the meaning of words you’ve never heard before. That’s how the rich get richer. 

But the opposite can happen. You have a hard time learning to decode. Maybe you have a learning disability. Or maybe no one teaches you how to decode. Or both. Now you’re a struggling reader. You can’t read very well, so you don’t read much, and you miss out on the opportunity to learn the meaning of new words through reading. One study estimated that a fifth grader who reads at the 90th percentile encounters about 2 million words every year just in text she or he reads outside of school.18 A reader at the 10th percentile encounters just 8,000 words. That’s the poor getting poorer. 

When a person reaches age 15 without knowing how to sound out the word “bleak,” is that a learning disability or was the child never taught how to read?

Burnett-Bayland Rehabilitation Center
At left: Hallway 1 at the Burnett-Bayland Rehabilitation Center. At right: A unit where the boys sleep. Emily Hanford | APM Reports


The kids in the study at the juvenile detention facility in Houston all read at the third grade level or below when they started in the tutoring program. Latashia Crenshaw, who was director of Education Support Services for the juvenile probation department when I visited, estimated that close to half the kids who come through the system have disabilities that were never identified by their schools. When she talked to their parents, they would tell her: “I knew my son had a problem in first grade when I was coming up to the school every day, telling you that something was wrong, and no one listened.” 

The University of Houston researchers are betting that a lot of the struggling readers locked up in the juvenile detention system can be taught how to read. Students in the study each receive 24 reading lessons of 90 minutes each. The researchers are collecting data over time to see if the reading lessons translate into things like reduced criminal activity or better educational outcomes. 

I asked some of the kids in the study what they remembered about being taught to read in school. “That it was hard,” said a 17-year-old I’ll call DeShawn. “I just didn’t know none of the words.” I asked what he was learning in his reading lessons. “Like, ‘ph.’ It’s a ‘f,’” he said. “Like physics. I never knew that.” 

DeShawn might have a learning disability. But that’s not why he couldn’t read the word “physics.” Someone finally taught him what he needed to know, and now he can read that word.


‘Surround him with books’

Paul Morgan is a professor at Penn State University who studies the risk factors for learning difficulties.19 He had a case study in his own home about a decade ago. 

His younger son was in first grade and reading was really hard for him. Morgan’s other son had been fine. “Our oldest is a voracious reader and took to it readily,” he said. “He seemed to benefit from what our local school did in terms of teaching reading.” 

When Morgan and his wife brought up their younger son’s struggles with the school, they were told: “Read storybooks to him, surround him with books.” But they’d been reading to him since he was a baby. They had tons of books in their home. 

Morgan knew, from his own research, that his son needed something he wasn’t getting enough of in school. He needed to be taught how to read words. So, Morgan and his wife started doing that. 

“We were in a position to reorganize our work schedules,” he said. They bought a book online and every morning, one of them would work with him before school. “And then he was OK. Things made sense to him. He was decoding and starting to read quickly and fluently.” 

They caught the problem and were able to fix it. That’s not going to be the case with every child. Some kids will need lots of help. But intervening early is critical because when kids don’t get off to a good start with word recognition, it can begin to affect their motivation and their mental health.20 

“If you can’t read well in the early grades, your peers notice, your teacher notices, you notice,” Morgan said. “And it really starts to have negative consequences on your social emotional development and your behavior.” 

Children who are still struggling with reading at the end of first grade rarely catch up because the kids who get off to a good start reading words are catapulting ahead. It’s the rich get richer phenomenon. Everyone else quickly gets left behind. 

Yet a 2019 Education Week survey found that more than half of teachers and 56 percent of postsecondary instructors who teach courses on reading said kids don’t need a good grasp of phonics to read.21 That doesn’t necessarily mean they reject phonics instruction. The majority of teachers describe their approach to teaching reading as “balanced literacy” and that typically includes some phonics. But it also includes the idea that readers don’t need to understand how the sounds in words are represented by letters. It’s that idea from the 1970s that if kids are focused on the meaning of what they’re reading, they can figure out what the words say. 

This idea has been repeatedly debunked by cognitive scientists, but it lingers in education because the idea that children need to be taught how to read words has long been resisted by many educators and literacy experts.22 Even as some people who previously dismissed the importance of phonics instruction now embrace it, an assumption that continues to undergird reading instruction is that reading skill develops naturally, as long as kids are in an environment that supports and encourages lots of reading. 

When this approach doesn’t work for a child, there are typically two responses.

  1. There must be a problem in the home. The child wasn’t read to enough.

  2. There must be a problem in the child. He or she has a disability.

But usually it’s neither. Most of the time, when kids can’t read, it’s because they weren’t taught how to do it.


The importance of language comprehension

You can’t be a good reader without good word recognition skills. Reading scientists refer to word recognition as a “sine qua non” of being a good reader.23 But good word recognition skills are only half the equation. Research shows that once kids have mastered the basics of decoding, their ability to understand what they read is largely determined by the level of their language comprehension.24 

There’s a lot to language comprehension.25 It’s all the words you know the meaning of, and your understanding of how language works — grammar, syntax.26 It also includes the things you know. For example, if you don’t know what “sine qua non” means, you may not have fully understood the paragraph above. “Sine qua non” is a Latin phrase that means “an essential condition; something that is absolutely necessary.”

Knowledge is critical when it comes to understanding what you read.27 Consider this passage:


Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.28


You may be able to read all the words just fine but have absolutely no idea what this passage is about — unless you know something about cricket. This passage is from a BBC report on Australia’s victory in the 2015 Cricket World Cup semi-final. 

Your ability to comprehend what you read is linked to your knowledge. This is one reason there’s an association between a child’s reading comprehension and their family’s income; more income often means more opportunity for experiences that build knowledge of the world.

But how well you do on a reading comprehension test is going to be partly a function of what’s on the test. A 10-year-old in New Zealand, where there’s lots of cricket, would probably fare much better on a test that included a passage about cricket than a 10-year-old in the United States would. The American kid would likely do better with a passage about baseball. But of course, some kids know much more about baseball than others. A famous study found that struggling readers who know a lot about baseball did better comprehending a passage about baseball than good readers who don’t know much about baseball.29

The challenge with reading comprehension tests is that, at the end of the day, they are tests of knowledge, and in the United States we don’t have a canon of knowledge we’ve decided every child needs to master. We have common standards, which are essentially lists of things students should be able to do, such as “determine the main idea” and “describe characters in a story.”30 We don’t have agreed upon curriculum. It’s up to states, to schools — sometimes to individual teachers — to decide what to teach. They choose the books, the materials, the content.

One of the ironic consequences of nationwide concern about poor reading scores is that schools appear to be focusing more on reading instruction at the expense of other subjects.31 Time spent on reading instruction in the early grades typically takes 90 minutes to three hours daily; science and social studies might be 30 to 45 minutes, a few times a week — at best. Add to this the fact that kids who are struggling with reading are often pulled out of class during science and social studies for extra reading help.

When schools don’t put enough focus on general knowledge, it can be particularly harmful to the reading development of kids from low-income families. Consider two children.

One starts school with lots of knowledge and vocabulary. Her parents are college graduates who chat with her about lots of things. She attends summer camps, goes on vacations, takes trips to the science museum.

Another child hasn’t had the same opportunities: he rarely leaves his neighborhood, his parents work late, there may be few bedtime stories.

You can teach both of these kids how to decode, but the girl will likely have an edge when it comes to reading comprehension because of the knowledge she is acquiring outside of school. If a goal of education is equity, schools have to pay attention to building knowledge and vocabulary, exposing kids to lots of content, helping them access a wide range of information and experiences. And schools need to encourage kids to read a lot. Because reading is one of the best ways to learn.

That’s why teaching kids how to read words is so important. A child who comes to school weak on the language comprehension side of the equation will never catch up if he doesn’t get good at decoding. But if a child is taught to decode in the early grades, he has just been given his best shot.


‘I ain’t none a yo’ mama!’

Making sure that children get off to a good start with reading is critical because of the downward spiral that can begin as soon as kids begin to struggle. This means recognizing the factors that can make learning to read more challenging for some kids.

One of the big challenges for many children is when the language they speak at home is different from the language they use at school. English language learners, for example. Kids who speak Spanish or Korean or Arabic at home. But this can be native English speakers, too.

Julie Washington is a speech-language pathologist at Georgia State University who studies language and reading development in African American children. She’s specifically interested in the role of African American English.32

African American English is a dialect of English. Every language has dialects. They’re rule-governed variations of a parent language that can affect not just the pronunciation of words but also vocabulary and grammar.

“An example of African American English is, ‘One day, me and my mom was at home,’” Washington explained. “That is completely acceptable in African American English."

There was a moment early in her career when she realized that children who come to school speaking African American English might have a harder time learning how to read.

She was reading “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman with a 4-year-old girl. The book is about a baby bird who is looking for his mother. He approaches different animals and objects and asks, “Are you my mother?”

When Washington was done reading the book, she asked the girl to retell the story.

“Is you my mama?” the girl exclaimed. “I ain’t none a yo’ mama!”

When she went back to her office, Washington thought about how much work that girl had to do. She listened, recoded the story into her own language, and then retold it. “That takes a lot of working memory,” Washington said. “It takes a pretty good vocabulary.”

That little girl had to do a lot of work because there was a difference between the language she knew and the language of the book.

“The kid who comes to school whose language system mirrors the book doesn’t have that work to do,” she said. “He can go straight for decoding and not have to do all of those other steps in between.”

Washington says schools need to understand that children who are heavy dialect users may need more time, and more help, to be successful with reading.33 She says almost all low-income African American children speak African American English at home. Middle- and upper-income kids are more likely to either not use dialect at all, or to be able to code switch. “They’ve had more access outside of the community,” Washington said. “They go to schools where there are more kids using mainstream English.”


Who gets help?

Think of family income as a kind of buffer when it comes to the risk of being a struggling reader. 

But it’s not just your family’s income that can tilt things in your favor when it comes to learning how to read; it’s the income level of the school you attend too. Research shows that schools where the majority of kids are from poor families are less effective on average at promoting reading achievement.34 Who goes to high-poverty schools?35 According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly half of all Black and Hispanic students in the United States attend high-poverty schools but only 8 percent of white students do.

When children from low-income families are concentrated in the same schools, it can be difficult to identify the children with reading disabilities such as dyslexia because so many of the kids are struggling. “I go into poor schools — nobody has dyslexia in a poor school,” Washington said. “In the face of a population where eight and a half out of ten are struggling with reading, who has a reading disability? The answer is, we have no idea.”

She says part of the problem is the way federal law defines learning disabilities. The law says a child cannot qualify for a learning disability if that child’s learning problems are primarily the result of economic disadvantage.36 “We’ve decided as a country that if you are having trouble reading and you’re poor, you’re having trouble with reading because you’re poor,” she said. “Because our policy does not allow you to be both learning disabled and poor.”

The purpose of the policy was to prevent low-income children of color from being overidentified for special education.37 But the policy has had unintended consequences, according to Paul Morgan.

“We hear from teachers that they have been told not to refer any more children of color,” he said. “That they’re already at their threshold.”

Research by Morgan and his colleagues shows that white children in the United States who are struggling the most with reading are significantly more likely than children of color to get special education services.38

Who gets special education?
Among children whose reading achievement placed them in the lowest 10 percent of all scores, white children were more likely to be receiving special education services.
SOURCE: Morgan and Farkas "Replicated Evidence" paper

This data suggests that more than half the children of color in this country who are struggling the most with reading are not getting the help they need and are entitled to by federal law. It also suggests that many white children are not getting help, either. Morgan says getting special education services for a student with a reading disability can be difficult no matter who you are or what kind of school your child goes to. “Too often parents have to fight for their children to be provided the services,” he said. “And when the school says ‘no,’ there’s not much of a recourse for the parent to engage in, short of legal action, which is very costly.”

It’s a system that favors people with money. I’ve interviewed parents who have spent thousands of dollars on attorneys to try to get their children into special ed, because in many schools, special education is the only way for struggling readers to get the kind of explicit instruction they need.39

Kids who don’t get into special ed, or don’t have families that can pay for tutors or private school, may never get what they need to become good readers. Like the kids at the juvenile detention facility in Houston.


‘Why isn’t everybody in this country angry like me?’

When Sonya Thomas was told her seventh grade son was on a second-grade reading level, it changed her life. 

The next month, in October 2018, she helped found a parent advocacy group called Nashville PROPEL.40 The name stands for “parents requiring our public education system to lead.” It’s a group of mostly Black parents whose children are zoned to some of the lowest-performing schools in the entire state.

Nashville PROPEL
Nashville PROPEL Rodriquez Wright II | Courtesy of Sonya Thomas, Nashville PROPEL


Sonya says many parents don’t know how far behind their kids are. “They don’t know until it costs them.” Like it cost her and her son C.J. 

Sonya wanted to figure out what happened to C.J. Why has he had such a hard time learning to read? Does he have a learning disability the school system missed? 

She requested all of C.J.’s school records, and APM Reports hired Zack Barnes, an assistant professor of special education at Austin Peay State University, to review them.41 Barnes used to teach in the Nashville schools, so he was familiar with the forms and records in C.J.’s file. He went over them with Sonya and me. 

The records show C.J. started off behind. A reading assessment in kindergarten shows he was “below benchmark.” But it doesn’t say what he was behind in. 

At the beginning of first grade, C.J. took a reading test that placed him at the 24th percentile nationally. That means more than three quarters of first graders in the country were doing better than he was. There’s a form in the file that says C.J. had no problem understanding and using vocabulary but that he spoke slowly and sometimes had a hard time asking and answering questions. 

 “I do remember having some concerns about his speech,” Sonya said. “Like not talking a lot, being really shy.” She says she sometimes had a hard time understanding what he was saying. 

There’s no indication in the records that C.J. was evaluated for a speech issue or a reading problem. There is the handwritten note from Sonya when C.J. was in first grade, asking the school to test him for a learning disability. 

“I am very concerned,” the note says. “Please assist me.” But he wasn’t tested. 

At the end of first grade, C.J. scored at the 12th percentile on the same test he had taken at the beginning of the year. The gap between C.J. and his peers had grown even wider. Sonya teared up when Barnes pointed this out. “This tears me all to pieces,” she said. 

We spent nearly two hours going over C.J.’s entire school file, grade by grade. There are nearly 200 pages of records, and Barnes noticed a pattern. Some years C.J. got pulled out of the classroom for extra help with reading. His test scores went up. Then the help stopped. Barnes likened it to a lifeguard saving someone and then allowing them to drown a few minutes later. “I don't think what we are seeing is uncommon, across the country,” he wrote me later in an email. 

Barnes says things might have been different if C.J. had been in special education. He would have had an Individualized Education Program and rights to services protected by federal law. But to get into special ed, you need to be identified with a disability. To determine if C.J. has a disability, he’d need a full evaluation from a school psychologist. C.J. never got one of those. Barnes says he should have. “He’s this kind of student that we really need to dig deep on to figure out, how can we help C.J.?” 

Barnes offered to help Sonya get C.J. an evaluation. She was grateful, but angry. C.J. just finished eighth grade. She had asked for him to be tested for a learning disability in first grade. She wonders how many other kids needed help and didn’t get it. “There is this heavy feeling that I have,” she said, pausing for a long sigh. “I don’t know how to fix it. Except to keep telling parents to question everything and everybody, so they don’t have to go all of these years like I did, to try to get down to the bottom of it.” 

I contacted the Nashville Public Schools to see if someone could answer questions about what happened with C.J. A spokesperson declined to comment. 

When reading instruction is based on the flawed assumption that reading will come pretty easily to most kids as long as they’re in the right environment, reading instruction is tilted in favor of the few. The few who don’t need much instruction. The few from families who can pay to get their kids what they need. 

The bottom line is that learning to read is not easy for many kids. Reading difficulty is natural.42 

Cognitive scientists have known this for a long time. In 1980, Phil Gough wrote this: “The statistically average child, normally endowed and normally taught, learns to read only with considerable difficulty. He does not learn to read naturally.”43 

Sonya Thomas wants everyone to know about what she and C.J. have gone through. And she wants to help other parents get what they need for their kids. She’s now executive director of PROPEL, the parent group she helped to found. It’s her full-time job. She wants to see a movement of parents across the country demanding better reading instruction. 

“Why isn’t everyone in this country angry like me? Why are they not losing sleep?” she said. “It’s unacceptable for children to not have a chance right off the bat. And we are not going to let anybody sleep until we have changed for the better for all children.”


"What the Words Say" is one of three audio documentaries this season from the Educate podcast — stories about education, opportunity, and how people learn.


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