Guest Column: Nevada’s unnecessary illiteracy crisis
November 3, 2012
In a recent commentary in the Nevada Appeal, Gov. Brian Sandoval focused an appropriate spotlight on the literacy crisis in Nevada. He promised to put the power of his administration behind a major policy initiative to improve reading proficiency. The governor understands that fluent reading ability is the key to every child’s future and the linchpin of economic vitality for Nevada.The dismal statistic from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Nation’s Report Card) was noted in the governor’s commentary: “only 26 percent of Nevada’s fourth-graders scored as proficient or advanced readers.” This is unacceptable. Gov. Sandoval spoke a powerful truth when he said that the foundation of reading proficiency must be established by the third grade. Those children who leave third grade unable to read fluently rarely catch up whatever the remediation and too many will become high school drop-outs.Although Gov. Sandoval clearly identified the problem, the appropriate solution was not identified. Absent from his commentary, and from the official Nevada literacy plan, are the research validated requirements that decoding skills must be systematically and explicitly taught to all students before third grade. Exhortations to parents to read to their children and engage in conversation with them are commendable. However, no amount of speaking and listening will teach most children to look at the printed page and read fluently. We are born with the ability to speak but learning to read is a skill that must be explicitly taught. “Literacy for a Strong Nevada,” the plan for raising literacy levels published by the Nevada Department of Education in 2011, is a fatally flawed blueprint for continued failure. For example, “literate” is defined as “the ability to use reading, writing, listening and viewing, speaking, presenting, and critical thinking skills to learn new content.” The question is: How can one “use” reading and writing skills before those skills are mastered? The plan should have focused on teaching basic decoding skills first, because mastery of these essential reading skills is the only way to produce proficient readers. Although there is passing mention of “systematic, ongoing literacy instruction” the content of such instruction — mastery of the English phonetic and spelling system — is not specified. This literacy crisis afflicts not just Nevada but a large portion of the population of the United States. In 1992 (and again in 2003) the U.S. Department of Education conducted an Adult Literacy Survey. The findings of this survey exposed the fact that nearly half of the adult population had difficulty reading in spite of an average school attendance of 12.4 years. Nothing improved between 1992 and 2003. Indeed, the literacy rate has been declining for the past 60 years. In 1940, according to Census and military recruitment records, the literacy rate was 96 percent. The decline began when primary grade teachers abandoned the alphabetic code, that is phonics, and embraced the look-say method which requires the endless memorization of whole words. This strategy, and its descendants, left a multitude of reading casualties in its wake. An essential step in raising the reading proficiency level of Nevada students is a change in the curriculum of university schools of education in the preparation of teachers who will teach beginning reading. Next, teachers must be given effective tools of instruction. All reading programs are not created equal with only a few that demonstrate a realistic success rate of 95 percent. After years of implementation the program used by Carson City schools continues its pattern of failure. Dr. Robert Sweet Jr., former senior staff member on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, upon reading “Literacy for a Strong Nevada,” asks: “Will the adults who populate our colleges of education, the reading professionals in our public schools, and the politicians who mean well, but seem clueless to what the simple solution to the problem really is, step up and admit that continuing to do the same thing that has created the problem is the problem?”• Sharon Steele Kientz is a retired kindergarten teacher.