April 12th is Drop Everything and Read (DEAR) Day, an annual celebration of reading that occurs on the birthday of beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary. Many of us recall reading about Drop Everything and Read in one of the author’s most well-known books, Ramona Quimby, Age 8. But do today’s elementary students even possess the literacy skills to read about Ramona’s adventures?

Everyone loves the party game/icebreaker “two truths and a lie.” Can you identify which of the following is NOT true about children’s literacy?

A. The two elementary literacy programs used most widely in schools are the most effective.
B. American children are severely behind in reading.
C. States and school districts can invest a portion of the $190 billion “emergency” federal education funding they have received in literacy programs and reading tutoring.

Let’s take these statements one at a time:

A. LIE! The two elementary reading curricula used by the majority of United States school districts are the lowest-rated. EdReports, a nonprofit organization that reviews K-12 instructional materials, gave both Fountas & Pinnell Classroom and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Units of Study (“Lucy Calkins”) a negative evaluation. 

According to Education Week, the Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins materials “received the lowest ratings EdReports has given for K-2 curricula in English/language arts, and they’re among the three lowest for ELA in grades 3-8.” These “balanced literacy” instructional methods do not align with the research on how to develop strong readers, and often contradict the research. They disregard the importance of learning phonics and encouraging vocabulary development, issues that have been flagged by reading experts for years.

According to Sandi Jacobs, a former Reading First program specialist for the U.S. Department of Education, one reason school districts continue to purchase and use these ineffective reading programs is the companies’ huge marketing budgets. Although strong, evidence-backed alternatives exist, those programs often lack the budget and contacts within school district purchasing offices needed to secure district contracts. Jacobs also believes that educators may not readily embrace the idea that they’ve been teaching something incorrectly for many years, and resist pursuing proven instructional strategies. 

B. TRUTH! The New York Times recently published an article with the headline, It’s ‘Alarming’: Children Are Severely Behind in Reading. As parents predicted, closing schools and subjecting children to lousy remote learning negatively impacted children. Reading test scores on state assessments plummeted in 2021, and additional diagnostic testing throughout the 2021-22 school year has revealed widespread issues, especially among younger students. 

According to The 74, “The University of Virginia reported that the number of 1st graders failing to meet grade-level was up by 18 percentage points. A nationwide study showed losses in reading were concentrated predominantly in early grades, kindergarten through 2nd. These are usually critical years for literacy, as by 4th grade most students are expected to have learned to read, so they can start “reading to learn.” 

C. TRUTH! After watching their children struggle with reading and writing during Covid-era “Zoom school,” many parents of elementary students actively hired tutors and extensively homeschooled their kids in basic literacy skills. Now that schools are open again, parents are realizing that their schools are not addressing the learning loss caused by prolonged closures. State departments of education and school districts, however, are awash in the $190 billion in “emergency” education funding provided by the federal government. Only a small fraction of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) portion of the federal funds has been spent—just 12.9% in Virginia and 15.5% in Washington, D.C., for example. As Matt Barnum writes in Chalkbeat, “Across the country, schools are struggling to spend their COVID relief dollars as quickly as planned.” 

School districts and states should use federal funds to purchase proven, rather than simply popular, literacy programs, and invest in tutoring, additional reading specialists, and summer school programs for students struggling to read. Districts are required to spend at least 20% of their American Rescue Plan funds on addressing “the academic impact of lost instructional time through the implementation of evidence-based interventions (e.g., providing intensive or high-dosage tutoring or accelerating learning).” As the U.S. Department of Education acknowledges, “Many parents and educators are especially concerned about the loss of in-person instructional time on students’ early literacy skills. ESSER and GEER funds may be used to support comprehensive State and local literacy programs that are needed due to the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., to address loss of literacy skills as a result of the pandemic).”

Bottom line:

What can be done to improve literacy instruction? School districts should redirect federal, state and local education funding to proven strategies using phonics-based direct instruction. In addition, expanding and creating school choice programs would give parents the purchasing power to leave the negligent school districts if schools don’t improve their literacy instruction. Parents need leverage to ensure that their children can read and love those wonderful Beverly Cleary books.