Credit: Alexander Grey/Unsplash

Substantial evidence is mounting for the conclusion that our nation is facing a literacy crisis. This is particularly true for California which the World Population Review rates as the worst in the nation.

Schools here in Santa Barbara rank 61st in the state in terms of reading proficiency scores. Two years ago, more than half the children from third through sixth grade failed their reading proficiency tests and did even worse on proficiency in mathematics. According to the world’s leading journal on developmental science, Child Development, failures in mathematics can be traced to failures in reading, suggesting that reading is the place to start in reversing our local school system failure.

This problem is of concern for many reasons, the most obvious of which is the well-being of our youth. But there are economic consequences as well. Forbes reports that poor literacy rates in America could be costing our economy up to $2.2 trillion this year!

How did we get here? This literacy problem began several decades ago when “balanced literacy” became widely accepted by school districts across the country. This literacy program taught children to read by using cues from the text to guess at words they could not read! This approach did not use phonics, the system for decoding printed texts by giving children the English speech sounds referred to by a particular printed symbol.

Within four years, the New York City schools discontinued the balanced literacy program they had just purchased because it was ineffective in helping children learn to read, Thankfully, our own Santa Barbara school district has just decided to do the same thing this year.

Problem solved? Not quite, given the pace that will be required. First, it takes about two years to train classroom teachers to use a new teaching program effectively. Second, teaching children phonics usually requires one-on-one tutoring. This is something that preschool and kindergarten teachers do not have the time to give individual children.

We need to act now! Fortunately, several companies offer software-based programs for teaching children phonics individually. Such a program was donated to the Santa Barbara school system by the Orfalea family almost 20 years ago.

However, that program was receiving very limited use even though 70 percent of children were failing their reading proficiency tests at entry to kindergarten. The solution adopted back then was to load a van loaded with eight computer stations containing this program and have it circulate through Santa Barbara neighborhoods allowing children to learn to read through training in phonics.

When it was soon discovered that most of the children failing their reading proficiency tests had attended district preschools the previous year, computers were next placed in all preschool classrooms and children were given 20 minutes each day to work at the phonics program. Two years after this change, the failure rate was found to be reduced to 15 percent.

Based on this prior success, we strongly recommend that a software-based phonics reading program, proven so successful 10 years ago, be reinstalled in all preschool and kindergarten classrooms under teacher or parental supervision as soon as possible. This move will allow these younger children to receive individualized training in mastering the reading code right now, while their teachers become comfortable with the new phonics-based curriculum that will advance their vocabulary and comprehension skills.


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