There’s a book for that.

I sometimes wish I had the magic words that enchanted students’ brains to desire reading. Instead, I hear a steady stream of protests: I hate to read. I hate reading.

Reading is boring.

Of course, it is. Looking at marks on a page that make no sense, undecoded gibberish which serves to remind our students of their lack of background knowledge, pallid schemas, and undernourished, oxygen-deprived computer testing programs.

Out of 90+ students, I have one–ONE–who reads at the IRLA “Gold” level. She is an exceptional young lady. In classes with mostly 13-14-year-olds who read below a 4th-grade reading level, I’m encouraged to do small group, skills-based instruction. Something is nagging at me, though, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Bear with me–these are just questions, not answers. Doesn’t the one girl who reads books, who sees beyond the intimidating number of pages, and never, ever asks “Do I have to read the whole thing?” when given a short article to read, doesn’t she deserve the grand conversations about thematic questions, art, literature, and history? Yes, and so does every student–and yet the shame and illiteracy of having passed grade after grade with being functionally illiterate have turned many of my students to stone. Reading is the enemy and shall be fought with every emotional tool they possess. Reading is not a normal brain function and telling a student who can’t read that they should read because reading is ‘magical’ when it’s shrouded in smog and the stench of failure is a hard sell.

But maybe that’s just it–honesty. Just tell them straight up–I don’t want them to miss out. To shut themselves away from richer, deeper conversations and insights. Do what I can to take away the shame and stigma and get real. Some approaches we teachers tried didn’t work, but the buck stops here (and explain what that phrase means).


One regret I carry from my master’s program was that I didn’t finish or pursue an endorsement in reading instruction. That imposter syndrome humonculus nags at me, but also motivates me to read and learn what I can about quality reading instruction.

Hard Words

Why aren’t kids being taught to read?

The basic assumption that underlies typical reading instruction in many schools is that learning to read is a natural process, much like learning to talk. But decades of scientific research has revealed that reading doesn’t come naturally. The human brain isn’t wired to read. Kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters — phonics.

“There are thousands of studies,” said Louisa Moats, an education consultant and researcher who has been teaching and studying reading since the 1970s. “This is the most studied aspect of human learning.”

Study: RTI Practice Falls Short of Promise

In 1st grade, 45 percent of the schools provided Tier 2 interventions to groups of students at all reading levels, not just for students reading below grade level. Moreover, 67 percent of schools provided Tier 2 interventions during the core reading instruction, not just in addition to it.

“It raises the question then, what is the extent of the contrast and differences in services provided to students below grade levels?” said Rekha Balu, an MDRC research associate and a co-author of the study.

That blurring of the lines between core instruction and intervention is worrisome, said Karen K. Wixson, a reading and literacy professor and a dean emeritus of education at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“Core instruction is supposed to be aligned with Tier 2, but Tier 2 is singling out a particular component and approaching it in a different manner. The core instruction is broader and covers a much broader range of skills students need to be exposed to,” Wixson said.

If interventions that are focused on a few skills take up more of the Tier 1 instruction, she said, “Students are missing a lot of broader things that are going to make a difference in their ability to put it all together in functional reading.”

In other words: we must pivot to strategies over skills in our instruction.

A Powerful Approach to Reading Instruction


Structured Literacy is a term coined in 2016 by the International Dyslexia Association to unify the many names for this research-based approach. Also known as Orton-Gillingham, phonics-based reading instruction, systematic reading instruction, and synthetic phonics (among others), this method has been around for nearly a century.

In the late 1920s, physician Samuel T. Orton partnered with Teacher’s College educator Anna Gillingham to create a method of reading instruction that would better support the needs of his patients with reading difficulties. He believed that these difficulties were brain-based and not supported by the popular rote memorization method used to teach reading at the time.

Did you get that? In the LATE 1920s. We’ve known what works for a long time, but we just need to have the will to do the direct instructional work (in the early grades) and carry it through. Not sure how I’ll teach students to read at grade level while teaching them whole-class novels at grade level–kind of like building the shelter while the rain is pouring down and expecting our mental socks to stay dry. Okay, so I need to work on my metaphors. I’m sure there’s a book for that.

Some book suggestions: