In the heated environment of last year’s U.S. presidential election, the subject of education was a common sound bite, with both candidates describing the terrible state of literacy in our nation—and of course each candidate assured us that he was the person to fix the problem!

It is true that literacy is in a state of crisis in the United States. In 1998, the National Assessment of Education Process (NAEP) reported the rather alarming statistic that reading ability among the nation’s children across all age ranges had not improved in the past three decades. The NAEP is often referred to as the —nation’s report card,— because it is a federally based program that measures standardized test achievement test scores from students enrolled in both private and public schools across the nation.

On September 26, 2000, Dr. Donald N. Langenberg, chairman of the National Reading Panel (NRP), testified to Congress on the NRP’s findings on the state of reading instruction in the nation’s schools. The NRP is a 14-member committee that was formed in 1997 by a Congressional mandate. The committee has been charged with assessing the effectiveness of different research-based techniques of reading instruction, as well as the readiness of these research results for application to the classroom. In his testimony, Dr. Langenberg stated that there is no “silver bullet” that will simply solve the problem with literacy.

Dr. Lagnenberg further testified that the most effective reading instructional methods reviewed by the NRP were those that employed “systemic phonics instruction—To become good readers,” he said, “children must develop phonemic awareness, phonics skills, the ability to read words in text in an accurate and fluent manner!”

“The focus of the REA grant is really to change reading instruction.”

A salient feature of the NRP’s report to Congress was its emphasis on the need for critical scientific scrutiny of the reading methods that are used in the classroom. As Dr. Lagnenberg testified to Congress: No reputable physician would normally subject a patient to a treatment or a drug whose efficacy had not been proven in rigorous scientific testing. We should expect no less of a teacher subjecting a student to curricular content or a teaching methodology.

In response to the test scores reported by the NAEP, as well as preliminary reports by the National Research Panel, the Reading Excellence Act (REA) was passed in 1999. The U.S. federal government appropriated $260 million for the REA. Of that, $241.1 million is earmarked to go directly to states through grants awarded in a competitive proposal process. The remainder of the funds goes to establish programs such as “Even Start.”

One of the most promising tenets of the REA is that the schools that receive funds are tasked to institute reading methods based on scientifically researched experiments.

“The focus of the REA grant is really to change reading instruction. Schools are not allowed to just purchase a pre-packaged program. Parents have to be involved, and teachers really have to know what they’re doing,” says Dauna Howerton, manager of REA funds for New Mexico.

It is true that over the years, schools have adopted many different programs that are based on the latest research findings about child development and learning. However, there has been no systematic way of judging that certain programs are more beneficial than others, or even if they offer any improvement in learning at all.

Susan Sommers, a fourth and fifth grade teacher in Seattle, Washington, believes that some packaged programs are not always the best choice for students: There are some wonderful programs out there, but they don’t always help the teachers figure out the best way to teach kids how to read. They just have workbooks, computer programs and so on, but teachers really want to learn how to do the reading instruction properly, and these programs don’t always do that.

The goals of the REA seem to fill in some of the gaps apparent in the way children are taught to read. The Reading Excellence Act outlines four basic goals:

  • Provide children with the skills and the support needed in early childhood to learn to read once they enter school;
  • Have each child able to read by the end of third grade;
  • Improve the way teachers and other instructional staff in elementary schools teach children to read;
  • Provide extra support for students who are having difficulty with reading skills, particularly during the transition from kindergarten to first grade.

Each of these goals is backed by government funds. In order to receive grants from the REA funds, states submit a proposal to the federal Department of Education, describing the specific ways they plan to implement the goals outlined in the REA. For example, in Virginia, schools are required to partner with a college or university research department to determine what areas of reading instruction need to be improved. This ensures that the scientific methods used by university researchers are brought to bear on the schools’ classrooms.

In Maryland, many of the counties have set up week-long ‘reading institutes’ in the summer, using REA funds to help teachers focus on reading instruction for children with limited English skills and for children whose parents have poor literacy skills. Each state is thus able to cater to the needs of their own schools and districts. This is one of the beauties of the REA: it is a federally based program is carried out in the ways deemed most appropriate by those closest to the children.

The tenets of the REA echo many of the recommendations made by the NRP’s report to Congress. For example, the NRP suggested that children be given literacy instruction beginning in kindergarten.

Howerton agrees that focusing on younger children is the right approach: I was an educator for many years, and to tell you the truth, by high school I expected the kids to be coming in with the necessary reading skills, and a lot of them just didn’t have it. And really, by then, it is too late.

One aspect of the REA that goes beyond the report by the NRP is that it targets children deemed to be ‘at risk’ for reading difficulties. These are children who come from families living at or near the poverty line, as well as children who come from homes where one or both parents are illiterate or have reading and learning difficulties themselves.

In the state of Washington, for example, REA funds are being used to launch a program called ‘Washington Reads’, which sets up supplemental programs in the counties with the highest levels of poverty. These programs include funding full-time reading coaches for each of the participating schools. Reading coaches will then help teachers in those schools implement the latest research on reading methods in their classrooms. The programs will also set up teacher training workshops, which may be open to teachers from non-participating schools, says BJ Wise, state assistant superintendent for special programs.

The ability to read is an obvious component to success in our society, and the need to improve literacy, particularly in our least financially stable schools, is an incredibly worthy, as well as an incredibly challenging, goal. The Reading Excellence Act seems to be a proactive step in the right direction.