It can be hard to work through reading issues and the older student. In the mid 90’s the government started focusing catching illiteracy early in kindergarten and grade school.
The focus on early intervention is well-conceived, given the strong evidence that research-based instruction beginning in kindergarten significantly reduces the number of children who experience reading difficulty (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000).
If children receive instruction in phonological and alphabetic skills and learn to apply that knowledge to decoding words, they are very likely to succeed at reading. Once children fall behind, they seldom catch up, a reason that such states as California, Virginia, and Texas promote early intervention to prevent reading problems. Reading level in 1st grade, moreover, is an astonishingly good predictor of reading achievement into high school (Catts et al., 1999; Cunningham and Stanovich, 1997; Shaywitz et al, 1999; Fletcher et al. 1994). Reading failure begins early, takes root quickly, and affects students for life.
Improvements in reading education in the lower elementary grades, however, are coming too slowly to affect the huge numbers of students beyond third grade who have been the victims of misguided reading instruction and scarce resources. Many people know that about 42 percent of 4th graders score below basic in overall reading skill on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In Washington, D.C., where I am currently studying reading intervention, the proportion of students beyond 3rd grade who cannot read well enough to participate in grade-level work is between 60 and 70 percent, depending on the grade and year of assessment. Too few children can compete in higher education and about half fail to complete high school. In this community, the rate of adult illiteracy — reading below 4th grade level — is 37%, the highest in the nation. Nationally, 25% of all adults are functionally illiterate.
The older struggling reader
What can be done?
Plenty, if we are committed to applying best practices supported by reading research. Converging evidence from psychological studies of reading explains the nuts and bolts of learning to read at any age and in any alphabetic language ( Lyon, 1998). Most reading scientists agree that a core linguistic deficit underlies poor reading at all ages (Catts et al., 1999; Shaywitz et al., 1999). At any age, poor readers as a group exhibit weaknesses in phonological processing and word recognition speed and accuracy, as do younger poor readers (Stanovich & Siegel, 1994; Shankweiler et al., 1995). At any age, when an individual’s reading comprehension is more impaired than his or her listening comprehension, inaccurate and slow word recognition is the most likely cause (Shankweiler et al., 1999).
To complicate matters, the older student has not practiced reading and avoids reading because reading is taxing, slow, and frustrating (Ackerman & Dyckman, 1996; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997). Therein lies the most challenging aspect of teaching older students: they cannot read so they do not like to read; reading is labored and unsatisfying so they have little reading experience; and, because they have not read much, they are not familiar with the vocabulary, sentence structure, text organization and concepts of academic “book” language. Over time, their comprehension skills decline because they do not read, and they also become poor spellers and poor writers. What usually begins as a core phonological and word recognition deficit, often associated with other language weaknesses, becomes a diffuse, debilitating problem with language — spoken and written.