Literacy: The Danger of Falling Behind

In this op-ed, a high school reading coach reveals why so many kids are not reading at grade level.

Early intervention is key for kids whose literacy skills aren't progressing. (Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Jun 25, 2013· 2 MIN READ
is the reading coach at Matanzas High School in Florida and a 2013 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.

The demand for literacy skills is rising within our nation’s workforce, and as a teacher, I am struggling to make sure my students keep up. While Common Core seeks to narrow the literacy gap by making language-arts classes more rigorous and adding literacy standards to science, social studies, and technical courses, it won’t be enough to keep students from falling further behind.

In my 20+ years in education, I have found that literacy-education issues fall into four areas:

1) A disconnect between the demands of classroom and workplace literacy skills.

2) A strong correlation between third-grade reading performance and future success.

3) A growing discrepancy between reading level and grade level for struggling readers as they get older.

4) A scarcity of reading-intervention materials appropriate for high school.

Daggett’s Lexile analysis indicated that entry-level jobs have higher reading requirements than high school. He states, “While white-collar workers may do more reading on the job, the material that many blue-collar workers must read is both complex and extremely critical to job performance. Poor comprehension of technical manuals and installation instructions, for example, can have disastrous results.”

I have taught in high schools, tech schools, junior colleges, and colleges. Many people are astonished when I tell them the literacy skills needed in tech schools are much higher than high schools, and even more advanced than many college classes. When the reading requirements for both white- and blue-collar jobs are so rigorous, none of today’s students can afford to fall behind.

Reading proficiency as early as the third grade can have a dramatic impact on future success. Sadly, I have personally seen how struggling readers who start off as little as one year behind continue to slip even more as they move through the next grades.


Reading one to two years behind is detected as early as fourth grade, but by the time these struggling readers reach sixth through ninth grade, it’s not uncommon for their reading aptitude to be three to four years behind.

According to researcher Richard Allington, “In these cases it will usually require several years to catch up these struggling readers even if we can triple their reading acquisition rate.” The longer students are behind, the more behind they get.

This problem is exacerbated by the scarcity of appropriate high school reading-intervention materials. Most claiming to be at a secondary level are designed for sixth through eighth grade, with few extending into ninth or tenth grade.

Many of the study aids that do reach into high school levels don’t contain the rigor and complexity students will see on the PARCC. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that none of the secondary reading-intervention programs showed “strong evidence” of effectiveness, and only four showed “moderate evidence.”

In my school, we also have no “program” for our junior/senior reading classes. We have to scramble to find a workbook here and a test prep book there to supplement our teacher-developed curriculum.

When materials for struggling high school readers are this unavailabe and ineffective, students inevitably get behind.

Since virtually all careers require advanced reading ability, we must prepare our students to comprehend complex text. Furthermore, since early literacy skills are an extremely reliable indicator of future success, and because documentation shows students who start off behind grade level in elementary school get progressively further behind as they advance through junior and senior high school, it is essential that literacy problems be addressed early on.

In a perfect world, all students’ reading deficits would be remediated before they entered high school; but since the reality of education is far from perfect, the problem of scant and essentially ineffective high-school-appropriate reading-intervention programs must be remedied. This must happen if we are to provide sufficient literacy assistance to students who are not reading at grade level by the time they enter high school.

If we fail to address these crucial areas of literacy development, we won’t be able to prevent students from falling behind.