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Why Is The Literacy Rate Of American Students Deteriorating, And How Can It Be Improved?

This Is Why Students Should Not Use Laptops For Taking Notes

Barely anyone views illiteracy as one of the most urgent problems of the twenty-first century in the US. On the surface level, it seems like there really is nothing to worry about: over the last four decades, reading and writing skills of elementary students have moderately improved and have been stagnant for middle school and high school students. That is why many students use such services as in the university when they can handle their writing assignments.

However, Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis decided to dig deeper while conducting a literacy research among American students in 2012. Namely, how do we define literacy? What skills should be measured? If we define literacy as proficiency in basic word-reading, then it is safe to say that the vast majority of third-grade students can read quite well. However, when it comes to reading comprehension, the numbers are alarming. Only one-third of middle school students can not only read but make connections between the new information and their background knowledge in order to fully comprehend the text.

Although there’s no one thing that is fully responsible for the reading comprehension decline, many educators suggest that the current testing system leads to such consequences by focusing on the mechanics of reading instead of deeper understanding of the material. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test that is widely considered to be efficient and reliable, measures the reading and math skills of a sample of American students in the US every two years. And the results of the reading test have remained stagnant for 22 years now. 

Paradoxically, the latest research suggests that the root of the problem lies in too much focus on reading in elementary school. Struggling to keep up with the standardized testing, schools limit their curricula to practically just reading and math. If the students’ results are not satisfactory, such a tendency may be kept well beyond the third grade. While trying to improve the kids’ reading skills, other crucial subjects such as history, science, and geography are given very little attention. With this teaching approach, American middle school students end up having very little background knowledge that is necessary to comprehend more complicated texts. For example, to understand a text about the colonial wars, a student must have some background knowledge about colonialism, know who were the colonizers and who was colonized, and, finally, where are these countries located. A student with perfect reading skills but no geography and history knowledge cannot possibly comprehend the text and learn something from it. 

The importance of general knowledge is also intrinsically linked to the concept of generational literacy. While the literacy gap between different races and ethnic groups have been closing up in the last few decades, the socioeconomic disparities in literacy skills are on the rise today. Just like many years ago, the vast majority of students who are poor readers come from underprivileged families. In many cases, it’s the kids whose parents can’t read or can’t afford to buy books for them, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that these kids will not develop an interest in reading at a young age. And early education has proven to be extremely important when it comes to reading skills: research shows that children who are poor readers in first grade will most likely not be proficient readers by the time they graduate elementary school.

So how can we bridge the gap? American educators have been grappling with this question for several years now. First of all, illiteracy should be handled as a socio-economic issue and not just as a matter of processing letters and words. There should be more “Two Generation” programs that would help both the students and their parents improve their reading skills. Minority groups and immigrant communities should get extra attention so that their families can become valuable members of their communities and the workforce. 

As for the teaching methods that are used in schools, educators should put more effort into improving their students reading comprehension. That can only be achieved by giving them sufficient background knowledge in various subjects besides just reading and math. To make the curricula easier to follow, schools should choose the reading materials in a way that makes sense to the students. If students read a text about monkeys on Monday, but on Tuesday they are presented with material about Chinese traditions and customs, it will be hard for them to retain information and make connections between the new information and their knowledge. 

Finally, students that don’t meet the reading skills requirements should not be prevented from studying other disciplines. By giving students texts that match their reading level and not their grade level, teachers end up only widening the gap between poor readers and proficient readers. In the learning process, students should work with the texts that they would have to deal with in standardized tests. Teachers should help their students understand complicated texts and assure them that it is absolutely normal if they don’t understand them well enough. If the students can get enough help inside and outside the classroom, they will be more prepared to deal with complicated readings in standardized tests and, consequently, in their careers.

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