Academic journal article The Future of Children

Reading and Reading Instruction for Children from Low-Income and Non-English-Speaking Households

Academic journal article The Future of Children

Reading and Reading Instruction for Children from Low-Income and Non-English-Speaking Households

Article excerpt

Reading" is a dynamic construct--what counts as proficient varies as a function of text demands, situation, purpose of reading, and reader characteristics. Although most young children seem to acquire proficiency in early reading skills in the elementary grades, large shares of older students struggle with texts in middle school and high school. Why do children who seem to be proficient readers in third grade struggle to comprehend texts in later grades? What keeps them from being truly proficient readers in the early grades, and why do they leave elementary school with mounting reading difficulties? One answer lies in the distinction between the procedural skills necessary for reading proficiency and the conceptual skills and knowledge necessary for reading proficiency. Although most young learners have acquired the procedural skills they need to achieve success on early reading measures, they often cannot readily handle the added language and knowledge demands of the texts in middle and high school. (1) Another answer lies in the role of reading instruction within the overall curriculum. Although schools are often adept at teaching procedural reading skills, most are not structured to promote knowledge-based reading development, and formal reading instruction typically stops at fourth grade. Nor have schools put into place the systematic assessment practices necessary to identify the sources of difficulty for both young and adolescent readers and the supports necessary to allow teachers to address them.

To prevent seemingly competent young readers from falling behind in middle and high school, schools must strengthen reading instruction. Taking action is especially important because many of these struggling adolescent students make up a significant part of a growing population in today's classrooms: students from low-income and non-English-speaking households. (2) To better support these populations, schools should make more effective use of the distinction between skills-based and knowledge-based competencies in designing both assessment and instructional practices.

In this article I focus on the conceptual skills and knowledge that are needed to develop the literacy skills described by Richard Murnane, Isabel Sawhill, and Catherine Snow in the article that opens this issue. (3) I explore why large numbers of children raised in low-income households or in families whose primary language is not English, or both, find it difficult to acquire the requisite conceptual skills and knowledge to succeed in school. I also clarify why instructional approaches that are effective in teaching reading skills to meet literacy demands in the early elementary grades are not necessarily effective for reading in middle school, as well as why improved test scores in the early grades over the past twenty years mask serious deficits that ultimately impede academic achievement.

The Demographics of Reading Difficulties

According to census data an increasing number of students entering U.S. schools come from low socioeconomic or immigrant backgrounds, or both, that predict an at-risk profile for reading difficulties. The latest government statistics reveal that child poverty rates increased from 16.2 percent in 2000 to 21.6 percent in 2010. (4) With immigration rates also on the rise, children of immigrants now make up 24 percent of the school-age population. The Latino population, the nation's largest immigrant group, has accounted for 56 percent of U.S. population growth in the past two decades, and U.S.-born children of Latino immigrants are the fastest-growing school-age population entering preschools and kindergartens. (5) Moreover, linguistic diversity and poverty are related; many children of immigrants and immigrant children are raised in poverty. Strikingly, approximately one in every three Latino children grows up in poverty, and many also enter school with limited proficiency in English. (6)

Poverty's negative effects on reading outcomes--the result primarily of disparate learning opportunities afforded to children growing up in higher and lower income settings-place this population at significant risk of school failure. …

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