Why Not Teach Every Student to Read Well.

Reading proficiency in students across the nation and globe is shockingly low, and it’s an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

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By Chuer Zhong

If you’re reading this, congratulations! You’re part of the 60 percent of American students who can read at a basic level. If you’re a senior, you’re a part of the 37 percent of 12th graders who can perform at or above the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) “Proficient” level on the 2019 reading assessment. If you have a younger sibling in the fourth or eighth grade, they’re possibly part of the 33 or 31 percent, respectively, of students in those grades who are at proficient reading levels. As seen by these statistics, 617 million children and adolescents internationally, who comprise over 55 percent of the global total in primary and secondary schools, lack minimum proficiency in reading. 

These numbers are staggering, yet within the highly educated and competitive walls of Stuyvesant and the business-mania city of New York, this lack of literacy is not a problem that’s acknowledged or even known. In fact, I had no idea that the statistics were so low until I spoke with a man who’s been trying to get this message across for over a decade. Every school day at around 8:30 a.m., I exit the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall station by City Hall Park. I’m typically in a rush to get to my 10th-floor class, but I usually see a man standing outside of the Tweed Courthouse on the lower end of Chambers Street holding a sign saying, “Why Not Teach Every Kid to Read Well.” That man is Bill Gunlocke, and from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m. for the past 10 years or so, he’s made a very direct statement to the New York City Department of Education (DOE). The courthouse has been the headquarters of the DOE in NYC since 2001, when it was restored and renovated. However, this information isn’t widely known because, for whatever reason, there’s no sign letting the public know what the Greek-styled building is used for. The DOE carries the responsibility of making sure all children get a proper education, and they should be ashamed of the sheer number of kids who cannot adequately read under their administration. 

Today, Bill Gunlocke stands there not only to make a point to the DOE, but also to spread this message to the people of NYC. I used to see him most days during freshman year when I had first period free, and at first, I thought it was your usual New York-esque activity or part of some organization. I regrettably never talked to him and didn’t see him during my sophomore year since I had to be in the building by 8:00 a.m. I assumed that his presence was a temporary thing, and so I was shocked to find him standing in the same spot on the first day of school in 2023; it’s only recently that I’ve found out he’s been there since approximately 2013.

In 2013, when Mr. Gunlocke first started standing there, 66 percent of fourth graders couldn’t read well throughout the U.S. Ten years later, that percentage decreased only a tragic six percent. To put this into perspective, 79 percent of American adults are literate, but the average American reads at the seventh- to eighth-grade level. On the international scale, the American education system ranks 16th out of the 58 education systems that had the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) data by 2016. The PIRLS is an international comparative assessment that evaluates reading literacy at grade four. The test has been administered every five years since 2001, and these education systems include both countries and significant regional systems within countries. At the top of the list is Moscow, with only two percent of their fourth graders performing below selected PIRLS benchmarks in comparison to the 17 percent of American fourth graders. 

In New York, this problem is even worse. New York ranked 32nd on the NAEP’s reading assessment, and fourth-grade reading scores “dropped 10 points, double the national average.” In New York City, based on the data from state tests, only half of third- to eighth-grade students are proficient in reading. Considering that NYC is the media capital of the world, housing the biggest publishing firms with the highest concentration of independent book publishers nationwide, it doesn’t make sense for its children to be unacceptably poor in core educational and life skills. When I interviewed Mr. Gunlocke, he stated, “New York has such a self-image of itself. It’s such a progressive, liberal, intelligent, educated kind of place, that to write about this would be to kind of acknowledge their failures.” Many states have passed laws on reading and literacy, but “New York and NYC especially [seem] to be doing very little,” Gunlocke stated. Given the vast array of financial and marketing companies and wealthy individuals that make up New York’s reputation, to admit that its youth are barely even literate would be a huge blow to the city’s image of a highly advanced metropolis. 

The issue certainly lies in the classroom, but the question is whether reading is not prioritized enough or if it is inadequately taught. There are over 700 school districts in New York, and not all are fully transparent with their curriculums. Given the subpar rankings, it is evident that the way districts are teaching does not properly address the needs of students;  teaching materials and methods haven’t adapted to the way children learn today, even if it had once worked in the past. The common, scientifically-backed method of teaching literacy in America is phonics: the relationship between letters and the sounds they make. By extension, phonemic awareness is the understanding of how consonant and vowel sounds can be arranged to form words. This is called structured literacy, as opposed to balanced literacy, which uses phonics to a certain extent but is based on recognizing whole words. This makes sense because breaking down words into individual parts results in difficulty grasping the larger picture; it would be like teaching about the cells in a human body before knowing the larger body parts for biology. 

The issue deepens when examining the racial disparities in students’ reading performances. According to Chalkbeat, on reading tests, “72.3 percent of Asian American students and 69.5 percent of White students were on grade level, compared to 40.3 percent of Black students and 39.4 percent of Latino students.” The Ballard Brief found that in 12th grade, “White students scored almost twice as high as Black and Hispanic students on reading proficiency,” with “46 percent of White students scoring at or above the proficiency level, compared to 17 percent of Black students and 25 percent of Hispanic students.” These disparities have remained consistent over the past 20 years, having “clear impacts on the overall educational performance level of American students, increasing more each year as the minority population grows.” Economic disadvantages and government funding are two main causes of these significant differences. Though the supposed solution to the issue of children growing up in poverty is giving them adequate opportunity and attention, it doesn’t seem to be well executed. By the time they’re nine years old, they’re typically three grade levels behind their higher-income peers. By extension, the amount of funding a school receives correlates with the economic status of those living in the area. Another difference is the quality of teachers in wealthier neighborhoods in comparison to poorer ones. “A lot of people don’t want to teach in those neighborhoods,” Gunlocke remarks. “It’s hard to get the same type of teachers there that you’re going to get at schools like Stuyvesant. Some of those communities, especially the Black community, are so articulate, so glim, yet they don’t have the same opportunities. If the book aspect was just as strong they’d shine even brighter.” 

It’s critical to look at the racial inequalities, but the overall census of children shows that not enough kids know how to read skillfully. This is a global problem and an issue for humanity. Writing is at the crux of society, and a fourth grader with the capacity to read well will be much further ahead in life than a fourth grader who can’t. Especially in such a competitive world, how can a child be expected to survive if they aren’t given the single fundamental thing they need to move through life? Literacy is often boiled down to simply speaking the language and being able to read at the minimum level. While that may be enough for an array of jobs, being able to read analytically and absorb information in a way that boosts your knowledge, imagination, and communication makes a difference in not only getting a more well-to-do job but also allowing for greater success in the workplace and social settings. Someone who is well-read will, therefore, be well-spoken and have a greater awareness of history, cultures, and communities. What makes reading great is its endless possibilities. While it may be cliché to say, give kids the capacity to read and they’ll thrive; otherwise, they’ll never begin to blossom.

In order to change this trajectory, we need to change not only our methods of teaching reading but also the standard of importance we hold reading to. Mr. Gunlocke passionately believes that “a kid should be able to read as well as the teacher when they graduate.” While, of course, reading and comprehension skills progress through experience, if teachers teach in a manner where they hold the importance of reading highly, then it’s less likely for students to fall short. “Reading should be a priority. An example of how it isn’t: the libraries in NYC close at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m., and some aren’t even open on Sundays. In cities like Cleveland, Ohio, where I used to live, cities that aren’t publishing-infested, [and] the hours are much longer,” notes Gunlocke. This is in great part due to Mayor Eric Adams’s budget cuts for public libraries, ending library service on Sundays. It’s apparent that our political leaders do not prioritize the necessity of reading. Though it’s not a change that’ll happen overnight, everyone—including politicians, teachers, parents, and us kids ourselves—needs to start taking active steps. This can include actions like making sure our younger siblings are reading at the level they should be, not shoving aside humanities classes and deeming them unimportant compared to STEM ones, or simply going to the library and picking up a book for fun once in a while. But the most important step is acknowledging that this is a critical underlying issue that needs to be addressed by everyone.