There’s concern in Bexar County that the number of third graders reading on grade level is low. That leaves them at risk for dropping out of high school, unemployment or worse. SAReads is hoping to reverse the trend through its tutoring program. Teachers are using a method of reading instruction that researchers say is proven, but isn’t used enough.
Brandon Flores is tutoring two second graders in reading at Kriewald Elementary School in the Southwest Independent School District. Flores is an education student at Texas A&M University San Antonio and providing the free tutoring is a part of his education.
"Alright, and let’s read the first line," Flores says to a young boy he is tutoring.
"It is important," the boy reads.
"And the second line?" Flores prompts.
"It is important to look both ways," the boy reads.
The method of instruction Flores is using is called scientifically based reading instruction, or SBRI. There are small strips of paper in front of each student. Each strip of paper adds words from the last one until the sentence is complete.
"It is important to look both ways when you cross the street," the boy finishes.
Across the city, only 69 percent of third graders are able to read on grade level and achieve a passing score on the state’s standardized STAAR test. That’s down from 73 percent in 2012 when the test was last changed. These figures worry educators.
Jason Poer, vice principal at Kriewald, says he’s a fan of the SBRI method the tutors use.
"Students that do not have any kind of special need that just need extra help, the scientifically-proven methods that SAReads uses is effective all the time," Poer says.
Ramona Pittman, an associate professor of literacy at Texas A&M University San Antonio, says in pre-K through third grade, kids learn to read. But after that they read to learn. So, if you can’t read by around age eight, you’re going to have trouble in understanding your other subjects. Pittman says those students who struggle have a much greater chance of dropping out in high school.
"And research also has shown that if kids don’t learn to read by third grade, that you can predict how many jail cells are needed based on those third grade reading scores," Pittman says.
Barriers to children learning to read include a lack of books in the home before kindergarten or not having someone read to them, she says. Also, if English is not the student’s first language, that could be a challenge. Educators say kids who move frequently also have difficulty keeping up. Pittman says literacy researchers are now discovering an even bigger reason.
"So, when we look at what’s happening in elementary schools, there are several teachers, many teachers who are not even prepared to teach reading, even though they’ve gone through a teacher preparation program," Pittman says.
Louisa Moats is a leading researcher in reading education. She says teachers not knowing how to teach reading is a national problem.
"The picture is very grim," she says.
Moats says teachers are not the ones at fault; it’s the licensing process. She says most universities are not providing the right instruction.
In 2000, after decades of debate about which reading method was best, Congress mandated that the National Reading Panel convene to do a scientific review. They published a report which identified that scientific methods like SBRI are the only reading techniques that work.
Yet, 17 years later, the majority of universities are not teaching those techniques – a fact that frustrates Moats.
"There’s a chasm between the world of scientific research where people look at evidence and challenge their hypotheses with experiments. And we find over and over that most of the educators we work with in school districts have no idea that this other world is out there," Moats said.
Moats says the researchers call the method of teaching reading that works “The code.”
"This whole field is a lot like climate science, where 97 percent of the scientists who study climate change and the atmosphere and so on agree that certain things are happening. Reading is like this," Moats said.
She says the scientists may know the code works, but another challenge is that educational institutions are deeply attached to the teaching methods they’ve been using for decades.
At Kriewald Elementary School, Flores believes the method works.
"What are the people that work in the fire truck? What are their names?" Flores prompts his students.
"Fire fighters," they respond.
"And what do they do?" Flores asks.
"They put out fires," says one student.
"Yeah, they put out fires," the other student replies.
"Good job," Flores says, and he opens a book about fire trucks and the children take turns reading aloud.