Reading by 9 Sun initiative: Literacy is an essential skill in modern society, but too many children are having trouble learning to read.

November 02, 1997

THERE WAS a time when literacy made little difference in a person's prospects for earning a decent living. Well into this century, there were plenty of employers who cared more about a strong back than about a worker's ability to decode written instructions or information.

Those days are gone. Young people who leave school unable to read face a lifetime of hardship, humiliation and, most likely, poverty. Poor readers may fare slightly better, but the road ahead will be hard for them.

Today The Sun begins an examination of the struggle many children are having as they try to learn to read. For many people, perhaps even the majority, learning to read comes relatively easily, even if teachers are poorly trained or reading instruction is inconsistent.

But as today's story illustrates, for a significant percentage of children, inadequate reading instruction can lead to a snowballing series of failures. That is true in any jurisdiction, but in classrooms where teachers and students face other crises -- fallout from poverty and crime or ineffective administrative support -- the obstacles to becoming a competent reader rise even higher.

Today, up to 40 percent of school children are poor readers, with half of them experiencing so much difficulty that they are labeled "learning disabled." Many people believe these high numbers reflect as much a failure of instruction as any learning difficulties on the part of the child. Even so, the blame usually falls not on teachers and administrators -- or those who teach the teachers -- but rather on innocent, eager students at an exceptionally vulnerable stage of their lives.

Regardless of who points fingers, it is clear by any measure that the price of poor reading is unacceptably high in today's society -- and that schools are not currently doing all they can to ensure that children master this key skill.

In Maryland, two-thirds of third graders are failing to meet the state's standard on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) reading test. But third grade is a key age in many respects.

Children who are poor readers at this stage run a high risk of remaining poor readers all their lives. This is also the age where some young people are already beginning to face decisions about drug use -- a temptation that becomes more alluring when a child is failing in something as essential as reading.

At this point in school, poor reading skills begin to hold students back in other subjects. Math is no longer presented as simple numbers, but often in the context of a written problem. If children have trouble reading, their skills with numbers can no longer pull them through. Reading also becomes important in science, social studies and other areas.

In short, the ability to read well by age 9 is a milestone in a child's development -- and failure to read well by that age should set off alarms. Playing catch-up on reading instruction is never as easy as providing what a child needs early on, and remedial work comes at a much higher price.

With rare exceptions, children can learn to read well by age 9. And what child doesn't want to read and have access to all the opportunities reading can bring? In this four-day series, and in more stories to follow, The Sun will be looking at the factors that have led to today's low reading scores. These stories will have important implications for educators, parents and policy makers.

The crisis in reading scores in Maryland and around the country has been tolerated too long. It is The Sun's hope that by shining a spotlight on this crisis, adults will summon the will to solve it.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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