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A Door to Good Things

Reading at grade level by 9 offers inestimable advantages

September 13, 1998

Reading is the most fundamental academic skill, the gateway to learning, the cornerstone of all subjects. Those who do not learn to read early and fluently almost never catch up. If children fail to master basic reading skills by the end of the third grade, they are dramatically less likely to do well in school, get into college, find a good job. They are substantially more likely to end up on drugs, on welfare or in prison. Yet the majority of Southern California's third-graders leave the primary grades without becoming competent readers. That must change. The Times today issues a call to action with one goal: Every California child with the mental and physical capacity to read should do so--at grade level, in English--by the end of the third grade, about age 9.

Reading scores in California public schools, which rose during most of the 1980s, began a perilous slide in 1989. The decline was across the board for white, Latino, black and Asian pupils, for affluent and poor children, urban and suburban. Among the state's third-graders, 62% read below the national average. Still, the least able readers are concentrated in areas where academic advancement is hampered by poverty, language difficulties and other obstacles that can best be overcome through education. These socioeconomic disadvantages cannot be allowed to stand; broad, equal educational opportunity contributes to a cohesive society.

The Times' commitment starts on our news pages with a story today that begins to quantify the dimensions of the reading crisis and examine some reasons for such broad failure. Our commitment will include regular reports on what works, what gets the best results and what the test results are showing. On this editorial page, we will hold adults accountable--parents, teachers, principals, school board members, business leaders, legislators and the governor--for the reading performance of primary-grade pupils.

Californians must tolerate no more excuses, no more attempts to explain away the failures. But fixing blame is not much use without solutions. We wish to encourage a broad and frank dialogue--at home and at school, before the local school board and in Sacramento--that results in a marshaling of forces to ensure that more children will learn to read. The goal is straightforward--bringing every child to grade level.

Why Reading by 9?

In the early grades children learn to read and in the later grades children read to learn, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin notes. Children who fail to learn to read by the fourth grade rarely catch up. In grade four, reading becomes expository and much harder, a major shift from the short, narrative and repetitive stories of the primary grades. Pupils are expected to comprehend longer, more complex passages. They need to read easily and extensively, in and out of the classroom.

The roots of reading success begin in infancy. Babies thrive in an environment rich in language. As early as 20 weeks, infants are learning distinct sounds, one of the first steps in the acquisition of reading skills. The number of different words a baby hears each day, many experts believe, is the most important predictor of later achievement. For this crucial early period, parents need education and support in nurturing a baby's cognitive skills. Later, if parents read to their preschool children for only 20 minutes a night, they expose them to 1 million words a year. That can add as many as 1,000 new words a year to a preschooler's vocabulary. The larger the child's vocabulary, the better prepared he or she will be to learn to read well.

California cannot resolve the current reading crisis without addressing the issue of parents who are illiterate or otherwise can't or won't become strongly involved in the education of their children. How do their children, whatever their primary language, learn the alphabet? Who reads to them? Who exposes them to books? Who enriches their vocabulary? Is the answer preschool? Head Start? An older brother or sister? A neighbor? A volunteer tutor? . . . All or any. It doesn't matter whom youngsters learn from as long as they learn.

Ready or not when they start school, most children can learn to read. Only 5% have disorders that prevent them from becoming competent readers. So why aren't the remaining 95% good readers?

California's botched experiment with reliance on the whole-language, learn-to-read-by-reading approach ended with the state ranking last in the nationwide assessment of fourth-grade reading skills released in 1995. The poor showing finally woke up the governor and the Legislature. Sacramento raised academic standards, reduced class size in the primary grades, mandated a statewide standardized assessment test and allocated money for more books, more teacher training, more tutoring and summer school--and more attention in general on public education.

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