Closing the Gap in Reading

Long-Term effects of using a phonics-based programme in Kindergarten

With kind permission of Elizabeth Brown, Director of 40L, originally published on LinkedIn.

My 22 years teaching reading to hundreds of students has given me a great deal of anecdotal research that shows gaps closing for my minority inner city students. The shocking infographic from the New York Times “Money, Race and Success” article showing as much as a 6-year gap for minority students prompted me to re-examine the research for hard evidence.[1] My search led me to a study that took me full circle back to the mid 1970s when I was in Kindergarten. My elementary school was a solidly working class neighborhood, one of the 15% of the low SES schools in the nation that used a phonics series called “I See Sam” [Beginning Reading Instruction: BRI] as part of a government study.[2]

The program took 20 to 30 minutes daily and required 25 weeks to complete. The study found that disadvantaged children were ready to read in K but required a “slight increase in the instructional time to complete the first several units of the program.” They were fun little books, and very effective. My classmates and I all became good readers.

The study looked at the students 12 years later, when they were high school seniors. It looked at thousands of students at high schools comprised of students from several different elementary schools; the high schools contained some elementary schools that had used the program and some that had not. According to the study:

“Not only did the disadvantaged groups benefit from the kindergarten reading instruction, but so did the advantaged groups. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that, collectively, the high school seniors who participated in the kindergarten reading program had a lower social class rating than those who did not. Thus, in spite of an overall lower social class level, the students who received the kindergarten reading program still outperformed the higher social class students who did not. It is only in rare circumstances where a group with a lower social class rating outperforms one with a higher social class rating on a norm-referenced test of reading achievement. Further, the fact that these differences can be linked to an educational intervention makes them even more extraordinary.”[3]

This graph below shows the reduction in Illiteracy rates by Socioeconomic Status, the data come directly from the study. 

The graph below shows the reduction in illiteracy rates by race. Again, the data come directly from the study.

How did a method this powerful for all students, but especially such a powerfully gap-closing program, get ignored? First, the study does not explain how well designed and how phonics oriented the method was. In fact, the title of the study is “Learning to Read in Kindergarten.” At the time, reading was commonly taught in first grade, and was commonly taught with whole word methods. Now, reading is commonly taught in kindergarten, but the gap has not closed, most likely because the gap-closing methods are based on sounds and current methods focus on meaning. Current methods include some phonics but start with sight words and focus on reading comprehension and meaning, not decoding. Emily Hanford explains why current methods fail students in her article, “At a Loss for Words.”[4]

How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers

The kindergarten reading program [BRI] that closed the gap is a sound phonics series, almost 100% decodable with no list of sight words. It is linguistically very well designed to prevent guessing and gradually builds up decoding skills. 

[However], the wrong lesson was drawn from the study as focus was on the timing, not the method.

1. Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares – The New York Times (   Rich, Motoko, Cox Amanda, and Block, Matthey, “Money Race and Success: How Your School District compares,”

2.  Reading Research Quarterly Vol. 30, No 4 Hanson, Ralph A. and Farrell, Donna. “The long-term effects on high school seniors of learning to read in kindergarten.”

3. Hanson, Ralph A. and Farrell, Donna. p. 928.

4.   At a Loss for Words.  Emily Hanford

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