When Reading Isn’t Reading

Reading is more than just knowing the words

Most of the knowledge about reading is based on what is communicated in school. Teachers learn in college. Parents and students learn from teachers. Students grow up to become parents and teachers.

Currently, the most prevalent method of teaching reading is called Balanced Literacy. Students are taught a little bit of phonics, a little bit of sight words, and a lot of guessing. The guessing comes from trying to fully engage with text before students can actually read it. Almost every parent is given a list of sight words beginning in Pre-K or Kindergarten. They are told that these are words that cannot be sounded out with phonics and so they need to be memorized.

Students read books with pictures that are typically a combination of basic phonics words (short vowel and long vowel words), sight words, and other words. Despite evidence that the majority of students benefit from a structured, multi-faceted phonics program, this is not what most schools are doing.

The result is that a minority of students have the type of brain and readiness that will pick up the patterns and begin associating it with the sounds. The students will learn the letter-sound connection and begin to read. These students probably account for 25-30% of students.

For the remaining 60% or so, these students tend to either collect enough sight words that they appear to be able to read or they continue to struggle. And in many cases fail. These students need to be explicitly taught the connections between letters and sounds so they can read almost ANY word, not just guess the ones they don’t know. Some of these students are exceptional learners – with ADHD brains, and autistic brains, and dyslexic brains, etc… Those who appear to read are often using their collection of stored words to understand new words. These students struggle with fluency and comprehension as they get older. And they often feel “dumb.”

Some of the students will get outside help and actually learn to read. Some of the students will end up in a classroom or program that teaches reading in a systematic, brain-building fashion.

The students who learn to read will likely have good outcomes. They may go to college or secure a well-paying job. It is likely that their physical and emotional health will be better, even if that is a result of having good job benefits or being more willing to seek emotional help.

The students who do not learn or continue to struggle are more likely to have lower self-esteem and confidence, regardless of intellectual ability. They may have behavior problems in school because of their frustration. Depending on their environment and culture, they are more likely to be involved in illegal activities. Across all demographics, they are more likely to work low-wage jobs or depend on others for support (with some exception in extremely high-income families). Poorer health, physical and emotional is common. And their children, without some type of change, are likely to face the same issues.

The reading crisis we face in Hampton Roads and America at large is multi-faceted. But we believe that change is possible. It starts with knowing there is a problem. That reading words is not the same as being literate, able to read with fluency and comprehension. That our children deserve better than the standard of failure.

Once the problem is acknowledged as a widespread issue, we need to find and use the tools that we know are effective. They’re out there. Many are affordable. At 360 Citizens, we have the privilege of watching how effective reading intervention changes our students’ engagement.

And when we know the problem and have the tools, we can demand that all children be given the opportunity to read for real. That they can all read with understanding and get the information that is relevant to them.

Share your experiences with reading.


  1. I’m a retired teacher k through 8 and Speech Language Pathologist. I would like to volunteer. How do I go about that virtually?

    1. Hi Georgeanne! Thank you for your interest in volunteering with us! You can visit http://www.360citizens.org/volunteer/ to view all of our current opportunities. We have several virtual options. We look forward to hearing from you!

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