Keeping Up with China: It All Begins with Reading

In the past sixty years China has successfully reversed the literacy crisis that ravaged their nation going from less than 20% of the public being able to read prior to 1950 to 93% literate in 2002 (UNESCO). In addition, China is continually raising the standard for calling their citizens literate. In the meantime, the U.S. has continued to ignore the most fundamental skill needed to compete in the new economy - reading.

In the same time frame, reading scores in the U.S. have remained the same. According to the National Adult Literacy Assessment, only 13% of adults are proficient while 43% read at the lowest levels of literacy or are illiterate. The same is true of literacy rates for 17-year-olds (NAEP). Today only 39% of 17-year-olds can read and understand complicated information and only 6% read at the level necessary to learn from specialized documents such as scientific texts.

With labor and manufacturing jobs disappearing, the U.S. is failing to keep up in the world economy that we built. The  economic success of nations is now being defined by the educational levels of their citizens, and China has understood that literacy is the foundation. Rather than making excuses that their literacy problems stemmed from poverty or the fact that they have arguably the most complicated writing system in the world, China determined to teach its citizens, young and old, to read.

While the U.S. is beginning to wake up, our focus is wrong. Daily news reports talk about the importance of STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math). However, our deepest problems do not begin in our math or science classrooms but in our reading classrooms. Students are not prepared to read the texts they are presented.

In addition, many gifted math and science students struggle with reading and spelling skills because they have not been taught in a manner that respects their strengths. These logically minded students thrive in math and science because the answers are clear cut: one plus one always equals two. However, for the past eighty years reading has been widely taught in a haphazard fashion, where students are either asked to memorize sight words by rote or to memorize countless exceptions.

There is a simple solution that would improve the ability of our nation's students to read and write. We need to provide students with a complete picture of the English code and stop telling students, "that is an exception," whenever we do not know the answer. There are rules which logically explain how to read and spell 98% of English words.

It is time Americans stop making excuses that the problem with reading resides in the illogical nature of our language or with poverty. The real problem is that most of us have no idea why English words are spelled in a particular manner, yet this information is foundational to learning how to read proficiently. It has been shown that with eighty hours of systematic teaching almost 100% of students can learn how to read (NIHCD).

By providing students with the tools which explain 98% of English words, we will drastically reduce the number of students in remedial reading classes, increase students' ability to read and comprehend texts, prevent unnecessary discouragement in our nation's gifted students, and free up funds currently used for remedial reading to be used on subject areas vital to our society such as math, science, and technology.

To unlock the potential of American students and raise up a generation of mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and doctors, we must begin to teach reading logically and systematically so that all students will learn to read at the highest levels of proficiency.