Book Tip: The Reading Crisis: Why Poor Children Fall Behind

by Jeanne Chall, Vicki Jacobs, and Luke Baldwin

Recently, I wrote about this book in a journal entry titled A Teacher for All Seasons where I indicated that a literacy teacher must be clear, structured and evidence-based as well as expansive, engaging and creative.  Even though by contemporary standards the title - why poor children fall behind - may appear blunt, the authors' observations about the challenges of coordinating a balanced pedagogy are pertinent today. For this reason, I am including it as a recommended read.

I must also justify why I consider the book Wittgensteinian, and I do so on two premises. First, Chall and her team are concerned with children's development in literacy, including word recognition, fluency and comprehension. In this respect, this parallels Wittgenstein's fascination with human development and the development of one's ability to perceive aspects - in this case aspects of the written word - as meaningful. Second, Chall and her team employ ethnographic techniques to explore how the home environment, the school environment and collaboration between the two has a bearing on a child's oral language development, vocabulary development, reading comprehension and compositional skills and habits. In this case, the team explores the language games and the concepts fostered and reinforced within the forms of life experienced amongst families, teachers and peers. This second aspect of the book is further explored in a companion volume - Unfulfilled Expectations: Home and School Influences on Literacy  - which is written by a team led by Catherine Snow. I am currently reading that book, and I aim to include it as a recommended read in the future.

The book The Reading Crisis - is based on study lead by Jeanne Chall and Catherine Snow. The team of researchers followed a group of young students for 2 years. The students were identified as being from a low-income background, and they were enrolled in Years 2, 4 & 6. Therefore, the team started with a group of children in Years 2, 4 & 6 and were able to retest the group when they were in Years 3, 5 & 7. An extension of the study meant that a portion of the team provided a further follow up four years later when the students where in Years 7, 9 & 11. Students were selected who were identified as both below average and above average readers at the start of the study. In relation to quantitative literacy skills, the students were tested on their word recognition skills, reading comprehension ability, vocabulary knowledge, and writing ability. In relation to qualitative data, the researchers conducted classroom observations, teacher interviews, conducted home visits and family interviews and consulted school records. Based on the methodology, the team of researchers were able to discuss factors such as the following:

  • how students were fairing in the early years and whether the researchers noticed any changes as students moved through to later years;
  • what role the home context and parental expectations played in language, literacy and reading development;
  • how different teaching styles impacted learning and development; and 
  • whether the school context could compensate for limitation in the home context and visa versa.

Of the study's findings, there are a few which are of particular interest to note:

  • many of the children were able to keep up with national standards in the early years when there was an emphasis on word recognition skills and general comprehension ability; however, children from low-income background began to struggle after Year 4 when students were expected to demonstrate an increased vocabulary knowledge and conceptual knowledge;
  • those students who demonstrated above average skills in word recognition skills in the early years exhibited a less severe decline in ability in the later years; however, these students also struggled as the vocabulary knowledge demands started to increase;
  • the study found that a structured, sequential and developmental teaching approach greatly assisted word recognition and reading fluency; however, a more dynamic, challenging and interactive language and literacy pedagogy was required to enhance vocabulary and conceptual knowledge, reading comprehension and compositional skills; and
  • whilst either school or home can compensate for inadequate support in either environment, a number of socioeconomic factors can intervene in the lives of children and young people that can lead to unfulfilled expectations

I found the book compelling and easy to read. Certain sections ran the risk of repeating earlier finding; however, this was a consequence of the study's purpose: to find patterns which would explain changes in the literacy performance of children of low-income background as they progressed through school. Both The Reading Crisis and its companion volume Unfulfilled Expectations are valuable additions to one's professional library.