Wisconsin students are experiencing a steep decline in reading test scores, and educators are working toward a solution.
Only one out of every three eighth graders in Wisconsin are proficient in reading in 2022 — the lowest overall scores since 1998, according to WUWM. While Wisconsin students still scored three points higher than the national average in reading, their scores dropped five points since 2019.
Kimber Wilkerson, the Associate Dean for Teacher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, said this learning loss over the pandemic was not only because of missed instructional time but also difficulties adapting to online learning experienced by many students.
“When K-12 schools pivoted to online, not all students were equally well-equipped to pivot to online instruction,” said Wilkerson. “Whether that meant because of their access to the internet, or their access to a computer, or their access to an environment that was conducive to instruction at home.”
All adaptations to new learning environments were rapid, which made it difficult for many teachers to keep up and help students adjust.
“Educators weren’t necessarily prepared to be virtual,” Wilkerson said. “So there was just some lag in terms of having the instructional capacity and structures that are gonna be conducive to learning.”
Wisconsin has the largest opportunity gap between Black and white students in the U.S., according to Wisconsin Public Radio, further contributing to racial disparities, particularly after the shift to online learning as the pandemic left many marginalized students behind. White eighth graders in Wisconsin had reading scores 16% higher than their Black peers in 2022, with an even larger gap at 22% between white and Black fourth graders.
Aside from the pandemic, concerns have also risen surrounding the ways in which students are now taught literacy skills. One of the primary criticisms is over schools that prioritize the “whole language” approach to reading over traditional phonics, or “sounding words out.”
The whole language approach encourages students to look at the first letter of a word and use pictures or context clues to decipher it — with sounding out the word viewed as a last resort.
In the American Public Media podcast, “Sold a Story,” one California mother, Kenni Alden, expressed concern over how she believes this method has negatively impacted her 12-year-old son.
“He doesn’t look at all the letters in words. He doesn’t look at all the words in sentences. And reading is miserable for him,” Alden said in the podcast. “He omits words. He adds words. He’ll substitute a word that makes sense in the context, that has a few of the same letters as the actual word, and just cruise right on.”
UW-Madison cognitive neuroscientist Mark Seidenberg critiqued the method on the podcast as well.
“There’s no question that it’s making it harder for children to succeed,” Seidenberg said. “Making it this much more difficult to acquire just the really basic foundational reading skills sets them off in a very bad direction. You know, you get reports of children who finally do succeed at reading with this kind of one hand tied behind your back sort of approach, but they really don’t like reading.”
One way in which this difference in reading education and motivation to read have broader impacts is through the Matthew Effect of literacy. Students with higher reading skills early in life have more motivation to continue reading and expand their skills, whereas kids who fall behind are discouraged. This further increases the literacy gap, creating greater differences and repercussions later in life.
For this reason, Wilkerson said early reading instruction has always been prioritized in how future educators at UW are trained, noting “our commitment to that predated the pandemic.”
A post from the University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences described the impacts literacy skills have on students throughout their lives.
“Literacy skills allow students to seek out information, explore subjects in-depth and gain a deeper understanding of the world around them,” the post reads. “Teaching literacy to students means that they are given the ability to communicate clearly and effectively and form the foundation of modern life.”
The UW School of Education has worked with the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) to form the Early Literacy and Beyond Task Force. The group said they focus on “analyzing the most promising approaches to teaching reading and to make recommendations to MMSD and to teacher education programs at UW-Madison toward the goals of improving reading outcomes and reducing opportunity gaps.”
As Wilkerson said, “The planning for [the task force] happened prior to the pandemic. The enactment of it happened during the pandemic, but I think the pandemic and the increase in people’s concern about early reading scores and abilities just heightened our intentionality around it.”
MMSD shared that they believe in the concept of “letter-by-letter processing” and that “the two most important components of reading are the ability to decode the written word and the ability to comprehend the language of text.”
Wilkerson emphasizes that the UW-Madison School of Education is “striving to make sure that what we teach on campus aligns and supports what the district is trying to do in the classrooms,” and she feels that “joint attention to the issues is going to help us have results faster.”