A Long Road Back From Reading Crisis


Despite strong evidence that students who cannot read by the end of the third grade are headed for academic failure, more than 100,000 third-graders in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties failed to achieve grade-level reading last spring.

They represent roughly two-thirds of the third-graders in those counties who took the Stanford 9 examinations.

Even worse, some 67,000 of those third-graders could hardly read at all--failing to meet the standard for basic literacy.

The problem is worst in low-income urban regions, where large numbers of children with limited English skills pulled down test scores. But trouble exists in more affluent suburbs as well. In Los Angeles County, nearly half of third-graders have not acquired minimal reading skills, the test data show. In Orange and Ventura counties, about three in 10 could hardly read.

Across the region, some districts, and some individual schools, are proving that those numbers can be reversed--even with hard-to-teach, low-income children.

Seeking to replicate those success stories, state officials, burned by several years of abysmal test scores, have embarked on major efforts at reform--mirroring an effort nationwide to make improved reading scores the centerpiece of educational reform. Indeed, many officials believe this school year is shaping up to be a turning point for reading in California.

But interviews with teachers, school officials and experts, as well as classroom visits in several Southern California schools, show that, while the reforms are well under way, many obstacles remain.

Among the problems: high teacher turnover, inconsistent training, uneven quality of new textbooks and California's well-known susceptibility to the swings of education fashion.

Officials and parents have ample reason for concern.

Many nonreaders eventually drop out of school or get referred to costly special education programs. So many wind up in jail that Arizona officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs. All lose out on the best jobs and best colleges.

"It's vital to teach them to read early," said Cathy Mittan, a curriculum resource teacher at San Cayetano school in Fillmore, who left the classroom five years ago to resurrect the school's reading lab.

"What we know from brain research is that there's a window that's open up until about the fourth grade where we can learn to read. . . . That window closes for most children at the end of third grade. After that, it's hard to pry it open."

Succeeding by Sticking to Basics

You can spot the children in jeopardy in places like Hyde Park Elementary School in Los Angeles.

There, several first-graders are pulled out of class each day for tutoring because they don't know their ABCs or how to use them.

Others are still struggling in fifth grade.

In Mary Brent's fifth-grade class, students are learning how to string together letters like "S-P-R" and "S-P-L" to pronounce words like "spring" and "splash." This skill, known as consonant blending, is supposed to be learned by the end of first grade. Just three of Brent's 28 students are reading at a fifth-grade level.

The dismayed teacher says she will try somehow to fill in the gaps. She knows this is the last stop before the challenging course work of middle school will come crashing down on these children.

"This is the system's fault--the system's fault--the system's fault!" Brent says, her voice rising. "Children have to be taught. We can't take for granted that they're going to learn things through osmosis."

California policymakers have heeded the warnings from teachers like Brent and from a humiliating 1995 report card that ranked the state's fourth-graders dead last in reading on a nationwide assessment.

Their goal is for all children to read by third grade because researchers have found that, once students begin to encounter more complicated subjects in higher grades, those who have not already learned to read have little chance to catch up.

In the last two years, billions of dollars have been spent to cut class size in elementary schools, train teachers, replace textbooks, set standards, test students. Voters, too, have gotten into the act. The passage of Proposition 227 last June curtailed bilingual education in the name of teaching children English at an early age.

This year, school administrators expect improvements. The emphasis everywhere is supposed to be on reading. Phonics, the teaching method that links letters to sounds, forms the backbone of the state's new crusade.

But while the state's policy may be clear, the reality in the classroom remains far more muddled.

In Norwalk, one roomful of teachers at a summer literacy seminar confessed that they had never learned how to teach reading skills--such as sounding out words, scanning pictures and context for clues and keying on the first letter--to groups of four or five students.

A high-ranking administrator in one Los Angeles County school district said many of his teachers are "clueless" about how to teach phonics.

At Pacoima Elementary, a school in the eastern San Fernando Valley that is on the Los Angeles Unified School District's list of its 100 worst schools, officials are pinning their hopes on a new, heavily scripted, phonics-intensive curriculum.

"Now we're saying, 'No more excuses,' " says Pacoima Principal Larry Gonzales.

But fully credentialed teachers are in short supply at Pacoima, a problem that plagues many urban schools in California, and instructors say they have received only three days' training in the new teaching method, leading to considerable chaos in the early going.

By contrast to those pictures of trouble, consider Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood.

The school has a student population split between Latinos and African Americans. Many of its students come from families in poverty.

But its reading test scores, compared to others in high-minority regions of Los Angeles, are off the charts. Second- and third-graders reached the 60th percentile on the Stanford 9 tests. Their peers overall in Los Angeles County scored around the 30th percentile.

What's going on?

Nancy Ichinaga, principal of the school for 24 years, says it's all about teaching the basics.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, Ichinaga says, she stuck by phonics when most of the state was going in the opposite direction. She also stuck with English immersion, attaining high fluency rates for students with limited English skills.

Now Bennett-Kew is an uncommon urban-school success story. The principal testified in July before the state Board of Education on how to teach reading in the post-bilingual education era.

The typical Bennett-Kew classroom does nothing fancy. Kindergartners and first-graders simply learn how to break the "alphabetic code" of English by learning how sounds form letters, words and, ultimately, sentences.

They accomplish that in several ways: singing songs, repeating rhymes, reciting poems and using pictures--for example, seeing a large card with a drawing of a monkey and learning that "M" is the first sound and letter of the word.

Students read stories filled with the words they have learned in phonics exercises. Critics suggest that the school's textbooks, published by Open Court, go overboard on the process of reading and fail to stress the enjoyment of reading. The Open Court books have met resistance in some districts, though superintendents in Sacramento and Santa Ana have embraced them in recent years.

But the Bennett-Kew program isn't all about codes and breaking words into their phonetic components.

Midway through their year, first-graders begin reading books such as a two-part anthology with several selections from Aesop's Fables, including "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" and "The Hare and the Tortoise."

Ichinaga contends that Bennett-Kew's approach is effective precisely because it integrates phonics and literature.

"Our objective is not only to teach kids how to decode, but to make learners out of them," Ichinaga said. "The end product is a literate child."

By sticking with a proven curriculum and by keeping many of its teachers for a long time, Bennett-Kew offers a blueprint for success based on consistency.

Phonics Books Become Contraband

Unfortunately, consistency is exactly what California's approach to reading has lacked in recent years.

During the 1970s, California, like many states, hewed to a no-nonsense policy of teaching phonics.

The books the state selected to teach reading were chosen for how explicitly skills were taught. Often, students found them deadly dull. While reading scores rose steadily during the 1980s, teachers were concerned that the joy of reading was being lost.

In 1987, state policy took a dramatic turn. A new "framework" for reading instruction downplayed phonics while embracing the philosophy of "whole language." Teaching kids the mechanics of reading was deemed insignificant. Such skills would be acquired almost naturally through exposure to classic children's stories.

Teachers recall that many principals insisted they drop phonics instruction. Phonics books were confiscated in some districts. Some veteran teachers hid the outlaw books and closed the door when they taught.

Looking back, educators say danger signals appeared almost immediately. In 1989, scores on the state's test in reading dropped for the first time in years. No one gave the drop much thought, and the state stopped giving that test.

In 1993, though, the evidence mounted. The National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked the states for the first time. California came in near the bottom, ahead of Guam and Mississippi. But with the state economy in recession, educators worried more about keeping their doors open than improving reading instruction.

Two years later, California hit bottom. While Mississippi and Louisiana improved, fourth-grade reading scores in the nation's most populous state had plunged by 10%.

Those figures finally punctured the state's complacency. A task force formed by State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin issued a report declaring a "crisis" in California, where "a majority of our children cannot read at basic levels."

The Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring the state to get back to teaching kids phonics and how to spell. Gov. Pete Wilson poured big money into a reading initiative to lower class size to no more than 20 students in the primary grades, kindergarten through third.

Wilson also signed bills guaranteeing funds for new reading textbooks through third grade. Millions were budgeted for teacher training in phonics. And, starting in October, elementary school teachers are required to pass a test showing that they understand the research on reading and know how to use it in their classrooms.

In what was perhaps his most controversial move, Wilson ordered that all students from grades two to 11 take the Stanford 9 test, the largest testing effort in the history of the state's public schools.

This year, for the first time, most of those reforms are in place.

On the whole, says Adria Klein, an education professor at Cal State San Bernardino and a nationally recognized reading expert, California is back on the right track.

Now, she said, what's required is persistence and patience to give the state's investment time to work.

"We have to let it cook, let it mix, let it stew, let it grow, let it rise like a good loaf of bread," Klein said.

New Programs Leave Little to Chance

While the state has adopted an overall reform theme, the variations are as different as California's many schools.

At Fillmore's San Cayetano school, teacher Carmen Vasquez teaches her kindergarten students phonics with a game. She holds a stuffed animal aloft as her charges squirm in a circle around her.

"Do you remember who this is?" she asks, to giggles. "That's right, it's Honey Horse." She then shows the youngsters how to slap their hips as if riding a horse, while saying "Hah, hah, hah," the "H" sound.

This "zoo phonics" program--where students learn hand signals that correspond to letter sounds--continues at Fillmore schools through the first and second grades, where some students can still be seen making gestures as they sound out new words. As the children age, the hand signals are dropped.

With such explicit instruction in the nuances of reading, district officials expect each elementary school to improve reading scores by 5 percentile points for each of the next three years, said Assistant Supt. Jane Kampbell.

At Pacoima Elementary, educators have embarked on what is perhaps the most strictly orchestrated of the many reforms under way.

"Success for All," a curriculum developed by Johns Hopkins University researchers, prescribes intensive phonics, regular testing and tutoring for students who fall behind.

It is a heavily regimented program in which nothing is left to chance. Every teacher follows a script that tells what to teach and when. The approach gives individual teachers little room for creativity--but also provides inexperienced instructors fewer chances for error.

The program aims to raise test scores two or three percentile points per year. It's a steep climb. Of the 600 students who started the school year in mid-August, only 25 were reading at their grade level. Last spring, the year-round school's fourth-graders scored at the eighth percentile in reading on the Stanford 9.

Success for All prescribes 90 minutes of daily reading lessons. During that time, students are grouped in classrooms by ability rather than by grade.

Teachers lead beginning readers--those who test at or below the first-grade level--through rapid-fire phonics exercises.

One recent morning, Judy Sherman walked her beginners' class of second-, third- and fourth-graders through an exercise in "letter formation."

Sherman set out three "letter cards" on the board at the front of the room--Y, V and J. Then she showed the class a picture of a little girl yawning.

Upon seeing the image, the students called out: "Yawn."

"Think, point," Sherman told the students.

All hands pointed to the Y.

Sherman said: "Vegetable."

The students repeated: "Vegetable."

"Think, point."

The hands pointed to the V.

"If you hear it with your ears, you can see it with your eyes," Sherman told the students.

The students also read simple stories. Teachers then ask questions about the stories to build comprehension.

More advanced readers--those at the second- to fifth-grade levels--spend nearly 60 of the 90 minutes reading textbooks in pairs or teams of four. The idea is to teach students how to work cooperatively and develop cognitive skills--for example, learning about cause and effect, and how to draw inferences.

Students are tested every eight weeks for progress. Beginners who don't keep up are tutored by teachers 20 minutes a day.

Children are expected to spend 20 minutes each night reading at home; an adult is required to sign off.

The goal by the end of first grade is to be able to read paragraphs like this one about Paul Bunyan:

"Next, Paul made a fire in the hole to heat the pan. While the fire heated the pan, Paul mixed the pancake batter. He tipped one hundred bags of flour into a lake. He added two hundred eggs! A big steamboat mixed the batter. It steamed back and forth all night long."

The school faces long odds. Almost all of its students--nearly all of them Latino--are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies. Most speak limited English. Crowding forces the school to keep its doors open year-round. Many parents are themselves poor readers and can offer their children little help at home.

Many of the teachers hold emergency credentials or are brand-new hires. To make up for the lack of instructors, two assistant principals teach reading themselves. A third assistant principal and Gonzales are substitutes. Several teachers said the initial weeks have been chaotic and nerve-racking as they struggle to change their methods.

"I find it difficult to get it all in each day," second- and third-grade teacher Richard Rademacher said of the 90-minute daily regimen. "Theoretically it's good, but what happens when the kids don't get it?"

Affluence Doesn't Assure Reading Success

At Hyde Park Elementary, another troubled Los Angeles Unified school, administrators have tied their future to another textbook series, one that they also hope will bring consistency and rigor to their reading instruction.

For years, the school relied on teachers to come up with their own lessons to accompany classic, beautifully illustrated storybooks. The quality of instruction depended on the creativity and competence of the teacher. Principal Brenda Rogers acknowledged that what was taught varied widely from classroom to classroom.

For the past year, teachers have been working with a new reading series, called "Spotlight on Literacy" by Macmillan/McGraw-Hill. It also includes interesting stories, but they look and feel like textbooks. Teachers now have a program focused on reading skills, with instruction manuals that give a weekly road map for lessons--if not a minute-by-minute script like Pacoima's.

Despite the school's enthusiasm for the Macmillan series, experts caution that not all state-approved textbooks are equal. Some, while advertising a "balanced" approach, may emphasize phonics less than others. Whether Hyde Park's choice was the right one for its students remains to be seen.

Rogers has made other changes. This year teachers must devote at least two hours a day to the "language arts," including one just for reading. Teachers also have been asked to hang word posters in all rooms to help build vocabulary for beginning readers. And the school plans training sessions to help teachers get up to speed in phonics.

"We're doing a much better job than we have in the past," Rogers said. "Our children are going to be much better prepared."

The struggle to turn youngsters into skilled readers isn't confined to urban schools. Plenty of schools in California suburbs are underachievers, scoring around the national average on reading tests despite enjoying the substantial advantages of affluence.

Children can fall behind at even the most successful schools. At Vista Verde School in Irvine, Marsha LaPointe's son had trouble learning to read in the first grade.

The boy's school boasts reading scores among the highest in Southern California--in the 70th and 80th percentiles. It has low teacher turnover, a proven curriculum, active parents and national awards. No one here is teaching with an emergency credential.

The school moved quickly to help the youngster catch up. His teacher gave him a battery of skills tests. He got one-on-one tutoring. Now, LaPointe says, her son is in second grade and improving. "It's been a struggle, just getting him fluent. But he can sound words out now. He knows his letters."

The boy's teacher in first grade was Rosa Drew.

Drew, who has taught at the school since it opened in 1974, is emblematic of the state's drive for a balance between phonics and literature. She teaches phonics, but her bookshelves are still lined with texts from the era when "whole language" was dominant.

"These are 'outdated.' Do I not use them?" Drew said, mischievously. "You've got to be kidding. It's a resource for me." Flipping through one of the older books, she finds good stories and nonfiction on the history of bikes, meteorology and farming.

As California plunges ahead with major reading reforms, it needs both the pragmatism of a teacher like Drew--hanging on to the best of what worked before--and the urgency of a principal like Pacoima's Gonzales--willing to start from scratch to get results.

"A lot's changed," said Lynda Peddy, a veteran reading specialist in Sacramento County, "and we've made a commitment that we haven't made in the last 50 years, so that all our kids, all races and cultures and from all backgrounds, will have full citizenship and full literacy. The price is too great not to."

Times Education Writer Richard Lee Colvin and Staff Writer Kate Folmar in Ventura County contributed to this story.


Struggling Readers

The chart below shows the percentage of third-graders unable to read at grade level.

State: 62%

L.A.: 71%

O.C.: 56%

Ventura: 52%


The second chart shows how many third-graders lack even basic reading skills.

State: 38%

L.A.: 47%

O.C.: 33%

Ventura: 29%

Source: California Department of Education

A Decade of Flux: The Reading Wars

Here are key events and reforms in the state reading program in recent years.

1987: State adopts a philosophy of reading called whole language. Phonics and spelling skills are downplayed. Children learn to read by exposure to "great literature."

1989: State reading test scores for third- and sixth-graders dip after years of steady improvement. Testing program is killed.

1993: California flunks reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The state's fourth-graders rank higher than only Mississippi, the District of Columbia and Guam.

1995: State flunks again. The national assessment report card ranks California at the bottom.

March 1995: State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin forms a task force to address the reading issue.

April 1995: State demands that textbook publishers pay more attention to phonics--lessons that teach children to connect letters with their sounds.

September 1995: The task force decries the "crisis" in reading instruction. A kindergarten-to-university overhaul is demanded.

September 1996: Gov. Wilson signs legislation launching a comprehensive "reading initiative." Schools are to get more money for reading textbooks that emphasize phonics. Teachers are to be retrained. And $1 billion is to be spent on reducing class sizes in the early grades to no more than 20. Future teachers, beginning in fall 1998, are to be required to demonstrate that they can teach reading.

December 1996: State Board of Education selects new reading textbooks, rejecting several popular and widely used "whole language" series.

September 1997: More money for teacher training, aimed at grades four through eight, is authorized. Class size reduction program expands.

July 1998: New standardized tests show California third-graders at the 36th percentile nationally. Grade level is defined as the 50th percentile.

Source: Times reports


Percentage of students reading below grade level, by grade.

3rd grade

State: 62%

L.A.: 71%

O.C.: 56%

Ventura: 52%


4th grade

State: 60%

L.A.: 70%

O.C.: 54%

Ventura: 50%


5th grade

State: 59%

L.A.: 68%

O.C.: 53%

Ventura: 49%


Percentage of students reading in the bottom quartile grade level, by grade:

3rd grade

State: 38%

L.A.: 47%

O.C.: 33%

Ventura: 29%


4th grade


L.A.: 47%

O.C.: 32%

Ventura: 27%


5th grade


L.A.: 41%

O.C.: 27%

Ventura: 23%

*California figures not available for fourth and fifth grades.

Note: Basic level is defined for 3rd and 4th-grade as scores at or below the 23rd percentile, for 5th-grade at or below the 19th percentile.

Building Blocks

The State Board of Education in December adopted a blueprint for specific reading skills that children must acquire, grade by grade. Here are excerpts from the standards for the primary grades and examples of what students are expected to read at the end of each primary grade at Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood. It has chosen an explicit phonics approach.


Students know about letters, words and sounds. They can read simple sentences. They identify the basic facts and ideas in what they have read, heard or viewed.


The cat ran.

Gum is fun, but not on a cat.



Students understand the basic features of reading. They select letter patterns and know how to translate them into spoken language by using phonics, syllabication and word parts. They apply this knowledge to achieve fluent oral and silent reading.

Grade 1

Story: "Is This a House for Hermit Crab?" by Megan McDonald

Hermit Crab was forever growing too big for the house on his back. It was time to find a new house. He crawled up out of the water looking for something to hide in, where he would be safe from the pricklepine fish.

He stepped along the shore, by the sea, in the sand ... scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch.



Recognize and use knowledge of spelling patterns. Read aloud fluently and accurately with appropriate intonation and expression. Understand and explain common antonyms and synonyms. Restate facts and details in a text to clarify and organize ideas. Recognize cause-and-effect relationships.

Grade 2

Story: "Martin Luther King Jr." by David A. Adler

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of America's great leaders. He was a powerful speaker, and he spoke out against laws which kept black people out of many schools and jobs. He led protests and marches demanding fair laws for all people.



Use sentence and word context to find the meaning of unknown words. Use knowledge of prefixes and suffixes to determine the meaning of words. Distinguish the main idea and supporting details in an expository text.

Grade 3

Story: "The Wall" by Eve Bunting

This is the wall, my grandfather's wall. On it are the names of those killed in a war, long ago.

"Where is Grandpa's name?" I ask.

"We have to find it," Dad says.

He and I have come a long way for this and we walk slowly, searching.

The wall is black and shiny as a mirror. In it I can see Dad and me.

I can see the bare trees behind us and the dark, flying clouds.

A man in a wheelchair stares at the names. He doesn't have legs.

I'm looking, and he sees me looking and smiles.

"Hi, son."


Source: Collections for Young Scholars, by Open Court Publishing Co.

What Is Grade Level?

Educators define "grade level" as the level of achievement of the average American student in a given grade.

For standardized tests like the Stanford 9, grade level is the 50th percentile, which is the midpoint of scores from a national sample of students.

By definition, half of all students in the national sample will be above grade level and half below.

Schools do not expect every student to score above grade level--a virtually impossible task. But much of their success is measured by the number of children they do lift above the 50th percentile.

The standard for "basic" achievement, indicating whether students have acquired a minimal level of knowledge, is much lower.

California third- and fourth-graders who took the Stanford 9 test last spring and scored in the bottom 23% were below the level of basic skill. Fifth graders who scored in the bottom 19% were below the basic level. Children in these categories can hardly read.

The Stanford 9 test was given only in English. Some students who scored poorly on the test may be able to read better in their native language.

Sources: Times research, California Department of Education

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