Why do so many American children struggle with reading?
“That’s a question I ask myself time and time again,” says Jean Rattigan-Rohr, associate professor of education at Elon. “I’m always bothered by people who say things like, ‘Oh, children struggle with reading because they are lazy,’ or ‘Children struggle with reading because teachers don’t know how to teach phonics,’ or ‘They have parents who don’t care.’”
Instead of pointing the finger, Rattigan-Rohr decided to do something about it. In addition to teaching her pre-service teachers the theoretical underpinnings of reading as part of her “Teaching Struggling Readers” class, Rattigan-Rohr paired them with area children who were struggling with reading in school.
“We find the children with whom we work have some issues related to some pieces of the phonics, in particular vowels,” she says. “But more than that, we find it to be a comprehension deficit.”
As part of her program, parents, children and pre-service teachers meet at a local library once a week for two hours. During those sessions, Rattigan-Rohr’s students work with parents to show them things they can do at home to help their children read. They also monitor the at-home tutoring and visit classroom teachers to ensure there is congruence across the board.
“We have this really interesting collaboration. I call it ‘It takes a village,’ because it really does take a village,” she says. “In our little village, we have our pre-service teachers, we have our parents, we have the university reading supervisors, we have classroom teachers, we have the library and we have our students. We have all these people in our village, and we all surround the children.”
Before the start of the program, she says, many of the children had Level I scores in reading, the lowest they could receive. A year after participating in the program, the same children achieved Level III scores, which means they consistently demonstrated mastery of grade level reading skills and were well prepared for the next grade level. Though Rattigan-Rohr is quick to point out that she cannot say with certainty that her village made this happen, “we’d like to think that we’ve had some influence; from the emails and the calls that we’ve been getting, our parents certainly seem to think so.”
Parents are not the only ones impressed with the results. Last year, the Oak Foundation, a philanthropic foundation in Switzerland, awarded Rattigan-Rohr a grant that will allow her to replicate the reading program through partnerships with universities in North Carolina and Oregon.
She says there is not one single approach that can be applied to all children who are struggling with reading, adding that, in order to be successful, communities need to look at each child who is struggling and find out why that particular child, at that particular time has problems reading. She credits much of the success of her reading program to the parents who come to the sessions week after week.
“I take great issue with people who say children are struggling because their parents don’t care,” she says. “When parents see their children succeeding, they’ll do all they can to ensure that they do succeed, and this is a message that I’ve been trying to tell folks all along. We have sometimes this tremendous attack on parents for not doing all they can to help their children and we are seeing quite the opposite.”