Learn to Read, Read to Learn


That’s the percentage of Arkansas students, grades 3 through 10, who did not meet the readiness benchmark for reading on the 2016-17 ACT Aspire. It’s 70% for eleventh graders, per the ACT.

The good news? ACT Aspire showed 61% not ready in 2015-16.

The bad news? At the current growth rate, it will take just over twenty years to ensure all Arkansas students are ready in reading.

In Arkansas’s school districts, reading readiness ranges from 65% at Valley View to 9% at Dollarway.

In Arkansas’s open-enrollment public charter schools, reading readiness ranges from 89% at Haas Hall Academies in both Fayetteville and Bentonville to 4% at SIA Tech, a graduation recovery school in Little Rock.

There is hope. Thanks to the advocacy of educators like Audie Alumbaugh and Kim Head, supported by thousands of literacy-focused parents and educators, including many in the dyslexia movement, Arkansas’s governmental leaders are embracing and advancing a culture of reading.

With the passage of Act 416, sponsored by Senator Alan Clark in the 91st General Assembly, any person applying for an elementary education K-6 teaching license or a special education K-12 teaching license now must successfully pass a stand-alone reading test and multi-subject test as a condition of licensure.

In short, new teachers must know how to teach the science of reading.

Additionally, the Arkansas Department of Education launched R.I.S.E. (Reading Initiative for Student Excellence) Arkansas. According to the ADE’s website, the initiative “encourages a culture of reading by coordinating a statewide reading campaign with community partners, parents and teachers to establish the importance of reading in homes, schools, and communities.”

For the first time since 2013-14, Arkansas has had two years of the same summative test (ACT Aspire and ACT) in order to determine gains/declines in academic readiness. Here are the results for reading:

Grade Gain/
Class Gain/
ACT Aspire
Grades 3-10

ACT Aspire http://www.officeforeducationpolicy.org/arkansas-school-data-act-aspire
ACT http://www.officeforeducationpolicy.org/act-ap

Here’s the over-simplified divide:

Whole Language: a method of teaching children to read at an early age that allows students to select their own reading matter and that emphasizes the use and recognition of words in everyday contexts.

In other words, if you’ve never seen the word, you have no tools to decode it.

Phonics (Science of Reading): a method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with letters or groups of letters in an alphabetic writing system.

In other words, even if you’ve never seen the word, you have the tools to decode it.

The light bulb on this issue for those of us who learned to read in 1960s Arkansas was that how we learned to read (i.e. phonics) was/is not being taught. Most egregiously, teachers have long emerged from our college, university and non-traditional teacher preparation programs trained in Whole Language instead of Phonics/Science of Reading.

Subsequently, most of our children and grandchildren were taught in a way with which we were/remain unfamiliar, and therefore we were/are not able to help reinforce how they were being instructed in school.

Conversely, many of today’s parents and grandparents were never taught phonics/science of reading, so they are/will be unable to reinforce their students’ instruction.

As a result, just as higher education has created a publicly-funded cottage industry around remediation for those scoring less than a 19 on any ACT subject area, so too has K-12 created an entrenched, publicly-funded infrastructure around reading remediation.

Instead of continually kicking the reading can down the road, what if we dedicated the necessary resources to teach it right the first time? What if we made an Arkansas Guarantee.

Every student not precluded by intellectual disability will read at grade level.


How do we get there – not in ten years or five – but as soon as possible. Here’s a path, and we’re receptive to other evidence-based solutions.

  • Report cumulative student performance, growth data of teachers from respective preparation colleges, universities, programs
    • Hold those responsible for training accountable
  • Prioritize (teach, grow, reinforce) reading throughout K-12 public education, particularly K-8
  • Illuminate, reward successful districts, charters
  • At the highest level of State Government, speak clearly and decisively to the public school districts and open-enrollment public charter schools of Arkansas that the following is coming, and that they will be best served by voluntarily implementing now what will soon be required by law
    • In 2019-20 (the first school year after the 92nd General Assembly), require that all Arkansas Kindergarten students be instructed in phonics/science of reading and that district/charter resources must be prioritized to ensure that all Kindergarten students are reading at level by the end of the school year. Repeat for each subsequent grade.
    • In 2019-20 (the first school year after the 92nd General Assembly), require that the reading level of all Arkansas Grade 1 through 12 students be assessed and reported, and that immediate, intensive intervention be individually implemented to ensure grade level readiness by:
      • Grades 1 – 3 end of school year
      • Grades 4 – 5 end of elementary school
      • Grades 6 – 7 end of intermediate school/middle school/junior high
      • Grades 9 – 12 end of high school
  • Do not penalize students, families for adults’ failures

It really is this simple: If a child does not learn to read, he/she will not read to learn.

The State of Arkansas currently invests approximately $87,100 for each students’ K-12 journey. Throw in local and federal sources, and the number is easily $140,000 per student. If our public districts and charters are not guaranteeing the basic building block of education, why do they even exist?

When the Arkansas high school graduation rate is 87%, but 59% of students are not reading ready, we are not graduating students ready for K-12, much less college, career and/or community.

Not reading at grade level is an individual, familial, community and state economic development emergency, and it must be addressed with the utmost urgency.

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