No Child Left Behind: Frequently Asked Questions About Reading

Please note: This article has been adapted from information about No Child Left Behind provided by the U.S. Department of Education, and may not reflect the most recent policy adjustments on a state or national level. Current news and updates about NCLB and Reading First legislation are provided by and Education Week. This information only pertains to public schools.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has had a major impact on the American education system since its creation in 2001. The NCLB legislation requires that students are evaluated each year to measure their progress in areas including reading and mathematics. This article discusses the reasons that improved reading achievement plays a major part in NCLB's initiatives, and offers an introduction to NCLB's Reading First program.

What's the current situation? How well are America's children reading?

Not nearly well enough. The most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that approximately 40% of students across the nation cannot read at a basic level. And as disconcerting as this general situation is, specific sub-groups of students are experiencing even less success. For example, almost 70% of low-income fourth grade students cannot read at a basic level.

From a national perspective these facts are deeply troubling. Not being able to read at grade level is devastating to the nine-year old child who cannot do homework, enjoy a book, or look forward to future grades with confidence and excitement.

What's the key to turning this situation around?

Encouragingly, these trends in reading failure can be broken. Many schools and districts have made excellent progress with struggling students by the third grade.

Research has consistently identified the critical skills that young students need to become good readers (National Reading Panel, 2000). Teachers across different states and districts have demonstrated that sound, scientifically-based reading instruction can and does work with all children.

The critical missing piece lies in helping able teachers benefit from the relevant research in each and every classroom. Real, nationwide progress can be made when we offer professional development opportunities to teachers so that they can learn about best practices, and when we bring together proven methods with significant new federal resources and research-based instruction programs, taking responsibility for the results through continued evaluation and assessment.

Why is it so important for children to read better so early in school?

Countless new doors are opened when children become good readers early in life. Research shows that children who read well in the early grades are far more successful in later years; those who fall behind, however, often will continue to struggle academically throughout their education.

In addition, reading success leads directly to success in other subjects such as social studies, math, and science. Strong readers will have an easier time in their other studies, and can take greater advantage of school opportunities while developing invaluable confidence in their own abilities. In the long term, students who cannot read well are much more likely to drop out of school and be limited to lower-paying jobs throughout their lifetimes. Reading is undeniably the foundation for success in our society.

Whose responsibility is it to help children become successful early readers?

Parents are our children's first reading teachers. From birth to the time children enter school, parents can build an important foundation for reading success. But once a child enters school, teachers and principals assume the primary responsibility for teaching children to read. In fact, it is one of the most important objectives for an elementary school to ensure that every child can read in light of the varying foundations with which our children begin their formal academic careers. All children rely on their teachers to learn and grow; children with less support at home rely on their teachers the most. All teachers must therefore be supported, and teachers of the poorest readers need to be supported the most.

Children may learn about the purposes of reading from a wide range of community resources, such as libraries, while parents continue to support their children's academic efforts and reading with their children at home.

What is being done to help children learn to read well by third grade?

First, improving the reading skills of children is a top national and state priority of government and business leaders, parents, teachers, and numerous volunteers participating in reading programs who are deeply committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that every child can read.

Second, researchers and educators have come to a constructive consensus about reading instruction and the critical skills children must learn to be successful readers. Particularly at this point in history, science has provided tremendous insight into exactly how children learn to read, and related research has identified the most essential components of reading instruction.

Third, grassroots efforts to focus on this problem are springing up across the nation. Local schools, districts, and state educational agencies have already started to improve reading instruction. Federal funds are being made available to support local efforts.

Finally, on a national level, the educational legislation No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is addressing this problem with its "Reading First" program, whose official name in Spanish is Antes que nada, la lectura. This program puts forth an ambitious national agenda to help children become better readers through research-based methods and programs.

Through Reading First funds, grants are available for state and local programs in which students are systematically and explicitly taught five key early reading skills (National Reading Panel, 2000):

  • Phonemic awareness: the ability to hear, identify, and play with individual sounds (or phonemes) in spoken words.
  • Phonics: the relationship between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.
  • Fluency: the capacity to read text accurately and quickly.
  • Vocabulary: the words students must know to communicate effectively.
  • Comprehension: the ability to understand and gain meaning from what has been read.

Does NCLB support pre-school programs that help children develop language and reading skills before entering kindergarten?

Yes. The Early Reading First initiative supports pre-school programs that offer high-quality education to young children, particularly those from low-income families. Although early education programs are important for a child's social, emotional, and physical development, they are also important for cognitive and linguistic development in early years.


U.S. Department of Education. Reading First: Frequently Asked Questions.

National Reading Panel Report, 2000.



I taught for 36 years. I retired as an ESL teacher. From my experience as a classroom teacher, I know that it is important to know what skills a child already has and skills they need to learn. I also know there has to be assessment. But the tests by which teachers, schools and students are evaluated are a one size fits all. Academic freedom to just teach is just gone. Now we teach by prescription. Children's natural creativity has been replaced with taking tests on paper. I am glad I retired when I did. I could not teach the way I was required with a clear conscience. When will finally see that kids need time to learn and teachers really want to teach, not just look good on a database? NCLB has only given bean counters a job and will not help kids to become more effective learners. That is what teaching is; helping kids to survive with quality in real life. That is the true report card on education and we are failing our kids with too much bureaucracy and little humanity. Just let teachers who love to teach do exactly that without fear of offending NCLB. Just give teachers who love kids and the kids a break! Teachers need to feel respected for a very difficult profession and kids need to have a chance to learn to love learning.

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