Reading is essential — not just for school success, but for life. When children have trouble learning to read, it can kick off a devastating downward spiral. Struggling readers are more likely to report feeling sad, lonely, angry, anxious and depressed. Their poor reading skills make it hard for them to keep up in other subject areas. They’re more likely to have behavior problems, to drop out of school and to end up in the criminal justice system.

Despite the high stakes, lots of kids in this country can’t read very well. You can see it in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given every two years to measure the reading comprehension of American students. More than a third of fourth graders don’t read on a basic level.

Why are so many children struggling with reading — the most basic, most fundamental academic skill?

It’s a question I’ve been reporting on for several years. What I’ve found is that reading instruction in many schools is based on a belief that if children are read to a lot, reading should come pretty easily for them. Decades of scientific research on reading shows this isn’t true. Some kids learn to read easily, but many children struggle. It doesn’t matter how much they are read to or the number of books in their home. They will not become good readers unless they are taught how their written language works.

But prevailing approaches to early reading instruction in this country minimize direct instruction. The teacher’s role is mainly to guide students, to create an environment that is conducive to learning how to read: setting up reading groups, reading with kids, helping them find books on their reading level.

This approach creates a lot of struggling readers. Some of these struggling readers get the help they need but a lot can depend on their family income, their race and ethnicity, and what kind of school they go to. Family income matters, because if a school isn’t teaching a child how to read, there are other options such as paying for tutors or private schools. Race matters, because white children are significantly more likely to go to public schools where more kids are successful with reading; that means when white kids struggle, their reading problems tend to stand out and get attention. And if a child has a reading disability, a white child is much more likely to get special education services.

America’s approach to reading instruction is having an especially devastating impact on Black, Hispanic and American Indian children.

Read the full article about inequitable reading help at APM Reports.