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The Need to Read

Part 1: Chronic poverty, trauma complicate efforts to close third-grade reading gap in Memphis

“When kids are in survival mode, they can’t learn.”

Madison Clark (left), Ayanna Hughes, La’kiya Carr and Jaylen King work at an easel where they color their reading assignment in Thomas Denson’s Pre-K class at Cherokee Elementary School. More than three in four Shelby County elementary students, and four in five middle and high school students, read below grade level. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

More in this series
Part 2: Third-grade reading goals putting SCS teachers to the test
Part 3: Costly failures come with lesson: reading success begins at birth

Third-graders in public schools across Shelby County took their first official TNReady achievement tests last week.

Over the course of several days, the 8- and 9-year-olds spent more than 5½ hours taking nine tests, including four devoted to English.

They were asked to read five passages, listen to two others, and answer two essay questions and an additional 50 multiple-choice questions.

Each question was based on a passage they’d read or heard. For example, they might have read a short story about a school garden and been asked:

What is the main idea of the passage?

  • The students volunteered their time to make the garden a success.
  • The students enjoyed the vegetables they grew in the garden.
  • The students learned many valuable lessons while working on the school garden.
  • The students’ hard work made their principal and teachers proud. 

The tests were timed and monitored: 216 minutes, in all, to determine which students were reading on grade level. Or, in other words, could they “read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.” 

Educators across the community, the state, even the country are eager to see the results. And with good reason: Tennessee has pledged that 75% of its third-graders will be proficient readers by 2025.

That can’t possibly happen unless reading scores improve dramatically within Shelby County, home to the state’s largest school district. Officials with the 110,000-student Shelby County Schools have been even more aggressive with their goals, promising 90% of their third-graders will be proficient readers by 2025.

Both goals are ambitious, even audacious, especially considering these telling statistics: three out of four Memphis third-graders, and two in three across Tennessee and the U.S., don’t read on grade level.

In fact, only one state, Massachusetts, has even hit 50%. Not a single suburban district in Shelby County has topped 70%. Reading proficiency scores range from about 35% in Millington to nearly 70% in Arlington. That despite the unparalleled attention of educators and massive investments of public and private dollars during decades of education reforms, much of it devoted to closing the third-grade reading gap.

The reading gap in Memphis is as deep and wide, as persistent and potentially destructive as the Mississippi River in the spring.

There are about 9,000 third-graders in Shelby County Schools and public charter schools. Each year, more than 6,500 of them move on to fourth-grade reading below grade level.

The further they go in school, the more likely they are to fall further behind.

In March, Shelby County Schools floated the idea of requiring second-graders to repeat the school year if they aren’t reading on grade level.

That could affect more than 6,500 of the district’s 7,500 second-graders.

The stakes are sky high.

More forces than ever are mobilizing to help struggling readers here. Poor and minority students who can’t read on grade level by third grade are much less likely to graduate from high school, and much more likely to experience academic failure, delinquency, violence, crime and incarceration.

“Third-grade readiness is the strongest predictor of long-term learning success and on-time graduation, so we want to build a strong foundation for our students in their earlier school years,” said Dr. Joris Ray, SCS superintendent.

But learning to read isn’t child’s play. In fact, it’s more complex than you think, and teaching kids in poverty and trauma complicates it even more.

Cherokee Elementary prinicpal Sunya Payne works on scheduling issues during a faculty meeting. “Literacy — getting every child reading on grade level — is our top priority and our biggest challenge,” she said. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)


As she walks the quiet, colorful, child-friendly halls of Cherokee Elementary, Principal Sunya Payne knows she works inside a big pressure cooker.

Cherokee is an American public school, so it has been the focus of decades of top-down federal and state education reforms that bring constant change. Cherokee is at 3061 Kimball, a few blocks east of Lamar.

It’s a Shelby County school in a district being challenged academically and financially by state-run schools, charters, and (possibly soon) vouchers.

It’s an iZone school (at least until July), which means it has received additional resources that bring even higher expectations.

It’s a “blended learning” school, one of several Shelby County schools where teachers are sharing instructional time with digital devices and online lessons.

“Many of our children and their families live in survival mode. Students come to school and are already stressed. They don’t need a school that’s in survival mode.”

Sunya Payne, Cherokee Elementary Principal

And it’s a Title I school, which means nearly all of its students and their families are struggling economically.

“Many of our children and their families live in survival mode. Students come to school and are already stressed,” Payne said. “They don’t need a school that’s in survival mode.”

Cherokee Elementary isn’t.

It became an iZone school in 2012. A year later, its achievement scores improved enough for it to be removed from the state’s list of “priority schools” most in need of support.

Over the years, it has made steady progress under Payne and previous principal Rodney Rowan.

Cherokee is one of only three iZone schools where more than 20% of its students are reading at grade level. All three of those schools (including Westhaven Elementary, now led by Rowan, and Ford Road Elementary) are scheduled to be cycled out of the iZone system at the end of this school year.

Thomas Denson sounds out words for kids in his pre-K class at Cherokee Elementary School. Cherokee is one of three iZone schools where more than 20% of its students are reading at grade level. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

Payne and her colleagues know the progress they’ve made is good, but it’s not nearly enough. And there are so many factors over which teachers and principals have no control.

Generations of poverty and racism. Decades of upheaval in national, state and local education policies. Monumental advances in the study of brain development. Constantly shifting ideas about how children should be taught to read. Billions of dollars in public, private and philanthropic investments in education reforms. Economic, political, social and family decisions that determine which children show up for school every day.

“We can’t change how or when or whether our children come to school, but we can change what happens to them once they cross our threshold,” Payne said. “Literacy – getting every child reading on grade level – is our top priority and our biggest challenge. We have to believe that we have what we need in this building.”

Early literacy has become a top priority at the national, state and local levels.

Young, struggling readers are getting unprecedented support from philanthropists and entrepreneurs, cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists, policymakers and administrators.

Teachers and principals and professors and countless other adults are working harder than ever, or volunteering more than ever, to help them.

For example, more than 2,000 people have volunteered this school year as reading tutors in dozens of schools through the Team Read and ARISE2Read programs. A dozen nonprofits are working with Literacy Mid-South and its Read901 initiative to increase third-grade reading proficiency. Schools are working with local colleges and churches to provide summer literacy programs.   

<strong>Dr. David Sousa</strong>
Dr. David Sousa

The bad news: “Reading is so complex that any small problem along the way can slow or interrupt the process,” Dr. David Sousa wrote in “How the Brain Learns to Read.”

“The skills needed to link the sounds of language to the letters of the alphabet must be learned through direct instruction,” Sousa explains. “Decoding written text is a wholly artificial creation that calls upon neural regions designed for other tasks. It is probably the most difficult cognitive task we ask the young brain to undertake.”


Human brains are hard-wired for speaking, but not for reading.

Some form of oral communication has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Evolution has set aside specialized areas of the brain that make it relatively easy to acquire and process speech.

A newborn has the innate capacity to learn the distinct sounds of any of the world’s 7,000 languages. Even infants can mimic speech-like sounds and say a few words.

Reading and writing have been around for only about 5,000 years. The brain hasn’t had time to build-in special reading components. Infants cannot read.

That’s why it’s easier to learn to speak a foreign language than to read, write and comprehend it – especially if the language uses a different alphabet (say Greek), or a non-alphabetic script (say Chinese).

For children, cracking any language’s writing code is a complex cognitive and developmental task that requires years of systematic, explicit instruction.

The English writing system is especially complicated. It uses 1,110 combinations of 26 letters in potentially countless forms (upper-case, lower-case, block, cursive, italic, etc.) to represent 44 sounds.

And yet we expect young brains to have it mostly figured out by age 8.

“The ability to read by third grade is critical to a child’s success in school, life-long earning potential and their ability to contribute to the nation’s economy and its security,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation concluded in “Early Warning,” a 2010 special report on third-grade reading.

Tony Barnes volunteers to read next during a small group lesson in Thomas Denson’s Pre-K class at Cherokee Elementary School. Shelby County officials have vowed that 90% of third-graders will be proficient readers by 2025. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

Illiteracy costs the U.S. economy $300 billion a year in lost earnings, productivity and wealth-creation opportunities, and inadequate high-tech skills capacity.

In core production jobs at five in 10 manufacturing firms, advanced reading skills are more important than advanced math or computing skills.

“Reading is foundational to many jobs in today’s economy, and it will be increasingly critical for the jobs that will fuel sustained economic growth,” the Business Roundtable stated in its 2016 report on the growing “skills gap” among workers.

“Research consistently shows that reading itself is one of the most commonly and intensively used skill among all types of jobs across the entire U.S. economy, including jobs that require no education or training beyond high school.”

In Memphis, a city where nearly four in five children in public schools aren’t reading on grade level, a city with the highest rate of young, out-of-school and chronically unemployed people in the country, the challenge is clear and monumental.

The economics of reading are especially bleak for children of poverty and children of trauma.


The human brain’s most explosive, expansive and crucial years are from the womb to the kindergarten classroom.

By age 5, a child’s brain is wired to think, learn, trust, relate, communicate, compute, analyze, explore and read. Or not.

A developing brain is aided and enhanced by positive, nurturing and enriching stimulation from parents and other close caregivers.

A developing brain is disabled or damaged by the lack of such stimulation (TV, cell phones and video games don’t count), or by the presence of negative, stressful or violent stimulation – such as poverty and trauma.

Children of poverty are more likely to experience physical, mental or emotional difficulties or deficits that can have lasting effects on their ability to learn.

Prenatal exposure to cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and folic acid deficiencies. Malnutrition and low birth weight. Chronic asthma, hearing and vision problems. Eviction, crime, chronic stress and trauma. Insufficient exposure to oral and written language. All affect brain development.

LaShanda Simmons Fason is an early literacy special adviser. (Courtesy Shelby County Schools)

“So many of our children start school way behind because they haven’t had enough exposure to the language,” said Dr. LaShanda Simmons Fason, a highly specialized adviser for early literacy in iZone and priority schools in Shelby County.

“They have not been spoken to or read to enough to build their oral language, which means they will have more trouble with academic language. They don’t have the skills or the knowledge they need to learn to read.”

Those skills begin with sounds.

Before children learn to read, they acquire vocabulary and general knowledge by listening to others. They practice pronouncing words and using new words in conversation. If they are read to, they learn how written words are used to tell stories and convey information.

“The earliest events on the path to reading are the acquisition of a lot of spoken language and a bit about print,” cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg wrote in “Language at the Speed of Sound.”

By listening and talking, children begin to recognize that words are made up of individual sounds.

By looking at books and other print materials, they begin to recognize that those sounds can be represented by written letters and words.

The more exposure children have to a rich variety of oral and written language, the more their brains are building connections between spoken language and written language.

A child’s brain is building a million new connections a second. Those connections are critical for learning to read.

Bottom line: “Vocabulary development by age 3 predicts reading achievement by third grade,” the Casey Foundation reported.


Percent of students chart

Children of poverty are more likely to become children of trauma.

Exposure to strong, frequent, prolonged and destructive traumas – also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs – overloads a young mind’s defense systems and impairs its normal development.

Children of trauma can live in a near-constant state of fight, flight or freeze. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are flowing, even when no real threat is present.

Such a response can be triggered by any disruption big or small. A family being evicted. Moving to a new school. A moment of frustration or confusion. A loud noise.

“The changes in brain architecture caused by trauma affect children’s memory systems, their ability to think, to organize multiple priorities (executive function) – in other words their ability to learn, particularly literacy skills,” the U.S. Center for Disease Control reported in its 1989 Adverse Childhood Experiences study.

“These students often have difficulty in regulating their emotions and reading social cues, which in turn compromises their ability to pay attention, follow directions, work with teachers and make friends. ACEs can set off a chain reaction that leads to poor performance in school, which leads to dropping out, which then leads to poverty and involvement in the justice system, which then sets the stage for transmission of ACEs to the next generation.”

(Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

“Imagine being asked to decode a word or do a math problem while you’re being chased by a bear,” said Frank Jemison III., director of education outreach for the ACE foundation and a former Memphis teacher. 

“That’s the effect that chronic stress and trauma can have on a child’s brain. When kids are in survival mode, they can’t learn. Teachers and other adults can help. It’s not what’s wrong with you. It’s what is happening to you.”

“So many of our children are exposed to so much trauma so early, we have to train all of our educators how to respond in ways that help, not harm.”

Dr. Angela Hargrave

SCS is working with the ACE Awareness Foundation of Memphis and the state’s Building Strong Brains initiative to train teachers and schools about chronic stress and trauma.

More than 15,000 SCS teachers will have completed trauma-awareness training by July.

“So many of our children are exposed to so much trauma so early, we have to train all of our educators how to respond in ways that help, not harm,” said Dr. Angela Hargrave, SCS director of student equity, enrollment and discipline. “This absolutely works.”

Kids in Thomas Denson’s Pre-K class at Cherokee Elementary School listen to instructions before working in small groups on reading classwork. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)


The struggle to help young struggling readers isn’t just a Memphis challenge. It’s a national one.

Only a third of the nation’s fourth-graders read proficiently, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Those scores have been flat for more than two decades. And the achievement gap between the top and bottom 10% is widening.

Results for student groups 2017

That despite the massive reforms ushered in by the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind, the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top, and the Gates Foundation-supported Common Core initiative.

“There’s no evidence that achievement is going up. Nothing important is going on,” said Dr. Douglas Fuchs, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Fuchs and his wife and Vanderbilt colleague, Dr. Lynn Fuchs, played a leading role in the development of a reading intervention program.

It’s called Response to Intervention, or RTI. It became a key part of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind education reform in 2003.

Tennessee adopted its own version in 2013. It required elementary schools to provide an hour a day of remedial instruction, either in small groups or one-on-one.

Students whose reading scores were in the bottom 25% would get Tier 2 help; those in the bottom 10% were to get more specialized Tier 3 help.

<strong>Mark Sturgis</strong>
Mark Sturgis

“That’s the first problem,” said Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success. “Here in Shelby County, you should flip those numbers. About 75% of our students need reading intervention.”

That led to the second problem. The state provided no funding for RTI.

Schools scrambled to make it work. Some asked classroom teachers to find ways to add it to their schedules. Others asked teacher assistants or librarians to step in. Others turned the job over to computer programs.

“We have seen considerable variation in the quality of implementation across the state,” the state Department of Education reported last year. “The time pressures of RTI have caused real challenges in many schools, and we hear from educators who worry that the massive commitment to RTI forces them to sacrifice other important priorities.”

Former Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson was more direct: “Unfunded mandates like RTI (are) a good strategy, but it costs a lot,” he told legislators last year. “We have 40,000 kids who live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year.”

“Children who are already behind are falling further behind, because they are not getting the intensity of intervention they need. Let’s be honest. We all love our kids, but we don’t love other people’s kids enough to do what’s right.”

Dr. Douglas Fuchs, Vanderbilt University professor

The state allocated $13 million for RTI last year, but it pays for one interventionist for every 2,700 students. The state also lowered the threshold for Tier 2 to 16% and Tier 3 to 7%.

This year, about 6,500 of the district’s 46,000 K-5 students — about 15% — are getting reading intervention for about 30 minutes two or three times a week.

RTI remains poorly funded and unevenly administered, Fuchs said.

“Children who are already behind are falling further behind, because they are not getting the intensity of intervention they need,” he said. “Why? It’s rocket science. We know what works. But it requires a much higher level of training, resources, support and synchronicity that we’ve been unable or unwilling to provide. It also requires a level of social commitment that has been lacking. Let’s be honest. We all love our kids, but we don’t love other people’s kids enough to do what’s right.”

What is right?

“Our challenge is to give every child who comes through that door what they need to learn and grow and thrive,” said Cherokee Elementary principal Sunya Payne. “Some need more than others.” (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian)

Sunya Payne sees it every day at Cherokee Elementary.

She sees children who come to school eager and curious and ready to learn, and children who come to school tired and hungry, anxious and angry.

She sees children who are ready for grade-level work and more, and children who are three grade levels behind.

She sees children who are there bright and early every day, and children who have been absent for days and weeks on end.

She sees children who’ve been there every year since kindergarten, and children who have changed school three times in a year.

She sees children who are loved and nurtured and supported at home, and children who are not.

“Our challenge is to give every child who comes through that door what they need to learn and grow and thrive,” Payne said. “Some need more than others.”

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

David Waters
Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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