PORTLAND – A recent headline in the Portland Press Herald announced that “Reading report card finds ‘No Child’ law led to no progress.”

The article noted that fourth- and eighth-grade students’ reading scores were largely stagnant, stalled at a basic level. Is the No Child Left Behind law the problem, or is our assumption of how children learn to read the actual culprit?

First consider fourth-grade reading scores on the federal test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the NAEP.

When considering students’ basic reading skills, the fourth-grade scores are the most important because reading instruction generally stops by the end of third grade.

Then children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” It is important to note that 74 percent of children who are poor readers in the third grade remain so in the ninth grade.

On the 2009 NAEP, 65 percent of Maine’s fourth-graders were below proficient level, and 30 percent were below basic level in reading.

In other words, two out of three Maine fourth-graders are not learning to read at proficient level, and one out of three is not learning to read at basic level by federal standards.

The 2009 state NECAP tests for reading at the beginning of Grade 3 reported somewhat better, but still alarmingly troublesome, scores.

In order to understand these data, it is important to ask the question: How do children learn to read?

Intuitively, naturally? exploring books and using picture and context clues to determine meaning? memorizing the shape and contours of the letters that form words? sounding out the letters of words?

Why do some children seem magically to learn to read?

According to testimony before the U.S. Senate in 1998 by Dr. Reid Lyon, then head of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, only about 5 percent of children learn to read without any specific instruction.

According to Dr. Lyon, an additional 20 percent to 30 percent learn to read fairly easily with any type of reading instruction. What about the remaining children?

Dr. Lyon reported that for about 60 percent of our children, learning to read is much more challenging; for at least 20 percent to 30 percent of these youngsters, “reading is one of the most difficult tasks they will have to master.”

How do we address the needs of these 60 percent? The findings from scientific research studies from 1967 to the present are clear.

Learning to read is not a natural process. It is not like learning to speak.

If reading is a natural skill, why are so many children struggling to learn to read? The answer is that in order for children to learn to read, they need reading instruction.

What children are most at-risk for learning to read? Reading failure reaches across all socioeconomic and ethnic categories, including children from middle-class, literature-enriched homes.

Most at risk, however, are children of poverty, children of limited English language proficiency and children with language-based learning disabilities.

What are the skills required to learn to read proficiently? A 2008 study has identified the precursor skills most highly correlated to literacy achievement.

These are alphabetic knowledge; phonemic awareness (the ability to manipulate the spoken sounds of language); the ability to rapidly name letters, objects and colors; the ability to write letters in isolation; and the ability to remember spoken language.

The good news is we can assess children to determine if they are at risk for learning to read and begin early, intensive, direct instruction in these early skills.

Additionally, research has identified the five crucial component strands of effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics (the alphabetic code), fluency (the ability to read smoothly with expression in a grade-appropriate word-per-minute range), vocabulary and, above all, comprehension.

Thus, we know what these 60 percent of children need: direct, systematic instruction in these building blocks of reading, coupled with exposure to excellent children’s literature.

Science-based reading research must inform reading instruction for our at-risk children. It doesn’t now because much of the reading instruction in our state is based on the false assumption that reading is a natural skill.

We can see the consequences of this faulty assumption in the failure of so many Maine children to learn to read.

We have the knowledge to teach all children to read. Do we have the will to do so?