Below Basic, Basic, and Proficiency Spectrum              

According to the 2011 national report cards on reading by the National Assessment of  Educational Progress (NAEP), most of our children are less than proficient in reading even after 12 years of our attempts to teach them:


African American
4th grade 51%
8th grade 41%
12th grade
4th grade
8th grade 36%
12th grade
American Indian/Alaska Native
4th grade
8th grade 37%
12th grade 30%
Asian/Pacific Islander
4th grade
8th grade 17%
12th grade
4th grade 2
8th grade 57%
12th grade


African American
4th grade 84%
8th grade 85%
12th grade
4th grade 8
8th grade 81%
12th grade
American Indian/Alaska Native
4th grade 82%
8th grade 78
12th grade
Asian/Pacific Islander
4th grade
8th grade 53%
12th grade
4th grade
8th grade 57%
12th grade

Data from NAEP 2011 Report


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Reading Crisis

See also:  All But Fating - Adult Literacy - National Consequences - Social Pathology - Dollars and Sense

Return to Index of Topics  -  Notes: 1) This page is a work in progress and does not yet comprehensively cover its topic or include all the COTC and web resources its topic deserves.  2) Bold is used to emphasize our [COTC] sense of importance and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis in the original source. This color indicates COTC edits for brevity or flow. See referenced original for exact quotes.

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The Difference Between Basic and Proficient 

David Boulton: In addition to the two ‘book end’ categories, basic and advanced, there’s a middle category called proficiency. While there’s 38-40% in fourth grade that are below basic, the numbers go to sixty-eight percent that are below proficient. What is the difference between basic and proficiency?

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Someone who can read at the basic level can take age appropriate text, and the assessments that we use are generally assessments based on natural texts, the sort of books that children would be assigned in the classroom. Someone who is reading at the basic level can understand the words, can answer simple questions about the factual information presented in the written text and can read with enough fluency to get through the material on time and answer questions. Students who are performing at the proficient level can go beyond that to make reasonable inferences from the material they read.

So, if the written material was about a thief and the thief stole something, someone who is reading proficiently can make inferences about what that must have felt like for the person whose materials were stolen and what the thief might do next, or why the thief was engaging in thievery to begin with. They are able to comprehend a deeper sense of the written material. 

David Boulton: So, instead of a kind of instrumental or more superficial basic level, proficiency is the level we would at minimum expect or ideally like to have of kids that can actually translate what they’re reading into some kind of more vibrant, real experience.

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Yes, yes. The National Assessment for Education Progress, which is the assessment device that we’re talking about here, defines proficient in that way. It comes at a definition of proficiency based on a national process of collecting input from teachers and reading specialists and others and deciding what should a fourth grader know to be considered to be proficient.

What you’ve just described, which is the ability to comprehend in some sense what’s read, to go beyond that and to use the material, is the underlying definition of what it means to be proficient.

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Source: COTC Interview -

Code Processing Inefficiency Drags Comprehension

David Boulton: Related to the difference between basic and proficient, as you’ve just described it, is that 'below basic' is a fundamental inability to process the code and 'below proficient' is a less than optimal ability to translate that code processing into comprehension.

So, ‘below proficiency’ represents this less than optimal comprehension of what has been decoded in processing. There’s a number of pieces of work that I’ve encountered that suggest that though people may have ‘broken the code’, the processing efficiency related to how they’ve learned to process the code is dragging down the cognitive processing resources resulting in this drag on comprehension.

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Yes.

David Boulton: So, the code, while 'breaking it' we might say is a problem below the basic level, processing the code as a whole is central to this whole field (below basic through proficiency).

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst: Absolutely. Children who perform at the proficient level not only can understand the words that they’re reading and the paragraphs that they’re reading, in the sense of bringing to bear information from their own experience, other classes, reading, home and background to bear on what they’re reading; but they also read fluently. That means they’ve broken the code; they can turn letters into sounds at a level that doesn’t really require conscious processing anymore.

It’s like the child who has learned to ride a bicycle and really has learned to ride it. That child is not thinking about where her feet are on the pedals and how quickly she has to turn the pedals around and whether her hands are on the brake or not. That part of the process has been over learned and the child doesn’t even have to think about it anymore, and can now think about where the bicycle is going and why the trip is going to be taken and whether she should be going fast or slowly.

Children who have really broken the code have moved to fluency. The whole process of dealing with the code is now occupying a different section of the brain; it doesn’t require a lot of thought and allows them to go on and think about what they are exposed to, what they are reading, what’s written on the page and what it really means.

Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, Ex-Director (2002-08), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.  Source: COTC Interview

The Basic - Proficiency Spectrum    

David Boulton: What's your sense of the difference between basic and proficiency, and what importance do you give to it?

Dr. Edward Kame'enui: Well, those are nominal distinctions that we use in terms of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A lot of states make that distinction between basic and below basic, and then proficient, and then advanced, and so on. I suppose what that means in the general sense is basic means that they're reading at grade level. Below basic means they're reading below grade level. Proficient means they're reading beyond — they're able to negotiate the grade-level materials in a way that they can use their thinking flexibly, they can make inferences that go beyond the text, and so on.

To me, that's less than helpful, because to me it's not about basic and below basic. What’s critical is what's the criterion level of performance that's required, the minimum criterion level of performance that's required for kids to read at a level that will predict their ability to read in the future. So, it's a predictability, longitudinal framework that I'm looking at.    

Edward Kame'enui, Commissioner for Special Education Research where he leads the National Center for Special Education Research
under the Institute of Education Sciences.
 Source: COTC Interview -

Most of Our Children are Below Proficient

David BoultonThe National Reading Report Card says that almost sixty-eight of fourth graders read below proficiency.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: When sixty-eight percent of fourth graders are below proficiency we know that the odds, the probability of those children catching up and becoming proficient readers in four years from there, or by the time they graduate from high school are very slim. Part of the problem is that we know statistically that if a child is below proficiency by fourth grade then they’re probably not going to become a proficient reader. We actually know that in first grade. We know that the probability when a child is in the lower quartile, unless something very different is done for them in the educational system, that they’re going to experience that drop out in literacy.

David BoultonSixty percent of twelfth graders are still below proficient. That’s one of the most amazing things: sixty-eight percent of fourth graders and still sixty percent of twelfth graders are below proficient. So, this is not basic. This is a higher level than that. But still if we say that so much depends on the cognitive exercise, on the Matthew Effect and so forth, what we are saying is that most of our children aren’t doing that well.

Dr. Anne Cunningham: That’s right. And if most of our children are at that lower level, of basic level and aren’t proficient in reading, what are the odds that they’re going to be readers as adults? What are the odds that this is going to be a life long habit that they’re going to pick up after high school? They’re slim to none that they’re going to engage in print in ways that enrich their life, that add to their life across multiple domains. I mean there’s so much to be gained by reading a novel or reading a biography; the multiplicity of places that you could go in print that you couldn’t get to any other way are enormous. So, in terms of satisfaction in adulthood, books and print offer so much that just aren’t available to these students who only achieve this basic level at the end of their public school.

Anne Cunningham, Director of the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California-Berkeley. Source: COTC Interview: -

Basic vs. Proficiency

David Boulton:  Let’s discuss basic and proficiency. There’s a lot of conversation out there about which of these are important to understand to use as a benchmark in talking about the dimensions of the reading problem. There are also different interpretations of what is the actual definition of these two descriptions. Do you have anything you can say about the distinction between basic and proficiency and what they mean to you?

Dr. Louisa Moats:  Tell me the distinction again.

David Boulton:  Between being basically able to read and being proficient in reading. Right now, in the 2002 NAEP report, they’re saying eighty-eight percent of African American fourth grade children are below proficient and the average overall is sixty-four percent below proficient. What does that mean?

Dr. Louisa Moats:  I think virtually it means that they avoid reading as adults and simply do not look to text as a source of information. I don’t make this public a lot, but one of the astonishing phenomenon that I encountered when I was conducting research in the Washington D.C. school system was that the adults I was working with, who often were products of that school system, who may themselves have never gotten beyond a fourth grade level but got through school somehow, they never read memos, they never sent memos, they never used the internet. The only way we ever got anything done was if I personally went around and talked to people face to face and reminded them of when we had meetings. 

Louisa Moats, Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives at Sopris West Educational Services; Author, Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers, Parenting a Struggling Reader, and LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling). Source: COTC Interview -

More Than a Principle

David Boulton: ... the other thing that seems to be missing is some discussion about the spectrum between basic and proficiency. Most people would say that people below basic have not gotten the alphabetic principle with the caveat we just put on it

Dr. Timothy Shanahan: For the most part that’s true.

David Boulton: So, then we could say that the people below proficiency may have gotten an instrumental ability but it’s not all happening fast enough to create transparency and an ecology of processing that will leave enough energy left over for the subsequent processes to comprehend and act on. So, code processing runs the spectrum.

Dr. Timothy Shanahan: Absolutely. It’s not just knowing it (the code), it’s knowing it at a level and speed and facility that allows you to automatically, without conscious attention, fire these routines off.

One of the things that’s remarkable about it is when you look at what it is that somebody must do. If you do some kind of a logical analysis of print and map how that would go into the brain and use what we know about how much information the eye can pick up at a time, and so on, you’ll come to a picture of people able to look at every letter, see these patterns within words and know what that means in terms of their sound values and turn that into oral language and then interpret that in a way that they would oral language. It’s fairly linear, it’s fairly straight-forward and it seems like, oh okay, let’s just teach kids those patterns and let’s teach them the relationships and it’s going to be fine.

But when you actually look at it, the language is much more complex than anything that we would ever try to teach. The fact is that there are many more patterns in the language, there are many more sound relationships with the letters that we don’t ever get to simply because you don’t need to. The most elaborate phonics programs don't teach more than sixty to one hundred patterns and sounds.

Timothy Shanahan, Past-President (2006) International Reading Association; Member, National Reading Panel; Chair, National Reading Panel; Professor and Director, University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Literacy. Source: COTC interview -

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Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst  Director, Institute of Education Sciences, Assistant Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Jack Shonkoff Chair, The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; Co-Editor: From Neurons to Neighborhoods
Dr. Edward Kame'enui Commissioner for Special Education Research, U.S. Department of Education; Director, IDEA, University  of Oregon
Dr. G. Reid Lyon  Past Director, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Dr. Keith Stanovich  Canadian Chair of Cognitive Science, University of Toronto
Dr. Mel Levine Co-Chair and Co-Founder, All Kinds of Minds; Author: A Mind at a Time, The Myth of Laziness & Ready or Not Here Life Comes
Dr. Alex Granzin  School District Psychologist, Past President, Oregon School Psychologists Association 
Dr. James J. Heckman Nobel Laureate, Economic Sciences 2000; Lead Author: The Productivity Argument for Investing in Young Children
Dr. Timothy Shanahan President (2006) International Reading Association, Chair National Early Literacy Panel, Member National Reading Panel
Nancy Hennessy  President, 2003-2005, International Dyslexia Association
Dr. Marilyn Jager Adams Senior ScientistSoliloquy Learning, Author: Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print
Dr. Michael Merzenich Chair of Otolaryngology, Integrative Neurosciences, UCSF;  Member National Academy of Sciences
Dr. Maryanne Wolf Director, Center for Reading & Language Research; Professor of Child Development, Tufts University
Dr. Todd Risley  Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of Alaska, Co-author: Meaningful Differences
Dr. Sally Shaywitz  Neuroscientist, Department of Pediatrics, Yale University, Author: Overcoming Dyslexia
Dr. Louisa Moats  Director, Professional Development and Research Initiatives, Sopris West Educational Services
Dr. Zvia Breznitz Professor, Neuropsychology of Reading & Dyslexia, University of Haifa, Israel 
Rick Lavoie Learning Disabilities Specialist, Creator: How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop & Last One Picked, First One Picked On
Dr.Charles Perfetti Professor, Psychology & Linguistics; Senior Scientist and Associate Director, Learning R&D Center, U. of Pittsburgh, PA
Arthur J. Rolnick Senior V.P. & Dir. of Research,  Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis;  Co- Author: The Economics of Early Childhood Development  
Dr. Richard Venezky  Professor, Educational Studies, Computer and  Information Sciences, and Linguistics, University of Delaware
Dr. Keith Rayner  Distinguished  Professor, University of Massachusetts, Author: Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing
Dr. Paula Tallal  Professor of Neuroscience, Co-Director of the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University
Dr.John Searle  Mills Professor of the Philosophy of Mind and Language, University of California-Berkeley, Author: Mind, A Brief Introduction
Dr.Mark T. Greenberg Director, Prevention Research Center, Penn State Dept. of Human Development & Family Studies; CASEL Leadership Team
Dr. Terrence Deacon  Professor of Biological Anthropology and Linguistics at University of California- Berkeley
Chris Doherty  Ex-Program Director, National Reading First Program, U.S. Department of Education
Dr. Erik Hanushek Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

Dr. Marketa Caravolas Director, Bangor Dyslexia Unit, Bangor University, Author: International Report on Literacy Research
Dr. Christof Koch Professor of Computation and Neural Systems,  Caltech - Author: The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach
Dr. Guy Deutscher Professor of Languages and Cultures of Ancient Mesopotamia, Holland; Author: Unfolding Language
Robert Wedgeworth  President, ProLiteracy, World's Largest Literacy Organization
Dr. Peter Leone  Director, National Center on Education, Disability and Juvenile Justice
Dr. Thomas Cable  Professor of English, University of Texas at Austin, Co-author: A History of the English Language
Dr. David Abram Cultural Ecologist and Philosopher; Author: The Spell of the Sensuous
Pat Lindamood and Nanci Bell  Principal Scientists, Founders, Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes
Dr. Anne Cunningham  Director, Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education, Graduate School of Education at University of California-Berkeley
Dr. Donald L. Nathanson  Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Jefferson Medical College, Director of the Silvan S. Tomkins Institute 
Dr.Johanna Drucker  Chair of Media Studies, University of Virginia, Author: The Alphabetic Labyrinth
John H. Fisher  Medievalist, Leading authority on the development of the written English language, Author: The Emergence of Standard English
Dr. Malcolm Richardson   Chair, Dept. of English, Louisiana State University; Research: The Textual Awakening of the English Middle Classes  
James Wendorf  Executive Director, National Center for Learning Disabilities
Leonard Shlain Physician; Best-Selling Author: The Alphabet vs. The Goddess
Robert Sweet  Co-Founder, National Right to Read Foundation


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The Children of the Code is a Social Education Project and a Public Television Series intended to catalyze and resource a social-educational transformation in how we think about and, ultimately, teach reading. The Children of the Code is an entertaining educational journey into the challenges our children's brains face when learning to read. The series weaves together archeology, history, linguistics, developmental neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, information theory, reading theory, learning theory, and the personal and social dimensions of illiteracy. 




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