Word up: reading the essential skill

Consider these observations from the annals of education research:

— “Children who fall behind in first grade reading have a one-in-eight chance of ever catching up to grade level.”

— “Identifying students at risk for reading problems in the early primary grades is critical because more than 75 percent of students who are not identified until Grade 3 never catch up with their peers.”

— “It matters little what else they learn in elementary school if they do not learn to read at grade level.”

There’s no argument about it. Learning to read is essential to learning in school. If you have trouble reading, you have trouble learning. Sure, poor readers can learn some life skills and those with real reading impairments like dyslexia can, through sheer will and determination, learn to work around those impairments; but what they’ve learned to do is survive is a world where reading is … well, an elementary skill.

It’s obvious, almost embarrassingly so; yet too many children — in the so-called Information Age, where words fill screens large and small — struggle with reading. Concern about the lack of reading proficiency led the N.C. General Assembly to mandate summer reading camps through the Read to Achieve law. The effectiveness of the program, now going on in Lenoir County and across the state, is debatable; and the General Assembly’s commitment to its own reading standards, after it wilted in the face of parent opposition, is doubtful. However, none of that changes the fact that LCPS is, and has been, all in on reading instruction.

About 140 third graders who have trouble reading are enrolled in the reading camps here. They get instruction in classes of just eight to 12 students. About half of them get almost individual help through a teaching technique known as Hill Rap, a special program LCPS added to intensify the summer instruction. The kids will leave the camps as better readers and as students better able to do fourth-grade work. Honestly, though, many will not be able to do what Read to Achieve set out to help them do: read at a third-grade level. Seventy-two hours of summer instruction, even with the best teachers, isn’t sufficient to catch them up. Eight-hour days, three days a week — even if that time is all about reading — isn’t enough time to impart a skill that 1) is developed in stages, 2) is complex and, therefore, complicated to teach and 3) depends heavily on associated knowledge and skills that are best developed from a very young age and in the day-to-day interactions of home and family. (Hear about the reading camps from the teachers and administrators involved in them: http://tinyurl.com/kyaapnp)

In other words, in addition to classroom instruction, children learning to read need the kind of stimulation and word awareness nurtured in homes where books are found, where children are read to and where conversation helps them develop vocabulary and a broader view of the world around them. The importance of this home-based instruction will be emphasized tomorrow during a Literacy Lunch & Learn program sponsored by LCPS and others united as the Community Outreach Committee. The activities, which run from 10 a.m. to noon at Southeast Elementary School, are designed to increase literacy for all ages and will teach parents new ways to help their children perform better in school. The workshop is free and includes lunch; no registration is necessary.

Literacy Lunch & Learn also emphasizes the importance of a community approach to literacy. Just as a home where adults read likely produces children who read, a community that values and promotes literacy produces literate residents. One of the goals of Lenoir County Public Schools is to have all children reading at grade level by the end of the second grade. The subcommittee of the School System Improvement Task Force that’s focused on that goal has proposed a two-prong strategy: more individualized classroom instruction, aided by the iPads we want to provide all K-5 students next year, and the creation of a Parent Outreach Committee for Literacy to encourage parental involvement in the process of reading instruction.

It’s a process more complex and a lot less natural than we tend to think. To read well, children must have significant ability in five areas: phonological awareness (how sounds go together in words), phonics (speech sounds and how they’re produced), fluency (an understanding of how words are ordered in sentences), vocabulary and comprehension. These skills build gradually. Instruction that begins in pre-K ramps up through first and second grade. Third grade is a grade for readers, where a mastery of the basics should allow for a focus on comprehension. The third-grade reading test administered by the state — the benchmark for proficiency and the ticket to summer reading camp for low scorers — is devoted to comprehension.

That’s one reason some third graders who know their sight words (words you can’t sound out) and even know their sounds pretty well don’t do well enough on the standardized reading test. They don’t know enough about the world around them. It’s darn near impossible to correctly answer questions after reading a passage about the Incas of the Andes if you don’t know a thing about the Inca empire, have never heard of the Andes mountains and don’t have much of an idea where Peru is. Throw in the limitations of a stunted vocabulary and proficiency is just a pipe dream.

The great majority of children learn to read in school, because teaching reading is a job for an expert, but students who learn most easily have been helped by parents who have taken the time to do those things that acquaint their children with words and reading and the world around them. They read to their children. They talk to their children and, in doing so, build vocabulary. They introduce their children to the big picture, stimulate them through dialogue. They help them make that connection between language and knowledge.

While you’ve been reading this post, this is what’s been happening: You have rapidly and accurately decoded the words, attached the correct meaning to words and sentences, connected text information to relevant background knowledge, maintained a mental representation of what you have already read, formed hypotheses about upcoming information and made decisions based on your purpose for reading.

It may seem easy now, but it wasn’t when you were learning how.