January 27 — 12:44 pm, 2016

Reading before 4th grade is critical, and educators can make it happen

read by 4 photo Photo: Courtesy of The Free Library of Philadelphia

Perhaps no goal for public schools is more important than ensuring that students are reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade. Reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade predicts 8th-grade reading proficiency. Children who are below grade level in 3rd grade tend to be below grade level in 8th grade.

Eighth-grade reading skills are essential for strong performance in critical gateway courses such as algebra, and success in algebra is an extraordinarily good predictor of graduating on time from high school and successfully pursuing postsecondary education.

If there is to be a single focus for public schools, wouldn’t it be doing everything possible to ensure that all students are reading on grade level before they enter 4th grade?

On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally sponsored standardized test, 86 percent of 4th-grade Philadelphia public school students scored below proficient. Below-proficient reading in 4th grade tends to increase the likelihood that a child will be identified as eligible to receive special education services. Unfortunately, reading outcomes for students in special education lag behind those for the overall population.

In 2014, the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, released a report indicating that early prevention of reading failure is critical to the academic success of students who have or are at risk for reading disabilities. Because of poverty, the vast majority of students in Philadelphia public schools are at risk for reading difficulties. Luckily, research has shown that the fundamental building blocks of word reading – decoding skills – are accessible to all students, regardless of income level or IQ. Oral language and vocabulary skills, crucial to reading comprehension, can also be successfully developed in students coming from poverty or linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The most effective interventionists have been trained and know exactly how to use these fundamental building blocks to guide reading instruction. Teaching reading is not a philosophy; it’s a science based on brain development and language skills.

Additionally, research in both neuroscience and cognitive psychology indicates that becoming a reader increases intelligence. Overwhelming evidence underscores that a focus on early reading instruction and using data to inform that instruction are key to helping students reach success.

A solid core literacy curriculum can be thought of as  preventive medicine. Teachers who have been professionally developed to understand the components of effective literacy instruction and who are diagnostic and prescriptive in their approach to teaching their students to read are the “general practitioners” of education.

Just like in medicine, well-trained teachers refer students to educational specialists when prevention isn’t enough and more information and intervention are needed. At that point, students need targeted diagnostic assessment and intensive interventions,  and effective training and scientific knowledge  become crucial.

Educators have 540 school days to diagnose, intervene, and continue to monitor the reading ability or disability of a child from the time he or she enters kindergarten to the end of 2nd grade. Education is about finding ways to intervene at every juncture of the process.  Educators’ knowledge and experience are critical as they look diagnostically at each student’s progress at each stage of the process. The tools necessary for each child to succeed come from well-trained, effective specialists.

The right diagnosis is as important in education as it is in health because it helps create a better life for each child. Reading failure is far too common. Fortunately, years of research have outlined a clear path to literacy success.

Diane Reott is the parent of a college student with dyslexia. Monica McHale-Small is superintendent of the Saucon Valley School District, near Bethlehem. Both serve on the advisory council for the Pennsylvania Dyslexia Screening and Early Literacy Intervention Pilot Program.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.

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