4 keys to achieving reading proficiency
Laura Bemus
November 5, 2019

Most educators are well aware of how important it is that students read proficiently by third grade. Kids who don’t are four times more likely to drop out of high school before earning a diploma -- a risk that increases among students who’ve spent at least a year living in poverty. Despite nearly universal agreement that third grade reading is a crucial benchmark, 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress data found that about two-thirds of students are falling short.

A common solution to the challenge is to retain students who don’t achieve proficiency by third grade. To this end, 28 states have passed laws that require or allow retention. Retaining students comes with its own challenges, though, including increased cost to schools as well as lower self-esteem and more negative attitudes about education among students.

At Greenville City Schools, we believe a more constructive approach to the challenge is to identify and remove the roadblocks to reading that students face early in their academic careers. Here’s how we do it.

Helping Students Who Start School Behind Their Peers

The biggest barrier to reading we face in our district is students who begin school already behind their peers. Of course, very few students come to us in kindergarten as readers, but not all emergent pre-readers have the same skill set. Students from economically secure families tend to spend those preschool years in more literature-rich environments, with family members who have the time and resources to read to them.

That gap in experience directly translates into a gap in vocabulary, among others. When I was a kindergarten teacher, if I read my class a book that took place in a pasture, a student might not know the word “pasture” and could lose the whole meaning of the story.

To address the gap, we work on reading strategies throughout the day. Our literacy coaches provide plenty of professional development to classroom teachers, and we also provide reading recovery instruction for struggling students.

Extending Learning Time

One of the most successful steps we’ve taken to close the gap some of our youngest students begin school with is to extend the school day -- and the school year.

We’ve had mixed results with after-school reading programs because they’re voluntary, and time or transportation can be barriers in our rural district. Our summer reading program, on the other hand, has been much more successful because it allows all students to participate, even if they lack reliable transportation.

We’ve partnered with a nonprofit organization, Kids Read Now, which offers a summer reading program. To get started, students choose nine books from the organization’s wish list, which includes hundreds  of educator-approved titles. They get three books from their list at a kickoff event for the program, then each time their parents report they’ve completed a title, they receive another book from their list in the mail. They have reading material they’re actually excited about all summer and they never have to go anywhere.

Getting Families Engaged 

Parental engagement is so important in improving student reading because kids learn all the time. We only have them in school for a few hours a day during the school year. There’s so much opportunity for them to progress in the evenings, weekends, and on breaks -- but it won’t happen if their families don’t make it a priority.

The kickoff event for our summer reading program is a fantastic opportunity for us to stress the importance of that involvement to families and give them some instruction in how to best support their children. Some of our parents don’t feel comfortable taking on the role of reading teacher for a variety of reasons: perhaps they struggled academically, so they feel unqualified; or maybe they’re learning English themselves, or just don’t know how to talk to their kids about a book.

So, we bring families together in the spring and help them learn how to do that. Each book comes with a discovery sheet sticker inside to help them formulate questions to ask their kids. We can see who’s reporting that their child has completed a book throughout the summer, so we can check in with parents whose kids aren’t making as much progress as we’d like.

The first year of the program, one of our parents came in at the end of the summer with the stack of books her child had received throughout the summer to return them. When we told her they were hers to keep, she nearly cried as she explained how much they valued them, because they had no books in their home.

Giving Kids Books They Like

That parent’s experience is by no means unique. Many economically disadvantaged families simply don’t have access to books -- especially to books their kids have chosen themselves and are eager to read.

The nine books each student receives through the summer program are a good start to a home library -- and we know their younger siblings are getting access to them and starting school more prepared to read as a result. You can never get too many books into the hands of kids who are excited to read.

To increase the number of books students have access to, we use a range of strategies. Some of our principals organize book trading days where students can bring in two books to trade with their peers. When we purge our library, we offer the books we’re taking out of circulation to students for free, and many of our teachers do the same with their classroom libraries. We’ve also been building Little Free Libraries around the community.

As a result of all these efforts, our K-3 literacy grade on the Ohio State Report Card has improved from a D to a C and is on track to rise to a B. Our NWEA MAP testing also indicates that our students are no longer suffering from summer slide in reading, and are instead maintaining or even growing their literacy skills over the break.

In the end, there’s no one great trick to helping children close the literacy gap. We just have to start early, make it easy for parents to get involved, and give the children books they’re excited to read.

Laura Bemus is the assistant superintendent for Greenville City Schools and Title I funding specialist at Kids Read Now. Elementary schools in her district have been using the program, for six years, to help students read proficiently by third grade.

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