Literacy has always been a primary focus of elementary education, but recent research has prompted greater urgency to ensure students are proficient by 3rd grade. According to a 2011 study, kids who aren’t reading by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
There’s a clear shift in curriculum between 3rd and 4th grade — instead of learning to read, students are expected to start reading to learn. Past this point, students who lack reading fluency tend to fall further behind because they don’t view themselves as readers.
“What ends up happening is what’s referred to as the Matthew effect — the poor get poorer and the rich get richer,” says Cindy Jiban, Senior Curriculum Specialist for MAP Reading Fluency at NWEA, a not-for-profit organization that creates research-based assessments. “As students turn away from reading, their rate of growth is slower.”
Meanwhile, kids who read well surge ahead and the gap widens.
Here are a few strategies educators are using to ensure that every student emerges from 3rd grade as a reader.
Moving toward a workshop model
Prompted mainly by the No Child Left Behind Act, basal readers have made a comeback in many schools over the past few decades. While the reader approach provides a step-by-step program for literacy instruction, it lacks potential for adaptation based on individual students’ needs or learning styles.
“The fear is that basal readers could kill a student’s love of reading,” says Ross Cooper, elementary principal of T. Baldwin Demarest Elementary School in New Jersey. “I’m seeing a move toward a workshop model in a lot of schools, which is based on mini lessons. You might have a 10-12 minute mini lesson that you teach, and from there the majority of time is spent in one-on-one instruction with students.”
Many districts are setting aside a daily 45-minute block for a writing workshop, and 60-75 minutes for reading, says Cooper. “The whole idea is giving students time to read and write.”
Providing ample reading choices
Dovetailing with the growing popularity of the workshop model is the idea of giving students plenty of freedom in what they read. Regular visits to the school library are important, but making a range of book choices available to kids without leaving the classroom is even better. Cooper suggests compiling classroom libraries with a range of reading levels in mind. “Leveling should be for the teachers,” he says. “If I’m going to run a guided reading group, that’s when I’d want to pick a book that’s leveled.”
Otherwise, students benefit from having access to materials for a range of abilities.
Visiting the public library can be a great way for teachers to provide plenty of choices in their classroom. “Get an educator’s card, connect with a children’s librarian, and regularly fill your own library with selections for your class,” says Dr. Roslyn Haber, a professor at Touro College Graduate School of Education who specializes in literacy training. “It can be a really great way to introduce kids to public libraries, and that connection is so important.”
Encouraging student storytellers
Verbal communication is a key component of early literacy development, and it’s all the more important to emphasize with today’s kids, according to Haber.
“They read less, and they’re more engaged with electronic devices, so they don’t talk to one another as much as previous generations did,” she says. “Children need to be encouraged to engage in conversation, building word power through verbal communication.”
In the classroom, this means making sure young children engage with and respond to the books they’re reading. “Children should be read to at all times, but as they build their own literacy skills, they should be doing the reading and learning how to become storytellers,” Haber says. “The parent or teacher becomes a facilitator, letting the kid become the leader.”
Teachers or parents should listen and respond based on the complexity of the child’s understanding – questioning, adding additional information, and extracting the child’s thoughts on the text. “You need to ask the right questions with a child, encouraging them to use both explicit and implicit information in their reasoning.”
Testing literacy skills has always been a challenge because there are so many elements involved, from comprehension to contextual decoding. “I’m a big believer in doing formative assessments as you go along, because I want students to develop self-monitoring, repairing skills,” says Haber. “If you wait until the end of the term to test, kids might have developed and repeated an error pattern – and at that point you’ve lost valuable time.”
Jiban says most districts have adopted a schedule of regular reading assessments over the past decade. “We’ve done a lot of progress monitoring focused on decoding, using brief measures like letter sounds, word reading, and words correct per minute.”
Recent research has rekindled a focus on assessing literacy skills developed over the long term, such as oral language, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Either way, frequent reading assessments are time-consuming. NWEA’s new computer-based reading assessment, part of its widely used Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) program, promises to save time and provide teachers with a range of data on their students’ literacy skills. “We wanted to design something that could address the duration issue, and we know teachers want the richer data that includes comprehension, phonological awareness, and decoding.”
While computer-based assessments can be great tools, they are no substitute for live interaction. "I don’t think anything replaces the whole idea of sitting down with the student one-on-one and listening to them read," Cooper says. "That’s part of the value of the assessment."
He also cautions against testing too frequently and intervening too quickly. “Obviously, we want students to be capable readers, and if it doesn’t happen early, there’s a greater chance it’s not going to happen," he says. "But sometimes we have to ask, at what cost? The most important thing is to foster that love of reading so they’ll grow up to love reading – not hate it because they’ve been tested or interventioned to death at a young age."