Strategies for Boosting Literacy Rates and Building Lifelong Readers
There is plenty of concern these days about how literate America’s K-12 students are, and statistics indicate that this concern is well-placed. According to the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a norm-referenced test given to students in grades four, eight, and 12, also known as the NAEP), just under 30 percent of fourth graders are considered “proficient” readers. More troubling, just over 30 percent of fourth-graders who took the NAEP in 2015 scored in the “below Basic” reading category, with another 33 percent landing in the Basic range.
According to a 2013 white paper produced by Save the Children, an international nonprofit focused on the needs and rights of children, this trajectory is often set before students enter elementary school. Save the Children researchers argue that “emergent literacy”—a name given to the essential skills young children need to learn before they reach kindergarten in order to be well prepared to read and write—is an overlooked but central area of literacy development where early disparities in access to a literacy-rich environment are often quite evident. (An example of a literacy rich environment is one where infants and toddlers are exposed to a wide range of words, spurring language development and other pre-literacy skills. Students experiencing poverty may have less access to early, positive interactions with books and language.)
Emergent literacy skills, such as alphabet awareness and a clear ability to listen and speak well, set an important foundation for later reading success. The Save the Children report also acknowledged the importance of the “attitude towards reading and writing that children acquire in the early years by interacting with language, books and print.” While many policymakers have begun to grasp the importance of early literacy skills, not many have done so with a “developmentally appropriate” lens, as outlined by a 2016 article in the Cogent Education online journal.
Here’s the rub: In the push to boost literacy rates for all students, some experts fear that the nurturing of a lifelong love of reading is falling by the wayside. In their Cogent Education piece, researchers Christine Moran and Karlen Senseny argued that early elementary school students are sometimes being pushed into reading before they are ready in lieu of detailed, personalized awareness of their unique “developmental” age. The researchers posited that not all 5-year-olds are the same, and therefore a “one-size-fits-all approach” to teaching reading is not particularly helpful.
Moran and Sensey asserted that the “national push to get kindergarteners to read before first grade” can result in undue pressure on children, while a deeper understanding of the necessary stages of literacy development—including a solid base of early literacy experiences and skills—could help students learn to read in a more meaningful way. In a 2017 opinion piece for EdWeek, elementary school teacher Justin Minkel took a tongue-in-cheek approach: “School has a way of messing up even the inherently joyful act of reading a good book.”
In his piece, Minkel presented a funny scenario of an adult settling in with a treasured book, only to be tasked with “highlighting all the words with the long ‘o’ sound” and other common school-based reading exercises. He then offered teachers a list of ways to avoid snuffing out a student’s love of reading on the way to boosting literacy rates. Here’s a recap of his top four strategies:
Give students real books, don’t just hand out photocopied packets that ask students to underline “all the words that follow a consonant-vowel-consonant pattern.” Minkel advised teachers to find content-rich “guided reading” books by authors such as Mo Willems, and to help students set up a “home library” with books from school. Minkel also pointed out that digital books can be read to students on an iPad or laptop.
“Engage kids in books they’re excited about,” avoid worksheets and “busy work,” and emphasize “think-alouds” by having students “infer, predict, make connections and ask questions.” Allow students to talk about books together or encourage them to listen aloud to a more complex story rather than simply asking them to fill out vocabulary sheets.
Read aloud together. Minkel said he often reads aloud and has his students follow along “in order to model fluency...and the mental work involved in predictions, connections, and inferences.” Importantly, Minkel allows his students to interrupt him with insights and commentary, and noted that when it comes to later reading, research shows drilling young children about letter sounds is far less helpful than “engaging them in conversation.”
Don’t rush. Minkel argued for depth over “fluency” and outlined how he structures this in his classroom. By allowing his strongest readers to work largely independently, he is able to spend the bulk of “group time” with his lowest-performing students to help them “thoughtfully engage” with meaningful texts. Minkel noted that while schedules and skill acquisition are important, this should not come at the expense of allowing students to actively dig into a book they love with some help from their teacher.
“Our students need to learn all kinds of things to become strong readers,” Minkel stated. “But sometimes we make the process so cumbersome and artificial that it strips the joy from the act of reading.” His views are supported by many researchers and observers, including those who penned a 2017 piece in Psychology Today that encouraged teachers to consider students’ “passion and interest”—not just their reading level—when choosing books. Such an approach may help more students land in the “proficient” category on reading assessments and equip them with both a love of reading and a solid set of literacy skills at their disposal.
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