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John Monfredo: Is Your Child Reading on Grade Level?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Being able to read proficiently is the crucial perquisite to becoming educated. Once you can read, you acquire the knowledge needed to be a productive worker and good citizen. Thus, reading proficiency by the end of the third grade has become a goal throughout the nation. Research states that this is an important predictor of high school graduation and career success.  

It has been pointed out that every year 68% of America’s children, and more than 80% of children from low-income families, miss this crucial milestone.

The Committee for Economic Development stated, “High-quality early education programs are vital to future economic growth and maintaining a highly skilled workforce.  Support and investments at the national, state, and local levels for early education programs must continue to be a priority despite the downturn in the economy.”

A number of states face new reading policies for the early grades that call for the identification of struggling readers, requiring interventions to help them, and in some cases, mandate the retention of 3rd graders who lack adequate reading skills.  According to the Education Commission of the States, a non-partisan agency that provides education policies to help state leaders develop educational ideas, 32 states plus the District of Columbia now have statutes in place intended to improve reading proficiency by the end of the 3rd grade. 

However, mandating retention at the end of the grade three by many states is not the way to improve reading, nor was having Congress mandate (NCLB) that by the year 2014 every student would be proficient in reading and math. 

Let me point out that Massachusetts is not one of those states that mandates retention as the answer.  Improving reading has to start before a child enters school and school districts need to come up with a plan to make it work. 

Worcester Public Schools is attempting to make a dent in the achievement gap by having an early literacy program for new mothers.  This program is entitled, “Books for Babies.”   This early literacy initiative is to prepare all children in the city to be reading ready when they begin their education in our schools.   Partnerships with UMass Memorial and the Senior Center with funding from the Henry E. Niles Foundation and the Webster Five Foundation have helped launch this program.

This program is the first of its kind in an urban school district in Massachusetts and it will serve as another way of making our city a truly city that reads.   As author Emilie Buchward stated, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”  This is exactly what this program attempts to accomplish!  The program is a great beginning for it calls attention to the importance of a parent reading to their child but the program needs to be expanded. 

Someone needs to follow-up with parents after that hospital visit and  assist them in this most important endeavor.  We need to teach parents that talking to your baby is essential as is repeating nursery rhymes, singing songs, play peek-a-boo and responding to the needs of the child with soothing words.  Parents need to tell their babies stories while the child is being changed or having a bottle.  Babies need to hear the voice of the mother and learn about things that they see in their environment.

Reading picture books is  important as is showing the child objects in the home  for this all ads up to the child learning words and enriching their vocabulary. Parents need to use the languages that they are most comfortable for them so that the babies hear lots of different words and ideas.  Many take these ideas for granted but there is a need to teach our new parents what is needed in the life of a baby.  Learning a language and establishing a readiness for reading all starts at birth.

Another program in the Worcester area that assists parents is the National recognized program, “Reach Out and Read.” In this program, pediatricians give books to parents and talk to parents about the importance of reading.  There are 13 sites in the area with most pediatricians working with low income parents. 

Let’s all remember that children become readers before they learn to read.  Enjoying books together now will help them enjoy books later on their own.  Parents need to learn to make books a part of their daily routine and establish a special reading time for the child before going to bed, during a meal or while you ride on a bus.  When reading together, encourage the child to talk. Another idea for young children is teaching them to draw.  Give the child paper and crayons and have the child draw a picture and then have the child explain the picture.

Can we expand on these two programs and get social agencies or health providers to make home visits?  Or can we work with our school nurses in this endeavor  as this year Head Start is doing with home visits?  These are earnest questions to pursue if we want our children to have the readiness skills entering school.

Next, we need to get our children into pre-school, whether it’s public or private.  We need to work with our legislators to get the needed resources and establish more full day pre-school sites in and around the community. 

I know that it is costly, but not as much as remedial programs for poor readers. In those pre-school years, the children need to recognize familiar letters and words such as their name and attempt to write them.  They need to identify words that rhyme or have the same beginning and they need to learn how to hold a book right-side-up, turn pages, and understand that pages are read from left to right and from top to bottom.  Most importantly, children need to start to develop a love for reading.

Other initiatives that need to take place are to have an all out media campaign calling attention to the importance of reading and  to assist our children in learning to read.  In Worcester, the Worcester Educational Collaboration has a committee working on a campaign of grade level reading and is in the progress of developing  an action plan.  This effort needs to be community wide with businesses, social agencies, higher education, the health community and the schools (public and private) working together.

The campaign, led by Dr. Jennifer Carey, executive director of the Worcester Educational Collaborative,  has on the table , in cooperation with United Way, several ideas for the campaign.  The final plan hopes to be rolled out in January.  Some ideas generated are:

•Books to all kindergartens and building over four years to first, second and third grade. Scholastic Books is offering low-cost books and is looking to  partner with the United Way on literacy.  Using the internet, ePals (adult volunteers) would write back and forth with the students about each of the books that their teacher has selected for them to read.

•Books and support to a class of readers in a school.  In partnership with In2Books and ePals, $6,000 per classroom would allow a class of readers both books and mentors.  For every 2 classrooms sponsored by the United Way, In2Books will provide a 3rd classroom for free. United Way would prioritize second and third grade classrooms at Worcester’s Level IV schools for this opportunity.  In2Books was created in 1997 to enhance the intellectually stimulating work available to students in low-income neighborhoods. A basic tenet of In2Books is that all children are capable of deep learning.

•Build a library in a “low performing school.”  A local philanthropist has spearheaded an initiative to build libraries some of our low performing schools.

•Expand United Way’s Summer Literacy Initiative to avoid summer loss. 

Research has shown that children in low income families lose between two and three months of academic growth due to lack of literacy time during the summer. Currently the project is working with Elm Park, Guild of St. Agnes, Rainbow Child Development Center at Treasure Valley, and the Worcester YMCA.   The plan is to expand reading opportunities for the children in Worcester.

Other ideas being considered by the Worcester Educational Collaborative are making books accessible to children and students throughout the year, working with the Worcester Public Library on a variety of programs, working with parents on literacy initiatives, and reaching out to the community to support reading programs. 

Other initiatives across the nation at a state level call for districts to provide one of several options to assist struggling readers in the earlier grades by providing reading instruction during the summer time and after school during the school year.  Some states are giving additional assistance at the kindergarten level, using research based reading instruction, intensive reading intervention strategies and a longer summer school program.

Let’s hope that best practices that show promise are shared by all and that the movement continues until we get most of our children reading on grade level by the end of grade three.


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