Letter to the Editor: Is your child becoming a proficient reader in school? Statistics would say no 

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Research has shown students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. These students are more likely to live in poverty, rely on public assistance and experience poor health outcomes. | pexels.com

Pre-pandemic 2019 Quincy Public Schools Illinois Report Card Data compiled by Wirepoints shows only 25.9 percent of third grade students met or exceeded grade level reading standards, while reading proficiency in Black students fell to only 3.1 percent. Updated Report Card data for 2021 shows further declines statewide.

Unfortunately, this literacy tragedy is not unique to QPS but representative of a national problem. 2022 National data compiled by the National Assessment of Education Performance, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, reveals only 33 percent of all fourth graders are reading at a proficient level. 

Why is this important? 

Research has shown students who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. These students are more likely to live in poverty, rely on public assistance and experience poor health outcomes. Even more concerning is that 85 percent of youths who interface with the juvenile court system struggle to read, while 70 percent of incarcerated adults cannot read at the fourth grade level. This is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. 

But how did we get here? 

I wrote about my personal journey as both a parent and community pediatrician of struggling readers in January 2021 in Contemporary Pediatrics. In addition to attending dyslexia conferences, reporting by educational reporter Emily Hanford from American Public Media has opened my eyes and understanding to how the dominant approach to literacy instruction utilized in most school districts, including QPS, is not supported by research. Hanford powerfully provides this background in her recent podcast, Sold a Story. 

Think about times when you’re reading with your child. Do you feel like they’re guessing when they read? Do you notice them relying on pictures to figure out words? Or that they can identify one sound but are stumped when asked to put the sounds together in longer words? Many of these lacks of skills are due to the three-cueing method taught in our school district today, but evidence shows this is not how our children learn to read proficiently. Check out the Purple Challenge video and see for yourself how reliance on pictures instead of sounding out words changes our early readers’ comprehension. 

Children need curriculums using evidence-based instruction known as Structured Literacy (systematic and explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension). According to Nancy Young’s Reading Ladder, up to 65 percent of all readers require a Structured Literacy approach to succeed. But as Sold a Story points out, it is not just about teaching more phonics but also eradicating the three-cueing method that is the foundation of our Balanced Literacy curriculums based on Fountas & Pinnell and Lucy Calkins. 

QPS is a Balanced Literacy district that utilizes both F&P and Calkins for literacy instruction. Currently the only peer-reviewed research study that assessed the accuracy of F&P Benchmark Assessment System revealed that using this system would only identify 31 out of 100 struggling readers. It was no better than flipping a coin. 

QPS also uses the reading intervention program Reading Recovery, which Hanford discusses in Sold a Story. Reading Recovery is an intensive 1:1 teacher to student intervention that cost roughly $10,000 per student which is equal to what QPS typically spends to educate one student for the entire school year. The program relies on three-cuing and leveled books. 

landmark study was published last year that found that “children who received Reading Recovery had scores on state reading tests in third and fourth grade that were below the test scores of similar children who did not receive Reading Recovery” and that “students who were in Reading Recovery were more likely than the comparison group to receive further intervention, which undercuts the program’s claims that children who are successful in the program won’t need further reading intervention.”

How can our community help our school district find solutions for our low literacy rates? At the time of this writing, members of the District Improvement Team are evaluating literacy curriculums to present at the upcoming Feb. 16 meeting. This evaluation occurs on a 5-year cycle. I have attended the last three DIT meetings, and at the recent December meeting, I provided the following public comment to advise the committee of my experience as a parent of two dyslexic children as well as to introduce our recently formed parent advocacy group, Literacy Advocates of West Central Illinois

Everyone concerned about literacy in our community should attend the next DIT meeting on Feb. 16. States and school districts throughout the nation are showing great success in increasing literacy rates when using evidence-based instruction. The State of Tennessee’s success in literacy curriculum reform and Massachusetts’ adoption of the open-source curriculum Appleseeds are two of many examples of state-wide initiatives. Also, many companies provide training and/or design curriculums follow evidence-based practices that districts are using to help increase literacy rates.  

Most important, our community needs to be involved in supporting administrators and teachers in this vital pivot in curriculum reform. As Hanford said, “Largely, I think it’s really important to recognize this is not the fault of our teachers … I have not run into a teacher who doesn’t want to teach their students how to read.” 

Literacy challenges are complex, but evidence-based instruction is a crucial step toward tackling these challenges. Our community needs to support efforts to equip all educators with the training, support, and materials they need to get all children to literacy proficiency.

Please join us for our next Literacy Advocates of West Central Illinois parent meeting from 6-7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7 at the Quincy Public Library.

Dr. Todd R. Porter
Pediatrician
Quincy Medical Group

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