Identify and Individualize: How to Catch Struggling Readers Early

It is a sad fact, but it is true: children who cannot read by nine rarely catch up to their peers.  

In 2019, only 25 percent of Alaskan fourth-graders were proficient in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and almost half of fourth-graders could not read at a basic level. The consequences of failing to read range from negative attitudes toward reading, reduced vocabulary, poor reading comprehension, to understanding less than half of the curriculum at higher grade levels and being at higher risk of dropping out of high school. 

Helping students read by nine requires testing with intention in early grades and creating individualized reading plans for those who are struggling. Without early intervention, Alaskan students risk falling through the cracks.  

Children who struggle to read can be identified as early as the second semester of kindergarten, and testing with intention at the beginning of first grade allows teachers and parents to intervene early. Identifying at-risk readers as early as possible prevents serious failures later, preserves crucial months of reading practice, and allows at-home and in-school interventions to begin. In addition, early testing conserves teacher resources and focuses valuable instruction on at-risk readers.  

There are some telltale signs of reading difficulties that simple tests can identify: at-risk readers generally have trouble “sounding out” words and are unable to rapidly recognize words they’ve read before. Simple assessments in kindergarten often focus on “letter identification”in other words, do children recognize and tell apart letters, especially ones that look similar? Tests in first grade begin to assess “phonemic awareness,” which means identifying the sounds in words as corresponding to letters and manipulating those sounds.  

The good news? Assessing letter-identification is as predictive at identifying at-risk readers as more comprehensive tests, which means assessments could be quick, simple, and administered multiple times a year at minimal cost and little time investment.  

Testing with intention, but without intervening, is meaningless. Once struggling readers are identified, establishing an individualized reading plan for each provides a blueprint for effective intervention. Individualized reading plans use research-based interventions and set clear goals to prevent students from “cycling” through the same curriculum that is leaving them behind.  

The most obvious benefit of individual reading plans is that teachers and parents are put into direct, regular communication with each other about the student’s progress. An effective individual reading plan quantifies deficiencies and outlines research-based, in-school interventions, as well as strategies for the parents. Reading plans are adhered to until the student reaches proficiency, and progress (or lack thereof) should be considered for third-grade merit-based promotion.  

Consider a template reading plan from Michigan and Wyoming, and guidance from Nebraska and Mississippi. Individualized reading plans have the flexibility to adapt to specific children’s needs and templates are created by schools and districts, not the state. Although an individualized reading plan often acts as documentation, its primary goal is to be a tool documenting nuance about reading proficiency, establishing evidence-based interventions, and providing ideas for home support. Reading plans, at a minimum, ought to document deficiencies, goals and benchmarks for growth, how progress will be monitored, type of additional instruction, the research-based instructional programming the teacher will use, strategies for the parents to use at home, and any additional services. Mississippi has seen a 10-point increase in fourth grade reading NAEP scores since 2013’s passage of the Mississippi Literacy-Based Promotion Act, with four of those points being after a 2016 amendment to include individualized reading plans. Mississippi’s fourth-graders now outpace Alaska by more than a year in reading.  

A comprehensive policy to help children read by nine should begin school-based reading tests in kindergarten, as 27 states currently have statewide literacy screeners in kindergarten, and Florida tests all kindergarten students in the first thirty days of school. Students should also be tested during the first thirty days of first grade, as happens in Mississippi, to maximize the amount of time left to intervene. Individualized reading plans should be delivered to parents of at-risk students within fifteen days of the teacher receiving results back — the earlier intervention begins, the better. Regular communication between teachers and parents, at least once every two weeks, is necessary, and students should adhere to the reading plan until they are proficient. 

Alaska’s reading crisis is an untenable situation for students, parents, teachers, and Alaska’s economy. A comprehensive, state-based read-by-nine policy would require testing with intention in early grade levels and creating individualized reading plans for Alaska’s struggling readers. Without early testing and evidence-based intervention, we are dooming almost half of Alaska’s children to fail.