Reading by age nine is a crucial element of academic and professional success for Alaska’s students. Students who enter fourth grade reading fluently can learn the material; students who do not enter fourth grade reading proficiently rarely catch up to their peers in reading and often struggle with classwork. Only 25 percent of Alaska’s fourth graders were proficient in reading on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam.
A strong reading program, beginning in kindergarten and continuing into third grade, is composed of several complementary elements such as identifying and individualizing plans for struggling students, as well as soliciting parental involvement, are critical. However, these factors make little difference if teachers are not using science-based instruction methods. Teachers must be intensively trained and given coaching support to use these methods effectively.
Which methods effectively teach children how to read? The debate rages on, but research from the National Reading Panel supports phonics-based methods. or the idea that certain combinations of letters make certain, predictable sounds – and those sounds form words with meanings. Struggling readers benefit enormously from being explicitly taught letter-sound relationships; systematic phonics instruction has also been found effective in English-language learners and students with disabilities. Phonics also benefits students who begin to decode words without being explicitly taught, as phonics can fill gaps in knowledge of spelling patterns and words that haven’t yet been encountered.
Although phonics is certainly not all-encompassing, grammar, background knowledge, and vocabulary cannot lead to comprehension unless children can reliably decode the words on the page. It cannot be assumed that all teachers’ college educations delved deeply into the science of reading; intensive training is necessary, as Mississippi shows.
Mississippi’s Literacy-Based Promotion Act, passed in 2013, employs several strategies such as intervention and parental involvement. The pivotal component for teachers is the Language Essentials for Teaching Reading and Spelling (LETRS) training, which trained all K-3 teachers during the 2014-2015 school year. LETRS trains teachers over eight units in the fundamentals of instruction, focusing on “phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.” LETRS is improving the quality of literacy instruction in Mississippi, according to a 2017 study examining the impact and outcomes. Among the state’s identified literacy support schools, instructional quality, student engagement, and teaching competencies increased.
Reading is an indispensable component of academic and professional success. An effective reading policy to help children read by age nine should include early testing, individualized reading plans, parental involvement, and intensive teacher training. Training teachers in science-based methods and providing them with support to implement these methods is critical to helping Alaska’s students succeed.