The importance of reading well by the end of third grade cannot be understated for fourth-grade achievement. Students who do not read proficiently by the end of fourth grade often do not catch up to their peers. But Alaska’s students are overwhelmingly not meeting grade-level standards: only 21% of Alaska’s third graders were reading proficiently on the 2022 Alaska System for Academic Readiness (AK STAR). Using high-quality instructional materials, as well as delivering additional, targeted instruction outside of school hours, is critically important for students to catch up.
The Alaska Reads Act, which was passed in 2022, has several requirements and options for districts to improve student outcomes in reading. This article covers the importance of using high-quality instructional materials, one-on-one and small group interventions, summer programs, and parental read-at-home programs to help struggling students catch up to grade level. Giving districts guidelines to follow does not guarantee they will be implemented effectively; ensuring teachers are provided with the tools and resources they need is a pivotal component to the success of the Alaska Reads Act’s implementation in the upcoming 2023-2024 school year.
High-Quality Instructional Materials
Requiring teachers to demonstrate a common baseline understanding of the science of reading for certification is an important first step to ensuring that educators deliver science-based instruction to their students. However, the choices districts make in their materials and core curricula matter greatly. If teachers are not provided with high-quality instructional materials aligned with the science of reading and state standards, they cannot be expected to get the same results and piece together coherent lessons from lower-quality, and often disconnected, resources found online.
The Alaska Reads Act requires that interventions be based on the science of reading and have proven results. According to CurriculumHQ, Alaska does not provide guidance to its districts on adopting high-quality instructional materials. However, Alaska’s plan for spending Covid funds includes reference to the use of contractors for “researching and organizing high-quality instructional materials.”
In comparison, Nebraska facilitates sharing materials and professional development with teachers and districts through the Nebraska Instructional Materials Collaborative. The Collaborative was formed to highlight high-quality instructional materials aligned with Nebraska standards and create opportunities for professional development. Nebraska also provides significant guidance to its districts on how to select, adopt, and implement high-quality instructional materials. This is similar to the professional development aspects of the Alaska virtual education consortium that must be developed by DEED no later than July 1, 2024. The consortium encompasses reading alongside other subjects and emphasizes virtual instruction techniques.
Small-Group Intervention Outside of School Hours
Delivering the additional one-on-one or small group instructional time necessary to help students struggling the most in reading can mean finding time outside of regular school hours. The Alaska Reads Act recognizes that students struggling in reading may need extra support outside of regular English language arts instruction time and provides guidelines for delivering intensive interventions both during and outside of school hours.
Students scoring at the lowest achievement level on the statewide screening tool are at the highest risk of not meeting grade-level standards. The Alaska Reads Act requires that these students be provided “reading intervention services outside of regular school hours.” For those students still at risk of a reading deficiency, but not in the lowest achievement level, interventions should be implemented “during regular school hours through any available method.” The Alaska Reads Act requires that students struggling in reading receive “daily targeted small group reading instruction based on student needs, either in person or online.” The number of students in small groups is not defined in statute, but districts must submit plans to DEED for approval that specify their district’s maximum group sizes.
In Michigan, after students are identified as needing an IRIP, students must receive supplemental instruction from a teacher, tutor, or volunteer with specialized reading training. The instruction can occur during school hours but must be outside of regular English language arts classroom time. Michigan also provides separate funding to districts through an application process to provide before, during, and after-school intervention for pre-K to grade three students with reading deficiencies.
Academic gaps widen over the summer months when instruction is not occurring. This gap is worse for children in low-income families, who lose one to three months in reading and two months in math, while students in high-income families make slight gains. Alaskan communities have routinely hosted voluntary summer reading programs attached to local public libraries, but helping the state to facilitate summer programs hosted by schools and districts that give priority to students falling behind in reading on the screener would help to get the extra hours of instruction time those students need.
In 2021, Tennessee passed the Tennessee Learning Loss Remediation and Student Acceleration Act to establish summer and after-school learning for students entering grades first through fifth grades in 2021 and 2022. The law also established a summer bridge camp for students entering sixth through eighth. The programs were specifically designed to mitigate learning loss due to schools’ pandemic responses and were funded through federal Covid relief funds. Using short-term funds for short-term programs is fiscally responsible and targeting the funding to specifically address learning loss meets the intention of Covid relief funds.
Parents also play a crucial role in helping their children’s literacy skills at home. Some common variations include “read-at-home” plans outlined in a parental contract, at-home components to individual reading plans, participation in parent training workshops, or parent-guided home reading activities. Providing parents with recommendations and resources to use at home as soon as, and even before, their child is identified at risk of a reading deficiency is crucial for student success.
Under the Alaska Reads Act, the parents of students struggling with reading are to be given a “list of adult literacy resources and organizations” and opportunities to participate in training workshops as a part of the student’s IRIP. The district must put in place a read-at-home plan for students who do not progress to the next grade or progress under a waiver. The plan includes “parent or guardian participation in training workshops and regular parent or guardian-guided home reading activities.”
Arizona is another good example of a state education department providing many resources and activities for parents to use at home. Arizona’s Building Blocks to Becoming a Reader, Early Literacy Guide for Families, Dyslexia Guide for Families, and Virtual Family Engagement Center are all resources that parents can use at home and year-round. Clear and comprehensive statewide resources for parents to use — even before a reading deficiency is identified, or if a reading deficiency is not identified at all — are a great way to involve parents in their child’s road to literacy.
The Alaska Reads Act sets a framework for students struggling with reading to receive the extra instructional time they need both during and outside of school hours from evidence-based instructional materials. Although teachers are primarily responsible for delivering these intensive interventions, parents have a crucial role in decision-making and should receive the resources they need to support their children at home.