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Five levers to improve early literacy in North Carolina

Despite North Carolina’s best efforts, third-grade reading test scores over the past five years (2014-2018) have gone in the wrong direction. The percentage of children scoring at the lowest levels on the North Carolina End-of-Grade (EOG) third-grade reading test has increased while the percentage of students reading at the highest levels has decreased. 1

At Read Charlotte, we have searched high and low for the most effective strategies to move more children along the Reading Success Pathway. We believe there are five levers to improve early literacy:

  1. Great teaching (pre-K through third grade)
  2. Empowering families (birth through third grade)
  3. Building home libraries (birth through third grade)
  4. High-quality, targeted tutoring (kindergarten through third grade)
  5. Summer reading (kindergarten through third grade)

Although other factors also affect children’s reading development, we are confident in the power of these five levers working together to improve third-grade reading achievement.

Lever 1: Great teaching (pre-K through third grade)

“Students’ academic learning occurs principally in classrooms as students interact with teachers around subject matter. How we organize and operate a school has a major effect on the instructional exchanges in its classrooms.” — Anthony S. Bryk, President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

It’s obvious that improving reading achievement requires great teaching. In pre-Kindergarten and three- and four-year-old child care classrooms, we have to help children build skills to be ready to learn to read when they start school. This means strengthening language, vocabulary, and oral comprehension. It also involves teaching letter names and letter sounds. The combination of (1) evidence-based early literacy curricula like Read It Once Again; (2) direct assessment of children’s progress on emergent literacy skills with a tool like myIGDIs; (3) assessment of classroom literacy environment and teacher practices with a tool like ELLCO; and, (4) embedded teacher coaching and professional development together provide early educators with the tools they need to build these skills.

From kindergarten through third grade, great teaching requires (1) a guaranteed and viable curriculum that is vertically and horizontally aligned with grade-level standards; (2) strong whole group and small group explicit instruction that teach children how to read with plenty of classroom time spent practicing reading, with supportive corrective feedback; (3) embedded, real-time coaching and professional development; and (4) strong collaboration and engagement among teaching staff. The best performing classrooms and schools show us what’s already possible under current conditions for reading achievement. The key to improvement is to focus on this variation in performance between classrooms and across schools (especially those with similar socioeconomic demographics) and put in place improvement cycles that allow us continuously to get better at getting better.

Lever 2: Empowering families (birth through third grade)

“Stimulate literacy routines at home and school that systematically build skills and knowledge over time.” — Professor James Kim, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Although it is universally understood that families play a critical role in children’s development, less appreciated is what exactly families do at home that makes a difference for reading. The “Home Literacy Model” says there are three things parents do at home to help their children learn to read: (1) interactive shared reading – which we promote as Active Reading in Charlotte-Mecklenburg; (2) teach letters and letter sounds; and, (3) teach how to write letters and their children’s names. Children whose families practice these literacy routines before school entry start off at higher levels of reading readiness; children whose families continue these routines finish third grade at higher levels of reading proficiency.

Over a dozen empirical studies validate the Home Literacy Model for families across socioeconomic backgrounds and in multiple countries. In fall 2017, we tested the presence of the Home Literacy Model in meetings with 34 families in five high-poverty schools in Mecklenburg County. We asked principals to invite families of fourth-graders who scored at College and Career Ready on the third-grade reading test in spring 2017. We never shared about the Home Literacy Model; the families only knew that we wanted to learn how they grew strong readers. All of the families, including the half who raised their children speaking Spanish at home, did all three parts of the Home Literacy Model as predicted.

Lever 3: Building home libraries (birth through third grade)

“There is no question that activities such as read-alouds and discussion of good books can lead to more reading…but the necessary condition for encouraging reading is access to reading material.” — Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus, University of Southern California

Every two years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assesses the reading and math abilities of fourth- and eighth-graders across the country, including the state of North Carolina. The NAEP also asks students a series of questions, including how many books there are in their homes. The average North Carolina fourth-grader who reported fewer than 10 books at home scored below basic on the 2017 NAEP reading assessment. By contrast, the average North Carolina fourth-grader with more than 100 books at home was only a few points shy of proficient on the NAEP.

What about student motivation to read? When we combine the number of books at home with student reported interest in reading, we find an even greater impact of books. North Carolina fourth-graders who report moderate to high levels of interest in reading but few books at home on average scored at the basic reading level on the 2017 NAEP. However, fourth-graders with the same level of interest in reading with more than 100 books at home on average scored proficient in reading.

Helping to instill a love of reading is important, but it’s also essential to have books to love.

Do students need to have physical books? Can e-books take the place of “tree books”? The truth is we don’t know yet; the research hasn’t caught up with the technology. It may be helpful to be aware, however, that the people closest to the development of digital technologies significantly restrict their own children’s use of them.

Lever 4: High-quality, targeted tutoring (kindergarten through third grade)

“One of the most effective ways to improve education is by giving students personalized attention during tutoring sessions. Devoting more time to one-on-one education increases children’s ability to concentrate on the areas that they are struggling with and get feedback on their work.” — Professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Harvard University

One of the most direct ways the community can help improve third-grade reading achievement is through high-quality, targeted tutoring. Our view is that tutoring programs should help students accelerate mastery of targeted literacy skills so that they can more fully benefit from regular classroom instruction. The most effective volunteer tutoring programs use structured evidence-based interventions, provide sufficient training and ongoing support, target appropriate students for the intervention, ensure students receive proper “dosage” on a regular basis, and check student progress along the way.

To use volunteer-based tutoring to improve reading achievement, we believe there are two immediate opportunities for communities across the state of North Carolina:

  • Reading buddies. Strong reading buddy programs targeted primarily at kindergarteners infused with Active Reading’s evidence-informed ABC strategy (ask open-ended questions, build vocabulary, connect the text to children’s worlds) to build language, vocabulary and oral comprehension skills. To learn more about Active Reading check out the book I co-authored for details.
  • Fluency. We estimate up to 20 percent of students in a given second or third grade cohort can sound out individual words but can’t read with enough speed or accuracy to understand what they are reading. Train and support volunteers to use the evidence-based, research-validated HELPS fluency program with students to build their reading fluency.

For phonics and comprehension, we offer the following recommendations:

  • Phonics. Augustine Literacy Project© is an evidence-informed model that provides intensive one-on-one tutoring for students primarily in grades one-three; tutors receive 40+ hours of training and provide one-on-one tutoring for about 50 minutes twice a week. Sound Partners is an evidence-based, scripted one-on-one K-3 intervention that requires 30 minutes a day four days a week. Although both of these programs work (for phonics and more), the challenge is figuring out how to serve enough students given the required time commitments. We’re looking for another volunteer-friendly evidence-based option to add to the mix.
  • Comprehension. Most of the evidence-based reading comprehension interventions we’ve reviewed are more suitable for classroom instruction. (The exception is HELPS, which even though it is a fluency-focused program, has proven impact on reading comprehension—about ten times as large as the typical evidence-based literacy intervention.) For now, we’d recommend focusing volunteer tutoring on other reading skills and leave reading comprehension to classroom teachers and reading specialists.

Lever 5: Summer reading (kindergarten through third grade)

“What we know is that approximately 80% of the reading achievement gap between children from low- and middle-income families stems from summer reading loss.” — Professor Richard Allington and Professor Anne McGill-Franzen, University of Tennessee

Much of the literacy achievement gap is actually a summer gap. Children who do not continue to read over the summer can lose three or more months of learning. This disproportionately affects low-income children and is cumulative over time. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell summarizes research by Karl Alexander on differences in summer reading gains among children in Baltimore City Public Schools over four years between the summers after first grade and fourth grade. Middle-income students’ cumulative reading gains over this time are 27 times larger than low-income students; high-income students’ gains are a whopping 202 times higher.

A 2013 meta-study by James Kim and David Quinn found both classroom- and home-based efforts can stem summer reading loss. Separate research by James Kim found that reading four or five books over the summer could be enough to stave off the summer slide. Expansion of multi-week daytime programs can help, but limitations in funding and available seats means we’ll likely have to be creative to encourage kids to keep reading over the summer.

As longtime reading advocate Professor Stephen Krashen says, “sometimes a single, brief exposure to good reading material can result in a clear increase in enthusiasm for reading.”

All of our work on Levers 1-4 will be for naught if we don’t figure this out.

It’s up to us

Learning to read is the most important job of children in elementary school. But children don’t teach themselves to read. And schools can’t do it on their own. It’s up to all of us to help students in our communities move along the Reading Success Pathway. We all have a role to play to pull these five levers together to change the trajectory of early literacy in our state.

Although the past five years of Read To Achieve didn’t produce the results we want, we can rewrite the story for the next five years.

Improvement can begin with as few as 25 more third-graders at College and Career Ready in our most challenged schools. We’re ready to do our part in Mecklenburg County in partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other local stakeholders. We hope others will join us in pulling these five levers in the other 99 counties in the state.

Show 1 footnote

  1. On an annualized basis, the percentage of students scoring at Level 1 and 2 on the North Carolina End-of-Grade (EOG) third-grade reading test increased by 2 percent each year (from 39.8 percent to 44 percent) while the percentage of students scoring at College and Career Ready (Level 4 and 5) decreased each year by 1.2 percent (from 47.7 percent to 45 percent).
Munro Richardson

Munro Richardson is the executive director of Read Charlotte, a community initiative that unites families, educators and community partners to improve children’s literacy from birth to third grade with the goal of achieving 80% reading proficiency in Mecklenburg County by 2025.