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Teaching and leading literacy


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The ability to read is fundamental to full participation in a democratic society and serves as the basis for ongoing opportunity and success.

Unfortunately, children who do not learn to read well typically do not perform well in school and might have subsequent challenges in the workplace and civic life. Though North Carolina recently added increased standards for teacher licensure in the area of reading instruction, there are four reasons North Carolina must further elevate training to support a new generation of literacy specialists in our schools.

1. Many students in North Carolina do not read at levels necessary for success in school and life.

In our state, 65 percent of fourth-grade students in 2013 scored below proficiency on reading, with only 8 percent of students performing at an advanced level. These numbers are more extreme for students from low-income families, with 78 percent of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch scoring below proficiency. The National Assessment of Educational Progress data trend for eighth-grade reading performance is slightly worse than that for fourth grade.

2. The recently enacted legislation, Read to Achieve in the Excellent Public Schools Act, requires all students to read at grade level by the end of third grade.

If students are not reading at grade level by third grade, this law requires that they receive special assistance, including a summer reading camp and other interventions to ensure fourth-grade reading readiness. In 2013, nearly 55 percent of North Carolina’s third-grade students did not read at grade level. Under the new legislation, students who do not demonstrate third-grade reading proficiency after a variety of interventions are retained.

A 2012 study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation underscores the seriousness of the third-grade reading issue, suggesting that about 1 in 6 children who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade will not graduate from high school on time and are likely to drop out. The report asserts that the stakes for reducing the dropout rate are indeed high for at least two reasons: Most jobs over the next decade will require at least some level of higher education, and broader societal and economic impacts, including global competitiveness at the state and national level, are linked to dropout rates.

3. We have rigorous standards in North Carolina that require teacher expertise in the areas of foundational reading (grades K-5) and advanced reading (grades 6-12).

Among other emphases, the standards require increased reading of informational text, growth in academic vocabulary, text-based questions and answers, and literacy instruction within and across core disciplines. Although the new standards as a whole are under review by the N.C. Academic Standards Review Commission and will change, it is likely that the reading standards will remain high. Teachers who are reading specialists and literacy coaches are key in supporting school personnel through sustained, customized professional development in high-impact strategies for K-12 reading instruction.

4. Reading today is more complex than ever before.

Not only do students need to be able to successfully decode and comprehend narrative and informational print texts, they also need to be critical consumers and producers of digital texts. Although school-age children are digital natives, they must learn digital citizenship, including how to critically read and evaluate online resources for accuracy and credibility. Likewise, they need to know how to create digital content that is both academically sound and aesthetically appealing. All students must have these skills, including our students who struggle with basic reading.

There is a projected continuing decline in the number of teachers with specialized training in literacy education due to North Carolina legislation that removed financial incentives for teachers to pursue advanced degrees that lead to the advanced reading specialist license. At a time when the need for literacy expertise is at an all-time high in clinical and classroom settings, fewer teachers are acquiring advanced literacy training.

Expanding the roles of the next generation of reading specialists in schools is a strategic investment that will contribute to increased student reading proficiency in North Carolina schools.

We need to support all teachers who want to continue their development as professionals – including those who want to become reading specialists in North Carolina schools.

Dr. Hiller A. Spires

Dr. Spires, who has been on the NC State faculty since 1986, serves as associate dean of NC State’s College of Education and executive director of the Friday Institute. She is also a Professor of Literacy and Technology in the Department of Teacher Education and Learning Sciences.