Creating a new focus on literacy

Stephen Pruitt

When I was student, those big, decorated binders with pocket folders were all the rage. Inside, you would have a brightly colored folder for each subject. You would have one folder for math, one for English, one for social studies, and the like.

The classes themselves were much like those folders. Each subject was separate, with very little interaction between any of the assignments or teachers. But once I became a teacher I realized one very important thing. Education doesn’t do its best for students when we’re stuck in a mindset that isolates subjects.

Nowhere has this mindset been more evident than in literacy, one of the most fundamental and important skills each Kentucky student needs to master. For the longest time, literacy was viewed as a distinct skill to be taught in English/language arts classes. As parents and educators, we need to recognize that teaching children to be literate citizens has its place in all of the classes we teach in Kentucky’s schools.

For example, science and reading are inextricably linked. Chemists don’t run off to the lab and start mixing chemicals, hoping to make a big discovery. Science is incremental. Scientists study the published work of their fellow scientists to determine how to take that research to the next level. Science without literacy is impossible.

Here at the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) we’re renewing our commitment to K-3 literacy. Why K-3 literacy? It’s because the 3rd grade is a critical transition point in education where students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. If students aren’t reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, there can be some far-reaching consequences.

According to a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, about 16 percent of students who aren’t reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade do not graduate from high school on time. That rate is four times higher than it is for students who were reading at grade level. The risk is even higher for students whose families struggle economically. Twenty-six percent of students who were classified as poor for at least one year and were not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade failed to graduate high school.

In Kentucky, only 56 percent of our elementary school students tested at the Proficient/Distinguished level in reading during the 2015-16 school year on the K-PREP test. At the middle school level, only 55.2 percent of students scored Proficient or Distinguished. We can do better.

We have to renew our commitment to K-3 literacy in Kentucky, but I don’t mean K-3 literacy in the traditional way. If you have a student who is struggling with reading, you don’t put them in a classroom and make them read for six hours a day. Once again, it requires a whole child approach. Science, math and social studies are subjects that can pique a student’s interest and spark his or her curiosity. That is when learning happens.

I do believe that a child should read 25 books a year, which at the middle and high school levels can add up to roughly 1 million words. But I believe those 1 million words should matter to each child. When my daughter was in school, she didn’t like to read. That was hard for me to accept. I think her lack of enthusiasm for reading happened, in part, because she never made that deep connection between what she was reading and what interested her. Now she plans on becoming a civil rights lawyer, is in college classes that demand massive amounts of reading and she loves it. Finding each student’s passion and developing his or her natural curiosity matters.

We’re already hard at work rethinking old ways and finding new ones to help Kentucky’s students achieve in literacy.

In fall 2017, the U.S. Department of Education awarded KDE a 3-year, $24.9 million Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy grant to support literacy development for children from birth to grade 12. The grant will serve about 200,000 young children and students, and impact nearly 14,000 Kentucky teachers and early learning specialists at 600 sites in up to 45 public school districts.

The objectives of the grant include improving oral language skills and kindergarten readiness for 4-year-olds, increasing reading proficiency at all school levels and increasing content proficiency at the secondary level.

In January, the grant process opened to Kentucky school districts with a large percentage of high-need students. Districts awarded the grant are required to create comprehensive literacy plans that link early childhood providers to elementary schools. The process also requires a strong commitment from local school districts and early learning partners and will require their inclusion in state, district and local literacy teams.

However, reading comprehension alone is not enough. English II students soon will be taking a new end-of-course assessment. In the past, we have used a nationally produced test that focused on comprehension and didn’t ask students to demonstrate their mastery of analytical, argumentative and integration skills. The new assessment is written by Kentucky teachers and aligns directly to the skills outlined in our standards.

We also are revising Kentucky’s K-12 Academic Standards for English/Language Arts, which describe what skills each student should be taught in every English/language arts class at each grade level. KDE is committed to ensuring literacy instruction is grounded in standards that are clear, backed by evidence-based research and promote improved learning outcomes across all disciplines.

This is just the first part of my vision for education in the Commonwealth. You’ll be hearing more about that vision in the coming months and K-3 literacy is a big part of it. I know that these are ambitious plans that will take time and effort, but the goal of increasing the literacy skills of all of Kentucky’s students is well worth the investment.