March 2004 Article for ACSA Journal

Reading Literacy

ACSA Journal
Donna Peterson
March, 2004

One of the delightful parts of my job is working directly with students. When the work of the superintendency seems overwhelming or the demands beyond belief, I have the distinct advantage of being able to visit any one of the 600+ classrooms in any one of the 44 school programs in our district.... which leads me to this column. After being in the business of education for what seems like zillions of years, and being a first grade teacher for several years, the importance of literacy cannot be understated. For purposes of this writing, I'll focus my remarks on reading literacy but it should be understood that I feel just as passionate about mathematical literacy, writing literacy, technology literacy, and cultural literacy.

The observations from classroom walkthroughs give me great hope regarding literacy of our students. Like many other districts, we have adopted a district reading target stating all students will read at grade level by the end of third grade, or have an individualized plan for attaining that goal. The expectation is that when early and appropriate instruction and interventions have occurred to assure reading on grade level by that benchmark, continued one year growth is much more likely throughout the rest of their school years. What has been exciting as we've come in to our own as data analysts is that one of the best predictors of third grade reading success is three one minute probes we do in kindergarten (Dynamic Indicators of Early Literacy). In other words, if we know who is likely to have difficulties later through an easy-to-use, nonintrusive "test," intervening early and often can be a reality in building toward success.

Furthermore, we now know much more about what works with students to improve their reading ability. Most of our problems can be taken care of by either "filling the gaps" or by providing additional time/instruction. For most students, we no longer just guess about an intervention strategy and then check to see what might work when gaps are identified - we directly expose the students to the skills and practice necessary. When the amount of time to learn is an issue, the "do it differently and better" philosophy of double-dipping is making a difference. If we need year round interventions, we've found that summer school is a great investment. Our summer school not only has changed children's lives through appropriate diagnostic interventions but has enhanced the skills of dozens of teachers who take the staff development portion of the summer intervention programs into their regular classrooms in the fall.

I am not saying the arguments are done, but it seems like the phonics vs. whole language debate, at least in our district, has gone the way of rich language experiences taught by highly experienced and successful teachers who use a variety of strategies to meet the needs of all students. The amount of time spent in direct literacy instruction as well as on indirect literacy has doubled in the last few years. A plethora of vertical and horizontal collegial conversation constantly takes place to assure that all students read and read well by the end of elementary school. This is thrilling to see.

Just as thrilling is the rigor of some of the high school students' literacy work. I observed a group of sophomores working jointly on a homework project a couple of weeks ago at a basketball game. This was not your typical homework assignment from my days in school where fill in the blank was the norm. Snippets overheard from this homework conversation included a high level of questioning and analysis regarding evidence of foreshadowing in a story and phrases that depicted evocative language (yes, those were the words the students used) in a poem. I believe that the work on curriculum mapping and concentration on higher level thinking has made discussions like the one overheard much more common. When elementary teachers concentrate on nailing fundamental skills, secondary teachers can expand student assignments that help reinforce reading and learning for the love of learning. Rich, highly interesting print materials at all levels motivate students to be readers. We know that everyone benefits from a solid literacy base. Take time to step back, observe, and celebrate all that is happening in our schools toward that end.