What If the Answer Is More Reading?

by Tim McHugh, co-owner and VP of Sales/Marketing at Saddleback Educational Publishing.

Educators have done an amazing job adapting to what many have compared to a “100-year storm,” but hurdles such as access to technology have proved especially challenging. Even worse, these challenges hit many of our less fortunate students the hardest (and this will likely continue in the fall). How can we talk about equity for learners if we don’t provide an equal opportunity for all students?  

Access to technology has been just part of the problem, as a recently released survey from the American Institute for Research revealed. Analysis of the survey results found a direct correlation between other pressing needs and reduced time spent on instruction within high-poverty districts as compared to those in wealthier areas: 

“Districts serving high proportions of students in poverty, of course, have had to cope with many pressing needs during the first months of the pandemic, like food distribution and device access, and thus high-poverty districts may not have been able to spend as much time on virtual instruction or new content.” 

Mike Garet, VP of American Institute for Research (AIR), in Chalkbeat

Technology alone will not give many of our students the ability to compete on a level playing field. It’s simply not realistic to provide internet connectivity and hardware to all of the 56 million students in the United States quickly enough to ensure nobody falls behind. But it is both possible and affordable to provide books to all students.  

Why books? If you teach a student to read, the test will take care of itself. I’m paraphrasing a statement that I heard from a superintendent at a conference over ten years ago. It’s so simple, and it’s absolutely true. Why, then, during the pandemic, are we not laser-focused on reading? What if we simplified everything and focused on reading? Students could read books on topics such as STEM, diversity, social justice, history, paranormal events, math, science fiction, and classics. Although we might not hit each subject area exactly as we would during in-person learning, we can provide a depth and breadth of background knowledge and differentiate our instruction in all subject areas while improving students’ literacy skills. The NAEP test results from 2019, or “the nation’s report card,” were sobering and serve to remind us just how important improving literacy is:

“Overall, fourth-graders scored 1 point lower on this year’s (2019) reading exam than they did in 2017, a trend that was driven by drops among white and black students. Eighth-grade scores fell by 3 points over that time, a pattern seen across all racial and ethnic groups except Asian and Pacific Islander students, whose scores remained steady.”

Kalyn Belsha, in Chalkbeat

Not only did the scores not improve, but the stats have remained unchanged for about 30 years, in that only one-third of our students are reading at a proficient level. 

Here is what I’d like to propose: Let’s shift our academic focus to reading this fall. Why reading? Reading experts all agree, reading is a fundamental skill that impacts every aspect of a child’s academic success and is a key component for quality of life. Students who read independently achieve higher test scores. School closures will no doubt lead to a decrease in overall academic achievement, and we must stop the “COVID slide.” What better way to attack this problem than with books?

How Do We Get Books into Kids’ Hands? 

The biggest hurdle to reading is access to books. How are our most vulnerable students going to access books? If we can distribute food to students, why can’t we also give them books? There are many stories of school districts and nonprofits (and even individuals) providing physical books to students during the first few months of pandemic. Here are some examples: 

  • Des Moines Public Schools: hand delivered packets of books, journals, and art supplies to all middle school ELL/newcomer students 
  • Broward County, FL: distributed over 240,000 books for their summer reading program 
  • Springfield, Massachusetts schools: used food distribution sites to provide books packs for all ELL and secondary special education students in their district 
  • First Book (nonprofit): distributed over one million books in NYC via food distribution sites and shelters 
  • Cleveland mom (individual): started a nonprofit focused on stopping the summer/COVID slide by bringing books to children in low-income neighborhoods 

Books are plentiful and inexpensive (compared to hardware, internet, and digital curriculum), and implementing reading programs is not unfamiliar to schools. We have the skills at the teacher, district, and often, even the parent level to help our kids read. We simply need to give our kids access to books. We have authors/actors such as Kwame Alexander, Laurie Halse Anderson, Josh Gad, Oprah Winfrey, and Mo Williams doing free read-alouds, and publishers are giving rights to teachers and students to use their books in different ways during the pandemic. For educators, the world is your oyster when it comes to the plethora of interactive reading experiences and resources available online.  

Whether your district is continuing remote learning, using a hybrid model, or returning to in-person instruction, change is inevitable. No matter which approach we choose, our best laid plans can always go awry. But, if we provide our students with access to books (digital or physical) and we implement a serious reading plan, we will be more successful at moving our students forward than we were last spring. Imagine if we enter 2021 and our students are better and more confident readers, simply because we focused on reading and gave them access to books this fall. Let’s get back to reading. It’s that simple.  

References

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