Elementary Reading in ASD

  • Teacher and student reading at desk

    Reading -- A Worthy Race

    By Dr. Deena Bishop


    When students engage with teachers and schools, it can be a process described as magical or in broader terms, successful. Success for life is the mission statement of the Anchorage School District. We are a vehicle and conduit, along with parents, through which students learn, grow, and develop skills, knowledge, and life application. There is nothing more foundational to building success than learning to read. 


    The other day, a member in the community asked me, “What are the effects if students don’t learn to read by fourth grade?” This question weighs on my mind. The results are devastating and place students at a disadvantage for future success. These students have run an unfair race.



    David A. Kilpatrick tells a poignant story in the opening pages of his guide, Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties (2015). He narrates the “unfair race” this way:


    “Picture yourself attending a high school track meet. The athletes are lining up for the 1,600-meter race, which requires four laps around the track. There are six lanes on the track, and you notice that in one lane is a set of high hurdles and in another lane is a set of low hurdles. The other four lanes have no hurdles. When the gun sounds, the runners in the two lanes with the hurdles are soon behind the other runners and continue to get farther behind as the race progresses. The runner in the lane with the high hurdles is the farthest behind. As the race goes on, the gap widens. There is almost no likelihood that either of these runners will catch up with the others. The whole event seems surreal and quite unfair—even painful to watch.


    This scenario has close parallels to the development of reading skills among our K–12 students. The top two-thirds of students, as represented by the four lanes without hurdles, take off down the track and have nothing hindering them from running. The bottom third has differing degrees of hindrance based upon how high their hurdles are. Just as one-third of the runners had hurdles, the National Assessment of Educational Progress [NAEP] indicates that each year, about 30% to 34% of fourth graders in the United States read below a basic level.” 


    The reading outcomes in Alaska fall below this national level. The percentage of students in Alaska who performed at the NAEP Below Basic level was 44 percent in 2017. For many students, even students in ASD, reading is an unfair race. It can be the story of the fourth grader that did not learn to read. It is our job to remove the hurdles and provide a course for success. To that end, ASD has begun a journey to remove the obstacles before the race begins and monitor the race as it proceeds, removing hurdles ahead of the runners in motion. Our journey requires change.


    More than a decade had passed since the last English Language Arts (reading) curriculum was adopted. Rigorous new standards and learning methodologies required a new curriculum. Two years ago, 68 elementary teachers from across the District participated in the curriculum selection and recommendations for adoption. Because teachers in our classrooms, along with our students, are the first and most obvious users of textbooks and other materials, they are the most listened-to voices in the room. The overwhelming choice was Cengage Reach for Reading (a National Geographic program). Following the selection, the K-2 curriculum was purchased and implemented in 2017-18; grades 3-5 curriculum was purchased and is being implemented this year.


    I recognize change is not easy. The implementation of a new reading series materializes on multiple levels and is a learning process for all involved. High level planning is accomplished through educational teams researching and incorporating best practices. Educators are highly engaged in learning the curriculum and new teaching practices. Curriculum provides the substance; however, delivery of curricula resides with the experts in the classroom, our teachers. Their passion, energy, and pedagogical skills make curriculum come alive. They build relationships and provide the clarity and relevance to engage students.  Monitoring of the journey is an everyday occurrence; learning expertise equips teachers to make instructional decisions to meet student needs, removing the hurdles that slow some down without influencing the speed of the race for others. High quality reading instruction benefits all learners. The new reading curriculum is for all students – it is for their learning, their excitement of knowing, and their success in completing a fair race. Our job as educators is to ensure that success. Learning to read lasts a lifetime and unlocks opportunities to engage in choices in this 21st century.


    We hear our parents’ voices. They send their children to us to learn and to learn well, whether they are advanced learners or need re-teaching – they must learn well in a fair race. Every story a child shares with his/her mom, dad, grandmother, and other caretakers, becomes a thread in the narrative of that child’s entire school experience. When a child enters into a story or plays out an example from what they have read on a given day – maybe they don a cape and pretend to save the world, or gather interesting facts from nature on a hike, or imagine they can be that research scientist, that building engineer, or that production project manager. All of these stories fill a child’s mind as they read and collect experiences. We hear their stories in the ride to school, at the dinner table, and on the walk with the dog. The experiences play out in our adult lives as successful careers, relationships, and community commitments.


    In continuing to explore where we are in this season of learning, parents and community members may know that ASD adopted Common Core State Standards in 2012. The Common Core State Standards “set requirements not only for English language arts (ELA) but also for literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects.” (For more, listen to a Conversation: A Three-Minute Video on Common Core State Standards.)


    From a teacher’s perspective, learning to read is a complex puzzle. Learning to read is the gatekeeper for wanting to read and continuing to learn. It begins with what educators know as phonemic awareness, including breaking down syllables into the smallest pieces, phonemes. Made up of these discrete sounds, the small phonemes join with more pieces in written language. How well a child can recognize, learn, and use these discrete sounds is the key to foundational reading success.


    Children who are not reading by the time they reach fourth grade may not catch up. According to Donald J. Hernandez’s research in “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” as many as one-sixth of children who are not reading by the end of third grade fail to graduate high school. (https://www.aecf.org/resources/double-jeopardy.) It is our job to remove as many hurdles as possible – to teach to high aspirations – as the children of the community are in our charge and care. We are responsible; as such, we hold ourselves accountable to ensure a fair race for our students. As an educational leader, I am committed to this worthy cause.

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Last Modified on July 1, 2022