By Adam Young

Special to the Times

Frederick Douglass, author, former slave, and great American said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

The importance of students becoming proficient readers and writers cannot be understated in today’s educational environment.  Research indicates that the demands that college, careers, and citizenship place on readers have either held steady or increased over roughly the last fifty years. College textbook difficulty has increased steadily since 1962 (Stenner, Koons, & Swartz, in press). Word difficulty in every scientific journal has increased since 1930.  And workplace reading, measured in Lexiles, exceeds grade 12 complexity significantly.  In other words, literacy and particularly reading, has taken on an even more important role in 2017 than at any other time in the history.

So, how does society respond?

As an educational system, the WPCSD is embracing its role in stretching students to become better readers, writers, and communicators.  The district’s educators are advancing this literacy mandate in several specific and discrete ways.

The first is through focused classroom instruction.  WPCSD elementary students engage in at least 30 minutes of word work each day.  This includes learning and practicing letter sounds, common combinations of letters, prefixes and suffixes, and spelling and vocabulary work.  Students also spend at least 30 minutes reading.  Each teacher’s goal is to amass a classroom library of at least 500 books so that each student can find the book that is good for him or her. Maya Angelou, 20th Century poet and author said, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his needs, is good for him.”  Additionally, students spend at least 30 minutes writing each day, for a total of 90 minutes of literacy instruction.  As teachers craft their lessons, they are paying special attention to creating opportunities for students to write about their reading, engage in high cognitive demand questioning, and explore complex text as described previously.

The second is through intervention opportunities for those students who need it.  Each student learns uniquely and at a different rate.  So educators have built in extra time and support for students who need it.  Many of these opportunities are funded through the WPCSD’s Read by 3 grant, which provides personnel and training to work with students using evidence based materials and methodologies.  Students receive extra help during the school day, after school, on Fridays, and in the summer.  This additional time and support helps close the gap from where students currently are to where they need to be in today’s climate of college and career readiness for all.

The third is through teacher training.  Study after study asserts that one of the very most influential factors on student achievement is the skill and expertise of the teacher.  WPCSD teachers are digging into research based practices at a rate rarely before seen, understanding the urgency of fine-tuning instructional strategies.  This school year alone, two weeks of phonological instructional training took place in August, another week of general literacy training also took place in August, and two full Fridays of literacy professional development took place in September, along with two days of district wide literacy observation and coaching.  Another coaching/training cycle is planned for October with several more to follow later in the year.

Besides the educational system, how else does society respond to the increased literacy demands placed upon our youth?  I would like to propose several suggestions.

First, we must read to our children and grandchildren when they are very young.  As students enter preschool and kindergarten, it is easy to tell which have been read to and which have not been.  Some studies suggest that students who have had an adult read to them for10 minutes per night elevate vocabulary and letter recognition by two times over students who have not had this.  This isn’t a luxury.  It isn’t a “nice-to do.”  It’s an absolute necessity.

Second, we must use verbal language in a more purposeful manner. Oracy is defined as “the ability to express oneself coherently and to communicate freely with others by word of mouth” (Wilkinson).  James Britton said, “Reading and writing float on a sea of talk.”  In other words, as young children engage in verbal language, they are better able to progress towards the literacy skills of reading and writing.  So, before young students are allowed to play digital games where there is little oracy, we as adults must engage in conversation with them.  This provides the “sea” upon which the boats of reading and writing can float.

Last, we could consider using technology in a different way.  It seems like children learn how to swipe on a device before they can even walk nowadays!  I don’t believe that our society will ever revert back to its pre-technology days when kids don’t play on phones until a certain age.  So, let’s embrace the world this opens up for learning!  There are countless free apps which can help students learn literacy skills through games, interaction, and practice.  We need to insist that young people spend as much time on these apps as they do on games.

So, as Frederick Douglass said, we can help our next generation gain true freedom–freedom of choice and opportunity–by ensuring that they achieve success in literacy.  I hope that you will join me in committing to these practices so that we can help our youth gain this freedom!