Idaho looks at ways to build better readers

Experts say more work with parents, teachers and principals can help kids’ skills improve.

broberts@idahostatesman.comNovember 16, 2013 

Ralph Smith, senior vice president for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, offers three ways communities can work to create effective readers by the third grade. Smith was in Boise Nov. 15 as part of a a summit on reading and literacy bringing 400 business and government leaders and educators to Boise State University.

BILL ROBERTS

Creating strong third-grade readers in Idaho is simple.

And complicated.

Simple: Some fast-food restaurants and health-services agencies in Kimberly have shelves where kids can check out books — a signal the community is behind good readers, say Bill Knopp, executive director of the United Way of South Central Idaho.

Complicated: What colleges teach new reading instructors doesn’t always match what they need to know when they get into the classroom. Finessing that change could be a difficult dance between the education bureaucracies.

Those are just a couple examples of the education challenges and opportunities highlighted in a reading summit Friday. Nearly 400 Idaho business and government leaders, educators and parents tackled how to strengthen reading skills among Idaho elementary school students.

The Idaho Statesman was a cosponsor and education reporter Bill Roberts served as a moderator on one of the panels.

WHY A READING SUMMIT?

Idaho’s third-graders need to be stronger readers. Students not reading on grade level by third grade often end up struggling academically and are more likely to later drop out of school. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam given to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders in every state, shows 32 percent of Idaho’s fourth-graders are poor readers.

STARTING OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM

When Florida Gov. Jeb Bush rolled out his reading initiative in 2002, supporters convinced the Coca-Cola Co. to promote its reading website on the sides of trucks that drove around the state, said Mary Laura Bragg, who helped put the Florida reading program in place.

She also worked with hospitals so that new parents got a book along with care and feeding instruction for their new infant.

Both sent a communitywide signal about the importance of reading.

Yet for many, reading is seen as something schools have already solved. People assume that math and science are today’s problems for educators, not reading. “You have to raise awareness,” said Bragg.

Teachers need to be better prepared, said Louisa Moats, a nationally recognized reading specialist from Sun Valley.

Many reading teachers don’t understand the structure of the English language or the psychology behind reading — two key elements in teaching reading, she said.

SCIENCE AND READING

STEM — science, technology engineering and math — is public education’s newest hot topic, eclipsing reading. Behind those subjects are jobs for people who learn them well.

Ralph Smith, senior vice president with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, acknowledges that those are important. “We care about STEM and moving our nation rapidly in that direction,” he said. “But we are not going to do that if we can’t read.”

FOCUSING ON PARENTS

Parents are not getting the right message on what they should do to help their children, said Smith. Many immigrant families, for example, don’t speak to their children because they don’t know English. Yet talking to kids is a vital way to build reading skills. “It doesn’t matter if you speak in Spanish or Chinese,” he said.

Some parents at the summit noted that many parents need help learning how they can make a difference with their kids’ reading. “We need something to tip the scale,” said Laura Abbruzzese, the Boise mom of a 3-year-old.

FINALLY, A WORD ABOUT PRINCIPALS

They may be the most important educator in a building, said Bragg, the Florida expert. If you want to move ahead on reading, the principal is the go-to person. They set the tone for what will be learned.

In her state, Bragg targeted principals with ways to improve professional development for teachers, how to analyze data and how to make reading a priority.

Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts

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