BEGINNING READING INSTRUCTION
In today's society, the child who doesn't learn to read does not make it in life. If children don't learn to read early enough, if they don't learn to read with comprehension, if they don't read fluently enough to read broadly and reflectively across all content areas, if they don't learn to read effortlessly enough to render reading pleasurable, their chances for a fulfilling life "by whatever measure: academic success, financial stability, the ability to find satisfying work, personal autonomy, self-esteem" are practically nil.
In his 1996 State of the Union speech, President Clinton addressed this issue by declaring it a national priority to ensure that every child in America reads independently by the end of third grade. The AFT agrees. Not only is this an extraordinarily modest goal for the richest, most powerful nation on earth, it is one that must be met before any other education goal can be met.
How are we doing as a nation? According to the latest international comparison "a 1994 study from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA)" our students are among the world's best readers. Nevertheless, state, national and international assessments, including the IEA's, also indicate there is still much work to be done. Because of differences in how various tests measure reading skill, estimates of the extent of the problem vary widely "from the IEA study that showed 30 percent to 40 percent of U.S. fourth graders performing below average for developed nations, to a 1994 California assessment that gave failing grades in reading to 59 percent of fourth graders. Whatever the correct figure for overall proficiency, reading researchers report that, by fourth grade" the first year in which most states systematically assess student achievement" about 20 percent of U.S. students are already so far behind in reading that they may never catch up.
Poor, immigrant and minority children, some of whose parents may also suffer from low literacy levels, represent a disproportionate percentage of those with the lowest reading achievement. Affluence, however, is no guarantee of reading success. In fact, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), approximately one-third of all poorly performing fourth graders are the children of college-educated parents' indicating that reading difficulty is a national problem that extends across all socioeconomic strata. We can and must do better.
The ultimate goal of all reading and English language arts instruction is to allow students to become fluent readers, writers and thinkers, who are able to comprehend, learn from and add to the collective imagination, experience and wisdom of all human history. To accomplish this, students must be challenged to meet high academic standards and be exposed to a rich core curriculum that will give them a strong vocabulary base, broad background knowledge and ample exposure to an interesting array of narrative and expository texts. They must learn to read for understanding and be given a command of the rules of spelling, grammar and syntax, so that they may learn to write with imagination, clarity and precision. And, undergirding all of this, at a very early age, they must be given the keys to the speech-sound-symbol system of the English language that will allow them to decipher written text. In other words, they must learn the alphabetic code and how to use it to read and write words.
Sadly, it is during this very elemental stage of reading that many students encounter problems. Fortunately, we know a good deal about how to help. The first step is to apply the consistent findings of hundreds of research studies, conducted over the past several decades in such diverse fields as neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, cognitive science and education, that have helped us understand how children learn to read and what we must do to improve their early reading instruction.
Researchers have identified several basic, interconnected subskills that all children must master to become proficient readers. Young students must develop phonemic awareness "the recognition that all words are made up of separate sounds, or phonemes. They must learn phonics" the ability to link these sounds to the specific letters or combinations of letters that are used to represent them in written language. And the association between letters and sounds must become virtually automatic, so that students learn to decode words almost instantly and are able to concentrate on the meaning of written text.
Research suggests that 50 percent to 60 percent of students are able to master the first two subskills with relative ease "although systematic, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics can make them even better readers. But without such instruction, the remaining 40 percent to 50 percent" especially those without a language-rich home environment or with mild to severe reading disabilities' may experience very real problems that, unless resolved by the end of third grade, are likely to place them at a permanent educational disadvantage.
This is not to say that the ability to decode words is sufficient to make every child a proficient reader "just that it is a necessary precondition. In this sense, the nation's recurring reading wars, pitting phonics-based instruction against literature-based instruction, represent a false dichotomy. Children need a balance of both. But the way in which this balance is struck" in particular, the sequence and methods by which each is delivered" is critical. With very early exposure to systematic, explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, decoding and reading comprehension skills, say researchers, virtually every child" except perhaps those with the most severe reading and cognitive disabilities' can be taught to read. In fact, it is estimated that 85 percent to 90 percent of students who are poor readers "including many now classified as learning disabled" could increase their reading skill to average levels with this type of intensive, early instruction delivered by skilled teachers. Research also shows that the use of decodable text "books and materials containing a high proportion of new words that adhere to phonetic principles students have already been taught" can help young students at the pre-primer and primer levels to master decoding skills and increase speed and fluency. For the vast majority of students, much of this can be accomplished before the end of first grade, enabling them to tackle the vast array of interesting and challenging children's literature that can help expand vocabulary and increase background knowledge and comprehension.
It is for these reasons that the AFT believes that all students must be guaranteed a carefully crafted, and appropriately balanced, approach to the teaching of reading. This must include early, systematic and explicit instruction in the necessary subskills "including phonemic awareness and phonics" as well as an early emphasis on listening skills, language development, conceptual and vocabulary development, storytelling and writing, a deep exploration of the treasure chest of rich and challenging children"s literature, and literacy-related activities that can help enhance children's love of books and of learning. Standing in the way of this goal are two great obstacles: First, most instructional staff in elementary schools have never been provided with sufficient preparation in how to teach reading in a way that reflects what is now preponderant research evidence. And second, few materials and programs, based on this research, have been developed or field tested for effectiveness.
Therefore, the AFT and its state and local affiliates will make it a priority to: (1) ensure that all elementary school teachers are provided with high-quality professional development in the requisite skills and knowledge of how to teach beginning reading" and ensure that all classroom paraprofessionals in these schools receive high-quality professional development in how to reinforce reading instruction and help tutor struggling students; (2) raise the preparation and licensure standards for elementary school teachers to include a core curriculum in the teaching of reading that reflects the best research evidence and calls for extensive time in field experiences; (3) develop certification standards for elementary school classroom paraprofessionals that include an appropriate course of pre- and inservice training in research-based reading instruction and tutorial strategies; (4) support the kind of quality early childhood and preschool programs and services that increase the chances of reading success; and (5) increase the availability of programs and materials in reading and English language arts that have a track record of effectiveness. Specifically, we will work "through public advocacy, legislative activities, contract negotiations, publications, professional development programs and other means"to:
- Urge states and the federal government to fully fund early childhood programs, such as prenatal health care, child nutrition, the Home Instructional Program for Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), Even Start and Even Start-modeled child/home instruction programs and others that work with high-poverty families to help assure children's physical and cognitive health, including information about the critical importance of daily reading to children, from infancy on, and other research-based strategies that can be used at home to ensure that all students are reading-ready when they enter first grade.
- Urge the federal government, states and school districts to provide the quality preschool and all-day kindergarten programs that can foster early literacy by developing children's language, vocabulary and conceptual skills, as well as helping to familiarize all students with books, the nature of print, the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, and the kinds of stories, information and ideas that text can offer. We also urge schools and districts to institute school-entry screening programs that can identify hearing, speech, language, vision and other problems that may impede student learning.
- Urge states and districts to fund and staff for lower class sizes in the primary grades in order to provide optimum conditions for early reading success.
- Urge all school districts and AFT locals to make it a high priority to ensure that all K-2 teachers and classroom paraprofessionals, at a minimum, are provided with professional development that reflects the research base in beginning reading. This should be followed, as quickly as possible, by the implementation of a research-based professional development program in reading and reading comprehension instruction for all instructional staff who work with student populations who are at high risk of reading failure, all other special education and remedial teachers, and ultimately, all instructional staff in every elementary school.
- Urge all teacher education programs and the organizations that represent them, such as the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, as well as accreditation agencies, such as the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, to support a stronger core curriculum in teacher preparation for reading instruction. This should include coursework on: the intricacies of the speech-sound-symbol system of the English language and the huge body of research about how it is best taught; how to advance students' conceptual, vocabulary and language development; how to tap students' prior knowledge and teach reading comprehension skills and strategies; how to teach English language arts, including writing, grammar; how to adapt teaching methods to accommodate the needs of linguistic minority students; and how to enhance reading instruction and build background knowledge through the use of children's literature" and to practice these skills and understandings in clinical teaching settings.
- Urge standards-setting bodies, such as the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, and state licensing authorities to raise licensure requirements for elementary teachers to include a clear definition of what teachers should know and be able to do with regard to the teaching of reading; a stipulation of required coursework in reading instruction that incorporates the research base on effective instructional practices; and provisions for a well-supervised induction period to ensure that these instructional practices have been mastered.
- Urge school districts to enforce federal regulations, such as Title I, regarding entry-level employment standards for classroom paraprofessionals and urge states and districts to develop certification standards for classroom paraprofessionals, especially those who work with beginning and struggling readers, that clearly define roles and responsibilities, basic skills and an appropriate course of pre- and inservice training in research-based instructional and tutorial strategies.
- Urge the federal government to help fund the development of research-based materials to help improve reading instruction; ensure that these materials are field tested, using experimental and control groups, to determine how well they work to raise students' reading achievement; disseminate the resulting effectiveness and implementation data to schools and districts; and fund scale-up efforts for the most effective programs and materials.
- Urge textbook publishers and program developers to revise existing materials and to develop new materials for early reading instruction that reflect the research base and to conduct field tests on a routine basis, which can provide schools and districts with quantitative and qualitative evidence of effectiveness. Such materials should guide instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, spelling and grammar, provide decodable text at the pre-primer and primer levels, and expose students to a rich and challenging array of children's literature that can hold students' interest, help build vocabulary and background knowledge and increase comprehension. These programs and materials should also include aligned in-class assessments that are easy for teachers to administer on a periodic basis and that can be used to help monitor student progress, inform instruction, adjust student groupings and diagnose problems early.
- Urge school boards and state and district curriculum authorities to approve, for broad adoption, only those materials for beginning reading instruction that are designed to reflect the research base and that have clearly been shown to be effective in helping to raise student achievement levels, using valid, scientific field tests, and to institute a method for ongoing evaluation of the efficacy of adopted reading materials.
- Urge schools and districts to employ periodic research-based diagnostic assessments, beginning in kindergarten, that can help spot reading problems early. Results of these assessments should be used by districts to develop and implement intervention systems and by states and districts to target sufficient funds to help address any reading difficulties before students fall too far behind.
- Urge states and districts to fund, staff and fully stock a library in every school and make sure that all school libraries are accessible and convenient for students and their families.
In addition, the AFT pledges to:
- Work with other educational organizations, such as the Learning First Alliance, to identify effective research-based reading programs and to persuade school boards and state and local legislative bodies to dedicate adequate resources to the adoption and full implementation of such programs in every public elementary school.
- Continue to disseminate information on reading research and effective instructional practice to AFT members and the general public through local and national publications.
Continue to use the AFT Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) program to provide high-quality professional development to teachers and paraprofessionals in reading research and effective instructional practices in reading.