With N.C. reading initiative a bust, experts have tips for boosting childhood literacy

With a new N.C. State University study offering a particularly bleak assessment of North Carolina’s efforts to boost childhood literacy, experts are offering tips for parents to do their part in getting past the state’s Read to Achieve doldrums.

That study found no discernible impact from six years, and about $150 million in spending, on the Read to Achieve program, an initiative championed by Republican lawmakers and state Senate President Phil Berger.

The program hinges on early-grade testing and reading interventions for lagging children, but has been a target of some critics who say it contributes to over-testing in the early grades.

Facing the study’s grim findings, The Charlotte Observer‘s Ann Doss Helms offered up a report Monday that delves into the troubling findings for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), the state’s second-largest public school system, and some recommendations for parents to help improve student performance outside of the classroom.

From The Charlotte Observer:

Munro Richardson was dismayed but hardly shocked to hear that a recent N.C. State University study found no benefit from the state’s Read to Achieve program.

Hired three years ago to lead Read Charlotte, a private push to boost third-grade reading, he had watched state and local test scores sag despite massive efforts from the state and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. When the most recent report came out in September, only 46 percent of third-graders in CMS and 45 percent statewide earned scores that indicate they’re on track to succeed in college and careers. Only about one-third of black, Hispanic and low-income children hit that mark.

Richardson took his own deep dive into reading test scores, comparing five years of results for 107 CMS elementary schools and six Charlotte-area charter schools.

“The picture that emerges is not one of lower poverty schools doing better than higher poverty schools,” Richardson wrote in an email to the Observer. “Or of charter schools doing better than CMS schools. The overall trend for ALL SCHOOLS is headed in the wrong direction. … For the most part the picture is grim.”

That doesn’t mean Richardson and his donors are giving up. Instead, Richardson said, they’ve spent the past three years combing research for strategies that parents and volunteers can use to make a difference — often long before children report to school.

Here are four opportunities for parents, relatives, volunteers and donors to help young children become strong readers.

1. Stop reading to children … and start reading with them.

Instead of just reading a book to a child — which, of course, isn’t really a bad thing — Read Charlotte pushes “active reading.” That means the adult asks questions about what might happen next in the story, helps children learn words by dramatizing them (“Don’t just read ‘whisper,’ actually whisper”) and talks about how the story relates to the child’s life.

Free workshops on “The ABCs of Active Reading” are available around the county; find the schedule at readcharlotte.org/active-reading. Tutors trained in active reading work with students in eight CMS elementary schools; learn more and sign up at tutorcharlotte.org/reading-mentors/.

2. Play games that build skills.

You don’t need to be a teacher or a college graduate to help children learn letters and sounds. Home Reading Helper (homereadinghelper.org) offers computer games and simple home activities that are tailored to a child’s age and reading level. For instance, a kindergartener might play “Frog’s Rhyming Machine” or “Dinosaur Field Guide,” while the parents could print out a vocabulary list and get tips on how to work more words into daily conversation.

Families can also sign up for weekly text messages suggesting additional activities, also tailored to the child’s age, at ReadCharlotte.org/text or by texting READCLT to 70138.

3. Get free books — or provide them for others.

The Charlotte area has plenty of book drives, but the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is now offering to send a free book each month to the home of any Mecklenburg County child younger than 5 years old. Sign up at www.smartstartofmeck.org/programs/dpil/, or get more information at [email protected] or 704-943-9780.

Donors can also pitch in at the website; $30 covers a year’s books for one child.

4. Help budding readers get over the hump.

Some students who fail reading tests know how to read words but can’t put them together well enough to enjoy reading and keep up with grade-level work. Developing that skill, called fluency, is the focus of a program called Helping Early Literacy with Practice Strategies, or HELPS.

Richardson says that program, developed by N.C. State University professor John Begeny, is one of his best finds from reviewing research on what works. Many reading interventions have not been evaluated well enough to say scientifically how many children are likely to benefit, Richardson says. And of those that have, the typical program produces reading gains for three children out of 100.

HELPS improves fluency and comprehension for 35 out of 100 participants, based on rigorous comparison studies, Richardson said. The program trains teachers and tutors to read with individual students in 10- to 15-minute sessions in ways that help the students get more confident and comfortable with reading.

Read Charlotte is working with CMS to get HELPS into 11 schools this year. Volunteers, who get three hours of training and are asked to commit one hour a week, are urgently needed. Sign up at readcharlotte.org/helps.

Will this work?

None of these strategies should be expected to work miracles. Groups have handed out books, volunteers have read with kids and districts across North Carolina have cycled through reading programs for years.

State legislators have pumped more than $150 million into Read To Achieve, a program that focuses on testing third-graders and retaining those who can’t read at grade level. Five years in, they have little to show for it.

Richardson says these programs are part of a larger strategy that has to include everything from expanded public prekindergarten to better support for families.

Leora Itzhaki, principal of Montclaire Elementary, has been with CMS long enough to see lots of reading programs launched and discarded. She and her literacy facilitator, Katie Fazio, say they’re optimistic about HELPS reading because it’s so carefully researched and scripted. It’s also funded by a nonprofit organization to keep costs low, rather than marketed by a for-profit company.

Montclaire, where many of the students come from Spanish-speaking families, has 21 third-graders taking part in HELPS. On a recent morning they trooped in and out of a mobile classroom, where volunteers had them read a timed passage, check their speed and accuracy, had them re-read any sections they had trouble with, read aloud to their students and tried again to see if they had gotten faster and more accurate.

In some ways it was almost mechanical, with the adults reading from scripts, following flow charts and graphing each student’s results. But the volunteers added warm praise, dynamic reading and trips to the “prize box” for meeting goals. The children seemed to enjoy the exercise.

Montclaire won’t have data on its kids until midterm testing, but the educators and volunteers say they’re seeing results. Many of the students who used to read hesitantly and stumble over words — all the Montclaire students in the program are also English language learners — are showing that they can read aloud at a faster pace with a little coaching and practice.

“It’s very methodical and repetitive,” Fazio said, “but the kids love it, I think.”

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