How to make sure your school is teaching your child to read

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California has a serious early literacy problem — more than half of all elementary school children cannot read or write at their grade level. The state ranks 48th in the country for 4th grade reading scores — behind Mississippi and West Virginia. In some schools the number of children meeting basic literacy standards are in the single digits. It’s not a new problem but for families whose kids go to school every day and don’t learn to read, but it’s an urgent one.

Recently, Public Counsel, an advocacy law firm, filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Education for failing to meet the state constitution’s guarantee to each child of basic education. “We’re suing on behalf of children who are compelled to go to schools which have proficiency rates close to zero when it comes to basic reading,” said Mark Rosenbaum of Public Counsel. “We know how to teach kids how to read and we know how to make that stick, and California isn’t doing it.”

Last year, just three percent of 3rd graders at La Salle Elementary school, an LAUSD school, achieved reading proficiency.

But not all LAUSD schools are doing so poorly. At Union Avenue Elementary School in the Westlake neighborhood, there are six full-time literacy coaches to bolster the reading, writing and comprehension skills of students.

So why don’t all LAUSD schools have six full-time literacy coaches? According to Dr. Frances Gipson, Chief of Academic Instruction for LAUSD, it is up to each school community to decide how to spend its budget. She advises parents who are concerned about literacy challenges in schools to “get your elbows at the table, be in the classroom, get involved.”

Literacy coaches at Union Avenue Elementary school hunker down to review student performance and gauge who needs extra support. Charts on the wall track progress and student challenges. The six full-time coaches work directly with classroom teachers. (Photo: Deepa Fernandes) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Here are some ways you can do that:

Step 1: First! Check your school’s Literacy scores from recent year’s standardized tests: Go here. 

Don’t be shocked if the number of 3rd, 4th or 5th graders meeting or exceeding the standards for their grade level is less than half of all students. In fact, the California average for 2017 for 3rd grade literacy scores was just 44 percent at grade level. Why is this? One reason cited by education officials is that with Common Core came new curriculum and new tests. These tests are harder, and it will take some years for teachers and students to catch up.

Step 2: Read up on good early literacy practices.

Elizabeth Moje, Dean of the education school at the University of Michigan, suggests California takes a leaf from Michigan’s book. Here is a user friendly guide to teaching and learning literacy.

Step 3: Create a list of questions to ask your school officials.

Elizabeth Moje suggests the following:

What literacy curriculum does the school use, when did they start using it and have the teachers been trained to teach it?

Mojes said building literacy in students “requires commitment to a really powerful, robust curriculum that teachers have time to learn and enact.”

How often has the school or school district switched it’s language arts curriculum?

“We know that teachers take about three years to learn a curriculum and really feel confident with that curriculum, and yet many schools change curriculum after a year and that’s due often to outside pressures,” Moje said.

How long has the principal been leading the school?

According to Moje, good literacy instruction takes “incredible organization on the part of school leaders. It takes a system level approach.”

How long have the teachers been teaching the same grade level?

Moje said good literacy instruction requires that “teachers aren’t moved from class to class or grade level to grade level from year to year.”

How does the school accomodate children who might not be able to show in a test what they are truly capable of?

Moje said “We have ample evidence of young children who have strong literacy practices in particular domains and yet those same individuals might no be able to show that kind of literacy skill in a school based achievement test. So that’s a matter of different kinds of literacies, different vocabularies, different kinds of practices, different cultural experiences being valued in one setting versus another setting.” Ask the principal what alternate methods the school uses to gauge a child’s literacy abilities.

If your child’s first language is not English, ensure the teacher and school are able to see the child’s first language as an asset, not a deficit.

Moje said teachers of non-native English speakers need to start by “understanding that the language that they do speak is an incredibly important building block.” Critical early literacy is lost by seeing a lack of English as a deficit. Moje says “I would turn that around by asking ‘What do children know? Where can we begin with their [own] language and skills?’”

Step 4: Read with and engage your own child in literacy activities.

Don’t rely on the school to do it all. Take kids to the library. Keep books at home. Free bilingual books are available each month here.