Grateful for those helping our youngest readers

Elizabeth Child, United Way Executive DirectorAs a new member of the Northfield Promise Reading Team promoting literacy, I recently got a glimpse of the highly motivated educators in Northfield. They’re taking on the challenge of revving up literacy achievement after its decline the past couple years, and I’m impressed by multiple reading initiatives. But I’ve had some questions. Like, why oh why is there such a nationwide focus on children reading at third-grade level by the end of third grade? And what oh what are we doing about youths’ pandemic learning loss – particularly in reading. 

First off, is there some sort of pit that kids will fall into should they lack reading skills at the tender age of eight? From what I’m learning, that is not far off the mark. I hear time and again that those who don’t read at their grade level by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school. But the consequences can be worse. “Over 70 percent of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level,” according to the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation.  

Children who can’t read proficiently by eight or nine hit a “third-grade wall” because third is the grade when school starts to get complicated with fact-rich texts, multisyllabic words and technical vocabulary. And get this: Northfield Schools’ Director of Instructional Services Hope Langston says, “It takes four times as long to intervene and remediate students who are not reading by fourth grade as it does in kindergarten.” 

Langston also helped answer another question: What were we doing right that got thrown off by the pandemic? I was interested in a graph from 2019. Picture Minnesota’s student proficiency as the lower jaw of an alligator while Northfield’s was the upper jaw lifted high, taking a bite out of flagging literacy.  

Langston says by 2018 the schools had a committed to a “structural literacy” approach to teach kids to read. It was a departure from “balanced literacy” being taught nationwide, which encourages students to first focus on picture and content cues – briefly, getting meaning through context – versus a focus on phonics, or pairing letters with sounds to decode words, as a central strategy for early reading.  

Education in Northfield follows brain science. Decades of research show reading doesn’t come naturally; reading has to be taught in a structured way. And the starting point for reading is sound. Hooked on Phonics and the Electric Company had it right!  

A big safety net for local students who struggle with reading, says Langston, is the great collaboration with the schools by local leaders including the Northfield Public Library, the medical community, Healthy Community Initiative and United Way. But most of all, it’s the dedication of our teachers voluntarily enrolling in a rigorous training called LETRs, which teaches the science of reading to transform literacy education. Adding to that is a strong commitment to alerting parents immediately if their child is struggling. Thanks to teachers, help is on the way. 

Elizabeth Child, Executive Director, Rice County Area United Way