Pre-K to K-3 transitions: what can states do?

Two new reports are out on the role of pre-K programs (pre-kindergarten) and K-3 (kindergarten through grade 3).[1] Not surprisingly, the news is these programs are important to children at both stages of development ─ and there is not a level playing field, depending on which state you live in.

Both pre-K and K-3 programs play a vital role in laying a solid foundation for children’s early development. If children participate in quality pre-K and proceed to a lesser quality K-3, they’re at risk of losing the gains they have made. Likewise, transitioning from quality pre-K benefits children in K-3.

What can a state do to ensure a strong transition process between pre-K and K-3? The new reports from Education Commission of the States (ECS) aim to answer this question. The reports identify 20 factors to consider in determining quality – and they provide a profile of each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia so you can look at the situation in your own locale.

The reports have consolidated the information into four categories they suggest we pay particular attention to:

  1. Transition from pre-K to kindergarten: Some one-third of the states (37% or 18 states plus the District of Columbia) provide guidance in the pre-K to kindergarten transition process. Examples of “guidance” include written transition plans, engaging families in the process, providing teacher/school meetings, and providing assessment data such as readiness for kindergarten.
  2. Preparation of teachers: Some form of teacher preparation and/or professional development in reading is required for educators in K-3 in nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 37 states). Examples include training for the teaching of reading, using reading assessment results, and providing interventions to children based on assessment information.
  3. Involvement of parents: Nearly half of states (43% or 21 states plus D.C.) require some level of parental involvement in the promotion and retention process.[2]
  4. Children’s social-emotional learning:[3] Nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 36 states plus D.C.) focus on social-emotional learning in K-3.Examples of this type of learning are social-emotional assessments conducted when children enter kindergarten, a state’s definition of school readiness, and a state’s requirements for teachers and/or teacher training.

If the data provided in these four categories truly indicate whether we have an effective “trapeze” in place from pre-K to K-3, children residing in many states are likely facing significant challenges in their transitions.

I wanted to get a better sense of the differences among some of the states on the 20 factors to consider in determining quality so randomly selected three to compare ─ Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. Although the information is not 100% complete among the factors since the ECS study relied on the availability of each state’s information, you can begin to draw your own conclusions.

Comparison of Oregon, Tennessee & Washington on 20 Factors

Basic Requirements

Does the state require full-day kindergarten?

  • OR: No, full-day kindergarten is not required.
  • TN: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required.
  • WA: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required to be implemented statewide by 2017-2018.

 How many hours are required for grades K-3?  

  • OR: 450 hours per year for half-day kindergarten (~2.5 hours/day). 900 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-8 (~5 hours/day).
  • TN: 4 hours per day for kindergarten (~720 hours/year). 6.5 hours per day for grades 1-12 (~1,170 hours/year).
  • WA: 1000 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-3 (~5.5 hours/day).

 What are the teacher-to-student ratio requirements for grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: 1:25 maximum for grades K-3 (Goal of 1:20 average).
  • WA: By 2017-2018, average class ratios should be 1:17 for average general education class in K-3 and 1:15 for high poverty K-3 class.

 School Readiness & Transitions

 Are kindergarten entrance assessments required?

  • OR: Statewide kindergarten assessment is required to be administered to all enrolled kindergarten students.
  • TN: Districts must develop/implement comprehensive developmental assessment program for kindergarten children.
  • WA: WA Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WAKIDS) is required at beginning of school year for all state funded all-day kindergarten programs.

 What are states required to do with the results of the kindergarten entrance assessment?

  • OR: Results of the KEA are required to be included in statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: The results of the developmental assessment may be used in developing instructional programs.
  • WA: WAKIDS is used to support development of individual children, early learning provider and parental involvement and to inform instruction.

 Are there programs in place to guide pre-kindergarten to kindergarten transition process?

  • OR: Grant program-Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program: Priority given to those applications that foster kindergarten readiness by forming partnerships between early learning, child care providers and/or elementary schools.
  • TN: In their application for funding, local education agencies are required to include plan for ensuring coordination between pre-kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools to ensure  elementary grade instruction builds upon pre-k classroom experiences.
  • WA: Schools receiving program support for all-day kindergarten must demonstrate connections with early learning community providers and must participate in kindergarten readiness activities with early learning providers and parents.

 Does the state have a statutory definition of school readiness?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What do states use their definition of school readiness to inform?

  • OR: While term “school readiness” is not explicitly defined, the concept is used in a number of state programs including: Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program, the Oregon Early Reading Program, and the Statewide Education plan for “plan” students.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What are the re-classification procedures for English Language Learner students?

  • OR: Students are reclassified based on English proficiency assessment scores and consistent progress.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Students are reclassified after meeting superintendent-established exit criteria on state language proficiency exam.

Assessment, Intervention & Retention

 Are assessments required in grades K-3?

  • OR: The Early Success Reading Initiative includes screening and continuously monitoring reading progress of all children K-3 with research-based assessment systems.
  • TN: Assessments in reading/language arts, math, science and social studies are required in grade three.
  • WA: Second grade reading assessments are required.

 What do the results of K-3 assessments inform?

  • OR: Administrators and teachers are able to collect, interpret and use student data to guide instructional decisions, implement a school wide reading action plan, and provide strategies for student groups and structured interaction with parents. The results of the KEA are required to be included in the statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: State-mandated tests are prohibited earlier than grade three.
  • WA: Assessment results are used to provide information to parents, teachers, and school administrators. Assessments and diagnostic tools are made available at each grade level to inform instructional strategies and interventions.

 Are there interventions available beginning in kindergarten?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Interventions are available in third grade.
  • WA: K-4 interventions are available in any school where more than 40% of tested students are not proficient. For all other schools, third grade and fourth grade interventions are available.

 What are the interventions available for students in grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Interventions include summer programs and before and after school programs.

 Is there a third grade retention policy?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Third grade retention is required, with good cause exemptions.
  • WA: Third grade retention is required with good cause exemptions

 Instructional Quality

 What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in Washington must ensure that pre-service teachers develop the following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Family Engagement

What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in WA must ensure  pre-service teachers develop following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Social-Emotional Learning

Where is social-emotional development emphasized in the state’s statute or rules and regulations?

  • OR: Social-emotional development is included as area of school readiness measured in kindergarten entrance assessment
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations
  • WA: Social-emotional growth is supported by use of Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills.

Here’s what I’d like to see the schools in my state ─ and the state policies to support these ─ have in place after studying this information:

  • Full-day kindergarten
  • High number of hours required for K-3 instruction
  • Low teacher-to student ratio in the early grades so children have more attention from the teacher
  • Assess children’s readiness to enter kindergarten, including social-emotional factors related to school readiness and progress ─ to identify where early intervention can help children catch up
  • Linked K-3 to pre-K programs so they can align what they’re providing to children and work together on smooth transition processes
  • Schools have a definition of school readiness and these do not differ substantially within the state (there should be an equal playing field)
  • Assess progress early (grade 2 rather than 3) to identify needed interventions earlier
  • Decision whether to promote a child to the next grade based on best assessment data
  • Teachers in early grades trained in reading
  • Schools engage families in the education of their children

To learn more about your own state, check out the K-3 Quality State Profiles at http://www.ecs.org/k-3-quality-state-profiles/ and  think about what you would like to see in place to help children transition well from pre-K to K-3.

________________

[1] 50-State Comparison: K-3 Quality and Companion Report by Alyssa Auck, Education Commission of the States, July 18, 2016: http://www.ecs.org/50-state-comparison-k-3-quality/

[2] Promotion is moving up a grade; retention is staying at same grade level.

[3]Committee for Children (http://www.cfchildren.org/second-step/social-emotional-learning), the attributes of social-emotional learning are: 1) recognizing emotions in oneself and others; 2) managing strong emotions; 3) having empathy for others; 4) controlling impulses; 5) communicating clearly and assertively; 6) maintaining cooperative relationships; 7) making responsible decisions; 8) solving problems effectively. Social-emotional learning is increasingly a component in the school curricula, schools are helping young learners harness their energy and potential by teaching them to listen, pay attention, control their behavior, and get along with others..

Choppy waters in 4th grade reading — Why?

Picture your child in a long race. You’ve been running alongside him ─ pacing him ─ for the first few years, while he’s growing trillions more nerve cell connections (synapses) than you have in your own adult brain. You’re helping nurture his learning in so many ways, including learning to talk and read. He’s steadily progressing in learning to identify words ─ and over time, to interpret their meaning in longer reading passages. By the time he approaches the fourth grade, he likely doesn’t need or even want you to pace him in the reading department anymore because he can ─ and is ─ reading on his own.

So, you think he’s prepared at 9 or 10 years old when his teachers start to present a curriculum that focuses on more specialized learning. The task now is to start transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This is a difficult transition for many children. A term was coined for this transition nearly 30 years ago─ the “fourth grade slump.”[1]

When I hear the word, “slump,” that doesn’t sound so bad. It implies there might be a dip in learning for a time ─ it might be temporary. But the words and phrases many use to describe the slump that can occur around ages 9-10 sound much more ominous: ‘this is education’s Bermuda triangle,’ ‘educators are wringing their hands over this puzzling phenomenon,’[2] ‘the fourth-grade slump is a time when some children, faced with increasingly complex schoolwork, start to lose interest in reading.’[3] For many children, the dip in achievement will not be temporary–it starts a downward spiral throughout the school years. Many children end up in high school as poor readers ─ and poor at math, social studies, science, literature, and other subjects ─ because reading is so key to advanced learning.

What is happening in the fourth grade to account for this “Bermuda Triangle”? There are four main factors thought to be stirring up these choppy waters:

  • The reading is harder. Students have to use their reading skills now to acquire new knowledge from increasingly difficult words and texts. They’re shifting from reading relatively easy, familiar words and passages to reading more advanced materials. Children who struggled with reading in the early grades enter a jeopardy zone. Unless they receive help, understanding and encouragement, including at home, they’ll have trouble keeping up. They’ll grow more frustrated and eventually, many give up.
  • Size (of vocabulary) counts. When faced with reading more difficult texts, students with stronger vocabularies read more easily ─ and in turn, typically read more and develop even larger vocabularies. Students with weaker vocabularies experience the opposite ─ they struggle, and in turn, typically read less ─ as a result, they lose ground in adding needed new vocabulary.
  • Knowing about things (prior knowledge) counts. Children generally struggle to read (understand) content that is unfamiliar. Those who know more ─ who bring prior knowledge on a range of subjects ─ struggle less than those who don’t. Think about topics a child may understand a lot about─ like dinosaurs, going fishing, cooking, or soccer. If the child encounters reading passages that use the vocabulary and concepts of these topics, they’re likely to read them more easily. If they encounter reading passages on topics they know little or nothing about, it is just plain more difficult.
  • Fitting in with the peer group. Research tells us that sometime in preadolescence, [4]children become strongly influenced by their peers ─ they may rely on them for information more than the adults in their lives, including their parents or teachers. If the school culture is not a positive one for learning, many children will try to fit in with their peers ─ and give up on trying to learn.

These are some harsh factors coming down on fourth graders ─ reading for comprehension, acquiring new and more difficult vocabulary, facing more complicated new subjects, and wanting to fit in with their peers.

So what helps children swim well through the fourth grade waters, especially those in trouble?

Not surprising, the first recommendation from researchers is ‘don’t wait until the fourth grade to see if the slump is going to set in.’ Provide good reading instruction in the early grades. And include attention to vocabulary-building to ensure that children are armed with a strong arsenal of words for the more difficult reading that is coming.

Schools can help too by providing a curriculum in the early grades that provides students with background knowledge useful in understanding the more difficult content coming in the later grades. And schools can work at creating a positive culture for learning so that students know it’s cool to be learning.

Even with a schoolwide approach that works on “boosting vocabulary and background knowledge gaps for younger students while developing a positive peer culture in which learning comes first…,”[5] many students will still be struggling.

Now what? More life-saving strategies are clearly needed. Unfortunately, recent research is finding that “…classroom teachers may not be employing the strategies that can get these students back on track. Despite the difficulties that students have with [reading], teachers in grades four to 12 typically do not instruct students in the reading comprehension process … Unfortunately many upper elementary, middle school and high school teachers presume that their students have mastered [the] ….fundamentals.”[6]

What are some of these effective strategies?[7]

  • Students who struggle can increase their reading comprehension by doing three things: 1) reading the paragraph, 2) asking questions about the main idea and the details, and 3) putting the main ideas and the details into their own words.
  • Putting the information they pull from the reading passages into a “visual map.” A visual map helps structure information, making it easier for students to make sense of what they have read.
  • Marking sections in the text that are confusing or important by using a pencil, sticky note, or other marks such as symbols like question marks (?) or exclamation marks (!).
  • Underlining or circling key words and phrases they don’t understand or that keep occurring in a text.
  • Writing a short summary of each paragraph or section of the text in the margin or on a sticky note.

There is not a ‘one-size fits all’ when it comes to learning. Different techniques work for different children. But the challenge is the same for all children: “The ability to comprehend and produce spoken and written [text] is critical for academic success and literacy development.”[8]

So, how many U.S. fourth graders are swimming in these choppy waters? How many are in danger of heading into the downward slide?

The Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP) tells us that two-thirds of our children are not swimming all that well. NAEP starts testing in grade four (students are also tested in grades eight and twelve). The results from the most recent assessment of fourth graders in reading (2015) is sobering ─ only about one-third (36%) performed at or above the Proficient achievement level in reading. Two-thirds (64%) did not.

These numbers sure look like an educational “Bermuda Triangle.” Rather than wring our hands though, we should be throwing them the life rafts they need ─ preparing them well in reading in the early years and using the many proven strategies to help them through the choppy waters of the fourth grade.

_________________

[1] Term coined by Jeanne S. Chall (1921-1999), Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologist, writer and literacy researcher for over 50 years.

[2]http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[3] Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm: Speech-language pathologists can help kids who struggle to read May 25, 2016 Source: University of the Pacific Summary: Classroom teachers may not employ the strategies that can help students master complex written language, according to speech-language pathology researchers. Journal Reference: 1.Jeannene M. Ward-Lonergan, Jill K. Duthie. Intervention to Improve Expository Reading Comprehension Skills in Older Children and Adolescents with Language Disorders. Topics in Language Disorders, 2016; 36 (1): 52 DOI: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000079

[4] Preadolescence is generally defined as the period from 9–14 years.

[5] http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[6]Science Daily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[7] Info drawn from Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[8] Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

Behind doors 1, 2 or 3──which toys promote infants’ literacy development?

Behind doors #1, 2 and 3, you can select three types of toys for your infant. Which door do you select to promote literacy development ── and why? Findings of a Northern Arizona University study examining the type of toys used by infants during play and the quantity and quality of parent-child communication using the toys provides some surprising answers.[1]

In the study, 26 parents and their 10-16 month old infants were given three sets of toys to play with:

  1. Books── five different board books[2].
  2. Traditional toys ── farm animal puzzle, shape-sorter, set of blocks.
  3. Electronic toys ── baby laptop, talking farm, baby cell phone.

Audio recording equipment in the families’ homes recorded the language between parent and infant as they interacted with the toys over a three-day period ──during two 15-minute play sessions for each toy set. This scenario enabled families to play with all of the toys in each set.

What were the researchers looking at during these interactions? Throughout each minute of the play sessions, researchers measured the number of adult words used, the child’s vocalizations, the conversational turns[3], the parent’s verbal responses to the child’s utterances, and the types of words produced by parents.

Why would a study like this be important? We know from a growing body of research that early language development creates the foundation to support a child’s success through school, children who know more words at age two enter kindergarten better prepared than others, and infants develop larger vocabularies by the types of interaction with their caregivers. We know too that “size matters” ── the size of a child’s vocabulary. More than a decade ago, Hart and Risley[4] studied families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between parents and their child shape language and vocabulary development. The findings revealed major disparities between the number of words spoken and the types of messages conveyed. After four years, these differences in parent-child interactions added up to significant discrepancies. Children from high-income families were being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. And follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life. This has become known as the 30 million word gap.

This knowledge informed the study to determine if the type of toys used during play affects a child’s language development?

What then did the researchers find when they analyzed the data collected by the recording devices?

The researchers found that there were indeed significant differences in the language interactions between parent and infant playing with books versus traditional toys versus electronic toys. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during play with books or traditional toys. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys than play with books. Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than play with books and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys.[5]

  • Book play averaged 66.89 words per minute.
  • Traditional toy play averaged 55.5 words per minute.
  • Electronic toy play averaged 39.62 words per minute.

The researchers conclude that “to promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.”[6]

Many folks are looking at this study now and adding their perspectives – see two recent blogs: When It Comes to Infant Language Development, Not All Toys Are Created Equal (Aaron Loewenbeg) and Electronic versus Traditional Toys: What They Mean for Infant Playtime (Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent”).[7]

Loewenberg notes, “When children are engaged with electronic toys, such as a baby laptop or talking farm, parents may get the mistaken impression that the toy is helping the child more than their parents can. Or, given the demands and stress of juggling work and household duties, parents may feel no choice but to leave their infants and toddlers alone with these toys for periods of time. But there’s no evidence that children in the 10-16 month age range are able to learn vocabulary by using media without a parent or other adult talking with them about what they are seeing and playing with.”[8] Loewenberg also points out that the study size was small and not very diverse. “The study had a small sample size of just 26 parents and almost all of them were white and college-educated. Hopefully, similar research will be done in the future with a more demographically diverse set of participants.”[9] But these limitations aside, he concludes, “… it’s hard to dismiss research that shows such clear benefits of traditional toys over fancier (and more expensive) electronic items. So my advice to parents of very young children looking to purchase a toy to help their infant’s language development would be this: Be skeptical of a toy company’s grand claims about the educational benefits of their high-tech product since they rarely have research to back it up. Instead, opt for a low-tech toy or book that both parent and child can engage with together.”[10]

Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent” reminds us that, “Electronic toys …are pretty much ubiquitous. Young children are very attracted to them. So what is a parent to do? Electronic toys can be helpful if used sparingly. We all need a few minutes to do dishes or cook a meal and these toys can be good distractions for a few minutes. It’s good, however, to keep in mind that you as a parent are the best “toy” for your infant. Talking to him/her over toys and books is the best way for her/him to learn language and interaction skills … and narrating to your child what you are doing as you go about your daily routine.” [11]

My takeaway: when the “game show of life” has us standing before door #1 (books), #2 (traditional toys) and #3 (electronic toys), I’m selecting door #1 first for the infant in my care because vocabulary development matters and engaging infants through effective communication is a high-stakes ── 30 million word ──pay-off.

_________________

[1] Sosa AV. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015. Dec 23

[2] Board books: designed to survive the wear and tear of infants’ mouths and hands and offer opportunity to share with a child on a caregiver’s lap. The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page.

[3] In conversation, turns include the pauses, silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party.

[4] “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring. http://www.readtosucceedbuffalo.org/documents/30%20Million%20Word%20Gap.pdf

[5] Sosa study

[6] Sosa study.

[7] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/ and http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/

[8] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[9] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[10] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[11] http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/

 

Can your dog or cat help a child learn to read better?

Early this morning ─ really early ─ BJ the cat[1] sprawls across my collarbone peering into my face, “vocalizing.” Her meows grow louder which can only mean one thing: “get up, I’m hungry, can’t you hear me?” BJ is mostly deaf from advancing age. I’m convinced she has no idea how loud she is. As she tunes up the MEOW volume, I shuffle downstairs to get the food bowl ready ─run water in the faucet until it’s hot enough to mix with her canned food to make warm gravy. She watches quietly next to her tan placemat on the kitchen floor. As I put the food bowl on her placemat, she vocalizes soft mewings that I interpret as, “I’m happy to just about be getting my food.” Then there’s quiet while she laps the gravy. Next, a visit to the water bowl followed by stretching. Finally, a trip to the window seat where she waits for the sun to stream in for a morning sunbath.

BJ is 20 years + some months old. In her senior years, she seems to have more to comment on than ever before ─she did not vocalize much when she was younger. She never has been the kind of cat who might sit and listen contentedly, for example, to a child reading out loud. Why you ask would I even expect her to do this?

Well, I learned recently that some cats do –that animal therapy teams throughout the country are joining forces to listen to children read. So I’m looking at BJ through new eyes. Could we be a therapy team – go to schools and libraries and help children learn to read better? Nope, not BJ the cat and me. And truth be told, it’s primarily dogs who participate in these programs. I learned this from looking at the pictures of therapy teams posted on the Internet – from animal assistance reading programs in Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Delaware, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Puget Sound.

So now I’m wondering how to get my therapy team together ─ join forces with a dog (or mellow cat) to participate in one of these programs because the data shows they are really helping children learn to read better. And children, schools, and animal therapy teams alike are saying it’s fun!

What do these programs look like? In an article for The Bark, [2] Anita Stone explains: “For each session, the dog and the child-tutor settle down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor in a corner of the school media center or in the library. Either the dog picks out a book or the child selects a picture book, brings it to the dog, holds it flat and begins to read. Though the children believe they are teaching dogs to read, in fact, with the dog as a comfortable, attentive audience (and an occasional gentle assist from the dog’s adult volunteer partner), they are actually teaching themselves. As far as the child is concerned, however, reading is about the dog, not about the child. No pressure. No embarrassment. No humiliation.”

Stone provides some good history about these programs. “Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) was among the first to use “reading dogs” in the classroom. Launched in 1999 by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, the program was introduced in a Salt Lake City library … and a year later, successfully moved into the school system. READ dogs are trained, registered and certified therapy animals who serve as classroom reading tutors, assisting children with their quiet presence and helping them develop a love of reading.”

Many other programs around the country have followed suit. For example, a psychologist volunteering with Helping Paws International, collaborated with Intermountain to create a therapy assistance program called BARKS (“Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety”) in Durham County, North Carolina. By 2002, the program had accepted and trained several breeds of dogs, and the demand from schools waiting to participate has grown significantly. BARKS dogs act as partners in 30-minute weekly reading sessions with elementary school children. “Helping Paws International” has also been successful in working with autistic children in North Carolina, and many teams are now operating in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

“Sit Stay Read!” was established in the Chicago area more than a decade ago by an owner of a dog training school. The Chicago program worked with teachers, reading specialists and literacy experts to establish a program focusing on reading fluency with second- and third-graders of low-income communities. One volunteer team (human + dog) works with groups of four children. The program started with four schools but quickly found some 40 schools were on the waiting list. The results have been really positive. Fluency test results show reading acceleration to 24 words per minute, versus 9 words per minute for children not involved with the program. And both the attendance of children and their attitude in the classroom have improved.

The Reading With Rover![3] literacy program places volunteers in the schools, bookstores and libraries of the Puget Sound area of Washington State to help with literacy programs. I especially enjoyed the testimonials (“woof” reviews) at their website. Here are a few:

  • It’s always been a struggle to get my child to read each day. I’ve never seemed to be able to find the right topics to draw him in. Reading with Rover has been a HUGE help! My son will read almost any kind of book during Reading with Rover, and he wants to read for the entire hour! This is so different from how he is at home. I highly recommend this program for any child who is not a fan of reading! ─ Jessica
  • My granddaughter is in love with your program! And when I was first introduced to it at Third Place Books last month, I totally understood her delight and enthusiasm. In the 40 years that I’ve been involved with education, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more exciting and rewarding program. I had tears in my eyes as I walked around and watched the various children read to these wonderful dogs! I have told anyone who will listen about it! I applaud all of your special efforts to make this so magical! ─ Jennifer C
  • Wow, was it a hit!!! Nate had a blast. Read to 5 dogs and finished 2 whole books. He was so proud of himself. He talked about the dogs all the way home. He is also trying to figure out how our unruly dog, Norton, could be a Reading with Rover dog. When we explained that Norton didn’t behave well enough to be around all those other dogs, he kept thinking. He’s now convinced we can start our own Reading with Rover at home with the neighborhood kids! I had to laugh. That should be funny. Thank you  ─ Shay H

All of these programs (there are many described on the Internet) report success in helping children learning to read. The biggest problem they seem to share is how to find more animal assistance teams.

So, what does it take for a dog (or cat even) to make a good therapy animal? These programs generally require registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament. And training for the human that accompanies the dog for the reading sessions is needed as well; for example, what to say to the child when Rover falls asleep while the child is reading to him.

A report on these types of reading assistance programs by ABC news a few years ago[4] highlighted researchers at the University of California, Davis, who confirmed that children who read to a dog really do perform better. They found that young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement. For young kids, one of the big challenges in learning to read is the embarrassment of making mistakes. Reading to dogs provides a simple solution — a non-judgmental, comforting furry friend who “listens” and takes the pressure off a child as he stumbles.

So, with the research suggesting that animals can help children learn to read better, I’m hoping that other lovers of animals will look into these programs to help meet the growing demand for animal therapy teams.

I wish that BJ the cat could listen to children read but she’s doing too much of her own talking to be a good listener these days. My plan, therefore, is to look for a dog with the right temperament to be my partner in one of these programs in the future.

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[1] Subject of one of the Z House stories: “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.”

[2]“Reading” Dogs Help Children Learn By lending an ear at story time: http://thebark.com/content/reading-dogs-help-children-learn

[3] http://www.readingwithrover.org/

[4] Report: Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort to Students. Study: Reading to Dogs Helps Children Learn to Read. http://abcnews.go.com/WN/study-dogs-children-learn-read/story?id=11428770

 

Can AmeriCorps help millions of children learn to read better?

There are flashing red lights for an estimated 6 million children in the U.S., ages three through grade three. More than two-thirds of fourth grade students do not read proficiently. And those who do read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. Being proficient in reading and graduating from high school are critical steps for success in our 21st century economy.

As a nation how do we help the millions of our struggling readers? Clearly, big solutions are needed.

One big solution is already in play ─ bring to the schools a well-organized, large volunteer force. Emma Brown, education reporter in a recent Washington Post article,[1] explores this solution by asking if volunteers can help kids read more proficiently. Her answer is yes.

We’re not talking here about the small-scale tutoring programs that in the past reached relatively small numbers of children at a school. Given the enormous dimensions of the nation’s child literacy problems, there’s growing recognition that we’re talking about large-scale solutions. One solution researchers are studying is an effort to bring a scaled-up volunteer force to the schools. The volunteer program they’re aiming their searchlight on is AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps is one of the programs operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that engages more than 5 million Americans in service through four main programs ─ AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Social Innovation Fund, and Volunteer Generation Fund. In a recent blog post, [2] the CEO of the CNSC (Wendy Spencer) makes the point that ‘national service is a powerful strategy for addressing critical problems facing our nation,’ calling out ‘new evidence of AmeriCorps’ effectiveness in improving childhood literacy.’

The evidence is that AmeriCorps volunteers are helping millions of children to improve their reading proficiency.[3] Examples come from two recent evaluation studies of programs in operation in Minnesota and California:

  • “An independent evaluation of the Minnesota Reading Corps, which relies on AmeriCorps service members to identify and tutor struggling students, showed that preschoolers in the program were far more likely to gain the literacy skills they need to be ready for kindergarten than other preschoolers.”[4]
  • “A separate study of a different tutoring program, Oakland, Calif.-based Reading Partners, found that it added about two months of additional growth in students’ reading proficiency. And it made that difference despite depending on AmeriCorps members and community volunteers, who had no special training in literacy education.”[5]

To gain these positive outcomes, the programs working in schools operating in several states ─ not only Minnesota and California ─ need the right training for the volunteers and the right curriculum for the students.

You might ask, why are schools looking to volunteers ─ what about the reading specialists and classroom teachers in the schools? Why aren’t they the front line ─ and perhaps the only line ─ in working with children with reading challenges?

There are indeed reading specialists in many of the elementary and secondary schools in our states[6] who typically serve as teachers, coaches, and/or leaders of their school reading programs. They’re authorized by their licenses to teach reading and provide technical assistance and professional development to classroom teachers. They also support, supplement and extend classroom teaching, and work collaboratively to implement their school’s reading program. But the fact is, there are not enough to go around. And while we all want the best trained teachers in reading ─ the reading specialists[7]─ to work with children struggling with reading, this is not possible. Too often, the reading specialists who have been tutoring children for years in our schools have shifted their roles ─ now directing much of their effort to helping classroom teachers improve effectiveness in teaching reading and overseeing school reading programs. And the classroom teachers don’t have the time to focus on the one-to-one reading challenges of so many of their students.

So, where does this leave children who need help to develop reading proficiency?

The handwriting is already on the wall ─ we cannot/will not be able to bring in enough trained reading specialists and classroom teachers to take on the mammoth challenges of child literacy in our schools. So, an approach of recruiting a substantial volunteer force to address this problem is being tested in many schools. This approach is not without controversy ─ the “prospect of tapping an army of untrained people to tackle students’ literacy problems doesn’t sit well with everyone.”[8]

Nevertheless, many schools are bringing in a volunteer force to scale up efforts to help children improve their reading proficiency. Two substantial trials have been the Minnesota Reading Corps and Reading Partners programs.[9] With support from the CNCS and matching funds from the private sector and other sources, the Reading Corps program has expanded beyond Minnesota to seven additional states (California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia.

These developments have grown fairly quickly. Just 12 years ago, the Minnesota Reading Corps[10] initiated its experimental program for 250 children with the goal to get every first-grader reading at their grade level by the year’s end. The early successes in the program led to rapid growth ─ nearly 1,500 AmeriCorps members are using the Reading Corps model to serve 36,000 students across the country this year at more than 900 sites. In the early years of the program, it was the teachers and classroom aides who tracked students’ reading skills and provided the one-on-one help at the first sign of reading troubles. The program model shifted when they tried an approach to try to bring down costs and make the reading program easier to replicate in other schools ─ they would try ‘handing over all that tracking and tutoring to members of AmeriCorps.’[11]

This approach worked. And this is the program model in play today─ AmeriCorps volunteers assess children from kindergarten through grade three at three points per year to determine who needs what type of reading assistance. ‘They pull struggling students out of their classes every day for 20-minute one-on-one sessions, using scripted lessons to work on literacy skills that range from identifying letter sounds to reading fluency.’[12] At the preschool level, AmeriCorps volunteers tutor children and work alongside teachers in the classrooms all year long. A few days of training is provided for volunteers before they begin their work in the schools; and once at the school, they receive ongoing guidance from a teacher at the school (internal coach) plus an employee of the Minnesota Reading Corps (external coach).

Bolstered by the impressive outcomes from this model, the Minnesota Reading Corps is now raising funds to expand into 10 additional states in the next five years.

Some promising evidence that this model works

  • A 2012 study found that Minnesota Reading Corps participants were three times less likely to be referred to special education, saving the state an estimated $9 million a year. Kindergartners and first-graders who received help from the Minnesota Reading Corps made significantly more progress than other children, even after just one semester, according to the study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago. The program had less of an effect for children in grades two and three.
  • At the preschool level, by the end of the school year children in Reading Corps classrooms on average met or exceeded all five literacy targets for kindergarten readiness, which are based on predictors identified by a panel of national reading experts and include knowledge of letter names/sounds, rhyming, alliteration, and vocabulary. Children in comparison classrooms, on average, met only one target by the end of the school year.

The Reading Partners program which also uses a volunteer force ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens is expanding in the schools as well. At each school, an AmeriCorps member serves as the site coordinator to train and manage the volunteers. And the children who work with a Reading Partners tutor are making ‘significantly more reading progress than their counterparts who don’t, according to an external evaluation of the program at 19 schools in three states.’[13] Even though the program is making a major and positive difference in the literacy development of children in the program, unfortunately ‘tutoring is not enough to solve all children’s reading struggles.’ The Reading Partners program is offering the equivalent of two extra months of instruction per year, but the fact is, some children are years behind.

The leadership at AmeriCorps has concluded that scaling their volunteer force to address child literacy issues is warranted based on this type of solid evidence coming from the evaluation studies of their programs:

  • Preschool children tutored by AmeriCorps volunteers were significantly more prepared for kindergarten than students without such tutors.
  • AmeriCorps members helped students meet or exceed targets for kindergarten readiness in all five critical literacy skills assessed, and the effect sizes were substantial.
  • The program was effective across a range of settings – and for all students regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, or dual language learner status.

Here are my three key takeaways in the face of the red lights flashing warnings at our nation’s child literacy problem:

  1. These programs have demonstrated they’re working for children based on the gains reported in the evaluation studies.
  2. These programs are providing a needed supplement to the good efforts of reading specialists and classroom teachers who cannot attend to the reading difficulties of the large number of children at their schools.
  3. Unless a new solution emerges for scaling up the type of one-to-one tutoring assistance needed by children with reading challenges, a well-organized volunteer force drawing from AmeriCorps should be expanded to increase the reading levels of millions of American children who need this critical help.

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[1] March 28, 2015

[2] AmeriCorps Program Improves Childhood Literacy by Wendy Spencer, March 30, 2015: http://nationalservice.tumblr.com/post/115035049382/americorps-program-improves-childhood-literacy

[3] CNCS invests more than half of all AmeriCorps grant dollars in education, with AmeriCorps members providing teaching, tutoring, mentoring, afterschool support, and other services to students in more than 10,000 public schools, including one in three persistently low-achieving schools.

[4] Emma Brown, Washington Post article, March 28, 2015.

[5] Washington Post

[6] A Reading Specialist Certification (license) is required to serve as a reading specialist in elementary and high schools.

[7] Certification generally involves completing literacy-related coursework after one has obtained a bachelor’s degree. Each state has different criteria for obtaining reading specialist certification. Some states require general teacher certification, and some require at least one year of teaching experience in a general classroom before obtaining reading specialist certification. Some states require applicants to pass a reading specialist content area examination as well.

[8] Washington Post article.

[9] From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_Partners): Reading Partners is a children’s literacy nonprofit based in the San Francisco Bay Area with programs in over 40 school districts throughout California, New York, Washington DC, Maryland, Texas, Colorado, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Washington. In its core program, Reading Partners operates Reading Centers at elementary schools in under-served communities where children reading below grade level receive free one-on-one tutoring from volunteers using a structured, research-based curriculum. The program has a success rate of nearly 90% in measurably helping students improve their progress in reading, with over 75% narrowing the achievement gap by the end of the school year. Teachers refer students struggling with reading to the campus Reading Partners program, where they receive one-on-one attention of a trained volunteer tutor for 90 minutes each week. Tutoring sessions focus on building students’ reading skills in five critical areas of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

[10]From https://minnesotareadingcorps.org/: The Minnesota Reading Corps is the nation’s largest AmeriCorps tutoring program. Since 2003, the program has helped more than 100,000 struggling readers age three to grade three progress towards proficiency, and the model has expanded to seven other states and Washington DC, now reaching more than 36,000 students annually. Tutors commit to a year of AmeriCorps service, receive training and ongoing support throughout the year from literacy coaches, and use assessments to ensure their efforts produce the desired results ─ helping children achieve grade-level reading proficiency. The effectiveness of Minnesota Reading Corps has been confirmed every year for the past 12 years. Internal evaluations are conducted annually and independent evaluations have been commissioned every three years.

[11] Washington Post article.

[12] Washington Post article.

[13] As reported in Washington Post, the study was conducted by the social science research firm MDRC and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service