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Combat low literacy rates with early identification

Posted: Tuesday, June 29, 2010

It is summer and the good weather breaks enough to respond to the June 14th Juneau Empire article "Audit Grades Schools' Literacy Programs."

On the positive side, the audit noted 80 percent of Juneau School District students are reading to state standards; this confirms the research that most children will learn to read regardless of which teaching model or curriculum is followed - or whether the District has or has not implemented a standardized, researched-based reading program.

Rightfully, the concern of the District is for the 20 percent of students whose literacy skills fail to meet state standards. JSD Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich wonders what it will take for our high-risk children to learn to read. Mark Choate, School Board President, was disappointed because the audit did not provide specific teaching models/programs known to be effective with poor readers and that the audit did not provide feedback on how to "close the achievement gap."

Which is the best teaching model for implementing literacy skills to high-risk students? The lack of an answer is probably the very reason why there is not a district-wide reading program. Even the experts do not agree on a certain program. Rather than emphasizing a particular teaching model or reading program, the emphasis should be a district-wide, systematic method of early identification and remedial intervention for the targeted lower 20 percent of its readers, with the goal of having them meet state literacy standards by the end of third grade.

This is not a new concept. An Early Identification/Three Tier remediation literacy program for high-risk students has been implemented by Kenai School District since 2004 and for good reason; valid research supports the fact that children who start out in kindergarten and first grade in the lower quartile for literacy skills compared to their peers, will likely remain at that level unless there is intervention.

There is also good research that If these same high-risk children are identified early, beginning at the first quarter in kindergarten, and provided with a systematic multi-tier system of direct reading instruction, 80 percent will meet literacy skill standards by the end of third grade without the need for special education placement; this, in itself, saves the District time, accountability, and paperwork and saves the child precious time that is critical in the "window of opportunity" shown to be crucial in child development studies.

From my own experience, it is disheartening when a child has repeatedly failed in the system and is referred to special education for poor reading skills at age eight in the third grade. The probability of that child reaching grade level or state standards in his or her literacy skills by fifth grade by then is very low.

If the district wants to increase the literacy proficiency of its high-risk students, it may want to provide the resources and personnel to implement an early-identification, multi-tier system of direct reading instruction, with the final tier being automatic consideration for special education placement.

This also conforms well with the soon-to-be state-mandated Response To Intervention Model in which a student's nil progress must be validated in interventions during a period of time before he or she can be referred for special education.

In years past at JSD, 80 percent of referrals for special education were for low reading skills. A district-wide early identification and remediation program designed to augment the literacy skills of its high-risk students will provide such students assistance in a timely manner. It will also produce secondary, long-term positive effects in reducing the referrals to special education for reading disabilities and lowering the high drop-out rate. This just may be the silver bullet.

• Jon Pond has been a Juneau resident since 1986 and was employed with the Juneau School District as a school psychologist for 19 years.



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