How parents, teachers and LEAs can help students read by third grade

Almost 60 percent of children in California don’t meet state standards for reading by third grade.

A recent EdSource webinar “Reading by third grade: What parents and teachers can do” provided parents and educators who are on the front lines of the “literacy crisis” an opportunity to share their perspectives on what to do if a child or student is falling behind and the role that state and local educational agencies can play in improving outcomes.

According to panelist Susan Pimentel, a founding partner at StandardsWork and Student Achievement Partners, the reason so many young people in the U.S. aren’t reading at grade level is because they are lacking daily explicit, systematic work on foundational skills in K-3. This is due to factors such as preparation programs not adequately readying educators to teach on the subject and the use of curriculum that minimizes phonics and promotes the three-cueing system, Pimentel observed.

Megan Bacigalupi, a Bay Area parent and co-founder and executive director of CA Parent Power, noted that balanced literacy, defined by EdSource as “a variation of the whole-language approach that emphasizes exploring literature organically but includes the explicit instruction of phonics in small doses,” is “alive and well in California” and contributes to the issue. “Our state leaders have done nothing to change that,” Bacigalupi said, adding that some states have mandated reforms.

Oakland Unified School District, where Bacigalupi’s children go, is one of few California LEAs that have switched from balanced literacy to structured literacy, she said. Structured literacy “emphasizes the highly explicit and systematic teaching of all important components of literacy including foundational skills (phonics, spelling) and higher-level literacy skills (reading comprehension),” according to EdSource.

“There are curriculums that do not teach kids how to read,” Bacigalupi said. “Learning to read is not like learning to speak. We learn how to speak very easily. It is not the same with reading. We need explicit instruction, almost every child does … the majority of kids need that and they’re not getting it in California.”

For parents or community members looking to pursue curriculum change, Bacigalupi said that at the local level, it’s about advocacy and talking to school board members, superintendents and school leaders.

Curriculum change can happen while ensuring local control stays intact, Pimentel added, using Mississippi and North Carolina as examples. States can simply call for the use of evidence-based curriculum.

Other practices, such as screening K-2 students to determine if they’re at risk of dyslexia as dozens of states do, may also help. Parents can also work with teachers to support their child.

Educators’ perspectives

Candida Elias, a first-grade teacher at Lancaster School District, agreed that a good curriculum that focuses on an explicit, systematic approach to reading is important. For it to be beneficial, new curriculum should be presented to educators when they are fresh and opportunities to put it into practice should be given.

Currently using the Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics, and Sight Words (SIPPS) model, Elias keeps a progress monitoring binder to collect data on students beginning their first day in class to show their growth.

She encourages praise and values small group settings where students can work with peers who are at the same level as them or learn like they do. One lesson can be adapted to meet various students’ needs.

Having healthy parent-student-teacher relationships allows everyone to be on the same page and for parents to know how their student is doing and how they can help.

Pimentel advised parents to expand their child’s knowledge of the world and to read with them. If a child is skipping or fumbling over words that are grade appropriate, it could be an indicator they need more support.

Elias’ school doesn’t currently have tutors available, but it does have resources like a literacy coach that offers classes and advice for parents if their child is struggling, she said. They are also pursuing partnerships with parents where teachers provide them with lessons on skills like writing proper sentences and how to do fluency work with their child.

Ruelvis Alonga, a parent tutor for Oakland Reach, concurred that parents play a key role in getting students to read at grade level. “It is important that it starts at home,” Alonga said.

Alonga said to avoid talking down or using baby talk with children and instead opting to introduce words and expand their vocabulary as “it encourages them and it gives them confidence.”

Related resources are available on EdSource’s website.