Guest Columnist

Promise to prepare learners for future

Several children's books on display at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library in April 2017. (Gazette Archive)
Several children's books on display at the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library in April 2017. (Gazette Archive)

Learning to read is rocket science. This is the claim made by Dr. Louisa Moats, a leading expert in the field of reading research.

Multiple studies by neuroscientists, completed with the use of MRI imaging, reveal how parts of the human brain interact during reading. Through this research, we now know how the human brain works to allow readers to lift print from the page in a meaningful way through the use of four processors: phonological, orthographic, meaning and context. Knowledge of these processors, which are needed for word recognition, has great significance for both teachers and students. Effective teaching in the early years must focus on developing them.

While meaning and context processors are essential to literacy skills, the foundation of early literacy and word recognition rest in the phonological (sound) and orthographic (letter) processors and the development of understanding connections between letters and sounds. Teachers in Cedar Rapids Community Schools are working diligently to align their instruction with the science of reading. Without this instruction, students who struggle to learn to read in kindergarten and first grade will fall behind.

Research suggests the majority of struggling readers experience difficulty because they did not receive adequate explicit and systematic phonics or phonological awareness instruction in early childhood. We also are keenly aware of the extensive research that describes the correlation between third-grade reading skill and incarceration. Hence, teachers feel an urgency to get this right in the early years and are being supported by district leadership. This work also aligns with our vision of preparing every learner to be future-ready upon graduation.

A fifth-grade teacher wrote to us recently about her efforts to better support early childhood literacy. After administering precursory assessments in the fall, she learned her students would benefit from further development of phonological skills needed to read accurately and automatically. She added the provided phonological instructional routines as part of daily phonics lessons. To her amazement, she had several students increase their automaticity by more than 70 words per minute on the midyear universal screening fluency assessment. She believes that her addition of the phonological awareness instructional routines into daily practice was the reason for this unprecedented growth.

While there are many challenges before us to meet our goal, there also is momentum. District leaders work to support classroom teachers and reading intervention teachers by providing professional learning and instructional materials aligned with the science of reading.

A challenge to this momentum may be teacher preparation programs that don’t align with research-based strategies to better understand how skilled reading is acquired. We look forward to continued discussions with colleges and universities along this issue of equipping beginning teachers with the knowledge, resources and skills to best support research-based early childhood literacy initiatives.

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We believe instruction aligned with reading science, continued professional learning and the unwavering dedication of Cedar Rapids Community School District teachers will be game changers for our students.

• Susan Van Woert is an ELA curriculum facilitator for grades K-5 and Kay Karsten is an elementary curriculum and instruction coach for the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

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