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The Power of Early Literacy and ESSA

The Power of Early Literacy and ESSA

If you’ve been anywhere near education lately, you’ve probably heard the buzz around early literacy and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It’s no secret that once you know how to read, you can learn anything. ESSA plans are creating yet another place to promote dialogue and initiatives that center around literacy.

Let’s take a look at the five pillars of reading, combined with early literacy initiatives working to generate student success, and a few examples of where states are aligning initiatives under ESSA to support early literacy development. The goal of ESSA and its predecessors has been about equity of resources. This is no different when it comes to early literacy; however, opportunities to develop prereading skills in preparation for school are often challenging. Let’s also examine some approaches to addressing and supporting reading proficiency by the 3rd grade.

The Value of the Five Pillars

We know that there are five key pillars of reading instruction that have impact. Educators use these five pillars—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension—to create and execute a plan to help students master the skills needed for the process of reading. These five pillars can also shed light on holes in a student’s reading foundation.

If students have difficulty connecting sounds with written symbols, they are going to struggle in phonics; if they are not able to move from sounding out every word to reading with accurate skills and expression, fluency is a necessary area of focus—and comprehension and vocabulary are likely going to be weak as well. And, if there are holes, then we know that our students’ abilities to make meaning of what they read (or for that matter, enjoy reading) is going to suffer.

Simply put, learning to read is complex. It is an intricate interweaving of a child’s background knowledge, individual interests, and learning styles. Learning to read pulls from a student’s social and emotional maturity, motivation, and ability to attend to the physical tasks involved in reading. We use the five pillars of reading as a plan for teaching and a method for executing the skills needed to be mastered in the process of reading. Phonics and word-recognition activities must remain only the instruments of that process. They are the tools used to get to the goal, not the goal itself.

It’s important to also provide students with a rich and varied opportunity to choose the content they are going to read. While it is often the physical book that lays the groundwork for developing print concepts, it is the story that increases the engagement. Students need time to experiment in self-selecting books that are of interest and at the right level, and it is that interest in the content that drives further exploration.

Supporting Reading by the 3rd Grade

The early years of childhood development offer a still-untapped lever for states to address achievement gaps before they start to grow and to accelerate school improvement efforts with evidence-based interventions. While there are political, fiscal, and technical challenges, there are a variety of steps states that can take today, aided by the flexibility and opportunities presented by ESSA. States can build bridges among state and local education agencies to enhance alignment between early education providers and K–12 schools and to create more high-quality learning opportunities for all students, regardless of age.

Historically, school accountability systems in the United States tend to start measuring success at 3rd grade, though children begin developing critical language, literacy, and foundational content knowledge long before they reach this all-important turning point. It is generally understood that, by the time a student begins 4th grade, instruction switches from focusing on learning to read to reading to learn and that students are expected to be reading for understanding. We know that, without the appropriate supports and programs in place, not all students are prepared to make this jump at the end of 3rd grade. 

With ESSA, states can seize the opportunity to better align their school improvement plans with current research findings on child development and early learning from birth to 3rd grade. States and school districts across the country are looking at addressing early literacy development with varying levels of accountability. Many are turning the focus of their school improvement and achievement gap closure strategies toward the early years of learning, adopting laws that reflect this idea of learning to read versus reading for information and giving it a timetable.

This brings us to some of the legislation that is currently out there. States have approached 3rd grade reading legislation in a variety of ways: some require retention, while others allow for promotion to 4th grade with certain requirements and exemptions. Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia require retention for students not reading at proficiency by the end of 3rd grade. Fourteen of these states allow for conditional promotion, for which there are good-cause exemptions that could include participation in specific programs like intervention, ELL participation, special education, previous retention, parent and teacher recommendation, or passing an approved alternative reading assessment. Nine states allow for retention (or leave it to a local decision) but do not require it.

With many states taking different approaches, let’s take a look at three states with initiatives for reading by the 3rd grade aimed at developing proficient readers.

Georgia’s Literacy for Learning, Living, and Leading (L4) Program
Georgia takes a comprehensive approach toward improving literacy that focuses on language nutrition, access, positive learning climate, and teacher preparation and effectiveness. As a part of this plan, the state has set a goal that, by 2020, all children in Georgia will be on a path to reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade. Each year, 3rd grade students take the Georgia Milestones assessments and are required to meet an At/Above Grade Level designation in reading to be promoted to 4th grade.

Michigan’s Early Literacy Initiative

Over the next few years, Michigan’s early literacy work will focus on giving students research-supported interventions through diagnostic-driven methods. Beginning with the 2019—20 school year, legislation states that Michigan 3rd graders must be retained based on subpar reading scores. The provisions of the new law that start next school year involve providing extra services to struggling kindergarteners through 3rd graders. Michigan teachers will lead with data that compares the state’s status and growth over time, with the goal of developing a targeted set of literacy skills and reading competencies in early grades to ensure that students can demonstrate proficiency in English language arts by 3rd grade. Both parents and educators will be involved in bringing Michigan’s Early Literacy initiative to life through a commitment to providing information, awareness, and outreach.

Arizona’s Move on When Reading (MOWR) Program

Arizona’s Move on When Reading program is designed to ensure that all students receive evidence-based, effective reading instruction in kindergarten through 3rd grade. The primary focus is to identify struggling readers early and provide them with targeted interventions to get them reading at or above grade level. Students are required to meet the MOWR cut scores on the AzMERIT in 3rd grade in order to be promoted to 4th grade. The program includes very specific guidelines for K–3 literacy programs and requires each district to submit detailed literacy plans annually in order to receive their share of the 40 million dollars in funding tied to the initiative.

Overall, what we have learned is that teaching reading is a complex process. It requires resources and parental support. Early literacy starts well before traditional school, and it is an intricate weaving of students acquiring skills and their engagement in the content. There is a point where these skills are expected to be in place and educators are expected to provide the student with the ability to contribute to their own learning. 

Interested in learning more about structuring an effective, research-based reading and language arts program to help students meet achievement goals? Check out our reading and literacy how-to guide to help you think through essential instructional and assessment components, as well as select appropriate technology tools to support your approach.