Here’s We Created A Reading Program For Urban Students In Poverty

by Lynette Guastaferro, Executive Director at Teaching Matters

How did we create a reading program for students with unique needs? Good question.

We saw a need for a reading program for students in poverty, so through combination of teacher empowerment and a focus on reading strategies and high-interest texts, we did something about it.

Reading proficiency in early elementary remains unacceptably low for students living in poverty. Across the United States, children in poverty hear 32 million fewer words by age four than children in high-income households. In urban communities, many students begin each school year without the skills and knowledge needed to complete grade-level work.

See Reading Comprehension Strategy Resources

Research shows that low-income students who are not reading on level by third grade are six times more likely to drop out of school. Alarmingly, ten percent of students who drop out end up incarcerated.

How can educators and policymakers solve this national crisis? We need to transform how teachers teach reading and ensure access to high-quality literacy instruction for every student, regardless of their zip code.

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More Than Half Of The Children In Poverty Are Not Reading At Grade Level

We are aware that learning to read by the end of third grade is a key predictor of high school graduation, career success and one’s ability to contribute to the economy. It is a critical time, as students transition from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn,’ and begin using reading skills to excel in other subjects. Unfortunately, 80 percent of American children living in poverty are not proficient readers by the end of third grade.

When students are denied high-quality early literacy instruction, the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students continues to grow. Even more devastating are the harsh realities students are likely to face if they do not reach the proficiency benchmark by the end of third grade.

Although the urgency for early reading initiatives among urban students is clear, a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality suggests that most educators do not receive the training needed to help students become strong readers. Three out of four teachers report they are not taught effective reading instruction in their teacher education programs.

A Solution To Shift School Culture

As educators, we know promoting students who have not acquired basic skills for socioeconomic reasons is neither equitable nor effective. But for students to move forward in learning, they must receive high-quality reading instruction.

To accomplish this, schools must empower the people who are closest to the work – teachers – to make the important decisions that will improve student outcomes. Schools must focus on what it takes to support teacher leadership as a critical means to improve teacher effectiveness. Teachers should be key players in driving the conversation about learning within schools. Developing teacher leaders and deepening practices that consider all existing research is essential in establishing literacy teaching that leads to measurable improvements. This begins by shifting the culture.

Truly shifting the culture happens when teachers collaborate around the persistent challenges they face in moving their most struggling readers. It requires opening the classroom door, being vulnerable around their practice and sharing sometimes very disappointing classroom progress data with each other. Only then, can teachers begin to really improve their ability to reach some of their most struggling learners.

It is not enough to know strategies, educators must know how to put the pieces together, and that is reliant on critical thinking and effective decision making.  Teachers do not learn this alone, or by reading a manual.

This shift can be seen at P.S. 218, a Bronx elementary school where educators were empowered to lead the teaching conversation, and ultimately increase student literacy through a program called Early Reading Matters.

This program, developed by Teaching Matters, worked in partnership with the school to help teachers implement research-based strategies, identify and use high-quality texts, and align teaching with Common Core standards.

Coaches at P.S. 218 partnered with teachers to effectively plan and execute reading components and promoted collaborative inquiry among staff.

Rather than focusing on a single teacher or individual, P.S. 218 transformed teaching throughout the building, implementing a strategy much different from traditional top-down professional development.

The methodology used is hands-on, with teachers given the opportunity to demonstrate mastery over teaching specific subjects. With content-based coaching, the teachers at P.S. 218 used reading instruction to encourage and allow students to become critical thinkers.

Critically, P.S. 218 built the capacity of the early literacy teacher leaders to sustain the work beyond the Early Reading Matters program.

Schools Have Seen Increases In Students Reading At Grade Level

Currently, 28 high-poverty schools in the Bronx are benefiting from Early Reading Matters. For teachers who worked with coaches, the quality of early literacy instruction significantly improved. Teachers demonstrated the strongest growth in improving strategies for reading comprehension.

The percent of first, second and third grade students whose independent reading levels met benchmark expectations increased from 31 percent to 39 percent. Our partner schools, all high-poverty campuses, have seen a 50 percent increase in the number of students reading at grade level by the second grade.

Additionally, over 90 percent of principals in participating schools agreed that support in professional learning improved the overall effectiveness of their teachers.

Urban teaching is among the most challenging types of teaching, and it cannot be done alone. As educators, we must work together to empower teachers to adequately assess student skills and progress, shift toward personalized strategies and provide high-quality teaching.

Although the country is facing a crippling epidemic of low literacy rates in early elementary, educators and policy-makers can significantly reduce the opportunity and achievement gap by ensuring every child has access to high-quality early literacy instruction.

Lynette Guastaferro is Executive Director of Teaching Matters, a nonprofit leader in scalable teacher development models. For over 20 years, she has collaborated with government and education systems to improve the quality of education for students in urban communities.

image attribution flickeringbrad; How We Created A Reading Program For Urban Students In Poverty