New York State School Boards Association

You can read this, but can your students?

On Board Online • January 24, 2011

By Brian M. Butry
Communications Coordinator 

After the State Education Department (SED) created new cut scores for the English language arts (ELA) test last year, the results were shocking. The number of students in grades 3-8 who were deemed “proficient” dropped to 53 percent from 77 percent.

That has prompted schools across the state to place emphasis on literacy skills, especially reading.

“Learning really starts with literacy,” said Beth Mascitti-Miller, deputy superintendent for teaching and learning in the Rochester City School District.  “We are encouraging all of our school buildings to come up with creative ways to get our students engaged in reading,”

Meanwhile, the state has adopted national common core standards and will be using accountability measures that reflect specific sets of skills (see story, page 3). That is expected to keep attention focused on specific literacy and math skills.

While there is plenty of disagreement about the best ways to teach reading, there is agreement that the idea is to have each child become an independent reader who reads for pleasure. To encourage that, approaches vary. In one Rochester elementary school, a week-long program could have students wearing pajamas to school one day and, the next, writing their own rap songs for a pep rally about reading.

At Rochester’s Dag Hammarskjold School 6, the district helps parents with their literacy skills so they can support their children’s learning. Rochester is one of 30 cities across the nation that have the Toyota Family Literacy program, which provides grants to address the needs of Hispanic and other immigrant families. Such programs played a role in the pre-K through 6th-grade school being recently removed from the state’s “School in Need of Improvement” status, according to Mascitti-Miller.

Book-of-the-month clubs also seek to have all Rochester students in a particular grade level read the same book.

“Reading touches all of the things our students are asked to do,” Mascitti-Miller said. “You see it through mathematics and certainly through other content areas, particularly social studies and science. And that’s the direction the common core standards are headed … making sure literacy is incorporated into all the different content areas. So a lot of work is around literacy and how we use it to improve student achievement.” 

“Reading Around the World in 80 Days”

In Ulster County,  a small, rural school district is trying to instill a love of learning by letting students pick the reading material.

“All too often we become prescriptive, saying to kids ‘You will read this. You will read that,” said Webutuck’s Superintendent Steve Schoonmaker. This month, the district launched a home-grown program designed to “increase reading, not to prescribe reading.”

It’s called “Reading Around the World in 80 Days.” After students read a certain number of pages of books of their choice, they are deemed to have travelled to a foreign country. This results in interdisciplinary activities that relate to subjects, including social studies, physical-education, technology, science, health and music.

“Our staff is really committed to seeing that our students become good readers,” Schoonmaker told On Board. “They focus on what’s best for kids rather than what’s best for state tests. Our belief is that if students delve into education deeply enough, and frequently enough, they will probably gather significantly more of the skills and knowledge that we want them to have for tests than they would by being locked into a textbook or a particular narrow focus.”

Students are required to complete a visa for each country, which includes specifying the capital, language, currency, and three other important facts the students research and find. They will practice writing by keeping a personal journal about the experience. Each of the three grades involved will have their own itinerary, but they will all have 10 international locations in common.

Schoonmaker said the district is working to find a school in each of the 10 common countries for online international communications.

“We’d like to see improvement in reading levels and improvement on state tests, but in the grand scheme of things, creating that enthusiasm and love of learning and reading … in the long run, that’s the more important piece,” he said. 

Avoiding the “summer slide”

Independent readers ought to read on their own during the summer, but that doesn’t always happen, even among students with top reading skills. Frequently dubbed the “summer slide” by school officials, researchers have shown that students can lose up to one month of instruction time during summer vacation. A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University concluded that the achievement gap between high and low socioeconomic groups is “mainly traced to differential summer learning over the elementary school years.”

Without positive reading practices, out-of-school access to books or connections to school or a library, children can quickly fall behind leaving classroom teachers to spend the early part of the school year getting children back up-to-speed.

That is why the New York State Library sponsors the Summer Reading project. In 2008 and 2009, more than 1.5 million students and 1,100 local libraries participated.

Developed through SED, the program is billed as a partnership between local school districts and the network of public libraries across the state. The goal is to enhance children’s reading skills “during the crucial developmental years and beyond.”

Karen Balsen, a library development specialist with the State Library, said the program continues to grow each year because local educators, especially those in urban and rural areas, are realizing its benefits.

“You really have to lay a good foundation,” she said. “The earlier you can start this positive approach to reading and helping parents, the better off the students will be.”

Balsen said by working with local districts, libraries provide students with the connection to their school and access to books and technology they may otherwise not use during the summer.

“If a student is learning the violin and they stop in June and don’t practice over the summer, when they pick it back up in September they aren’t going to pick up where they left off,” she said. “So it’s not so amazing that that happens with reading as well.”

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