EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a new column that will run on The Daily's Times community page on Wednesdays.
Educators and researchers have long recognized the importance of mastering reading by the end of third grade, yet two-thirds of U.S. schoolchildren are not reaching that standard — with a large percentage of those students living right here in New Mexico.
Unfortunately, New Mexico is struggling in many areas related to children's literacy. The state ranks 49th nationwide in meeting educational standards, according to the 2014 KIDS COUNT Data Book, an annual report on how children are faring in the U.S.
Broken down, this looks a little like this: 62 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in New Mexico are not attending preschool and 79 percent of its fourth graders are not proficient in reading. To view the full annual report, visit www.aecf.org.
Research clearly illustrates 74 percent of students who do not read fluently by the third grade will fall further and further behind — more times than not, never catching up. Third grade is a crucial year largely because children are expected to transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn." Failing to meet this significant milestone can have significant long- and short-term consequences including poor self-esteem, problematic classroom behavior and failure to graduate from high school.
Having spent nearly 15 years in the New Mexico public school system, at varying levels, I've observed many remedial literacy programs flow in and out of districts in an attempt to help students gain ground toward reading mastery. But truthfully, there isn't a quick fix. Children learn to read fluently and proficiently one book, one page, one word at a time with consistent help. And the sooner they are exposed to school readiness literacy tools, the better.
There are many things you — and we, as a community — can do for area children struggling to read. And they're simple and cost-free.
Challenge yourself to devote 20 to 30 minutes a day to boosting a child's literacy skills. It could not only change the way that child starts the school year, but it could also change his or her life.
1. Read daily
A child struggling to read must interact daily with literacy tools to improve, preferably at a regular time, in a special and comfy spot. The possibilities for literacy intervention are endless: books on tape, interactive software, shared book reading, oral reading or simply being read to. Add interaction to stories with playful puppets/props, vibrant voice inflections and hand signs. Make stories and their words come to life. Visit our beautiful library as often as possible. Model regular reading.
2. Attack phonics: Many children struggle to read fluently because they lack a solid phonics foundation. Fluent reading skills require phonetic word decoding tools. To gain momentum, it is helpful to first identify where the breakdown is occurring for the child to move on. Look at the three initial performance steps:
a. Does the child recognize all the letters/sounds of the alphabet?
b. Can the child blend a single consonant and a vowel together (sa, mu, fe, ti, ro)?
c. Can the child add an ending consonant sound to a blend to form a word (sat, mug, fed, tip, rod)?
Additional phonetic strategies:
Push patterns: Words have distinct patterns. Strengthen a child's spelling and word recognition by exploring word patterns, otherwise known as "word families." For example, if the child can spell "sat," introduce "mat," "bat," "rat" and "hat." Explore a new word family weekly. Post the words all over the house. Introduce suffixes and prefaces to create new words: "Visit" can become "visiting," "visitor," "revisit" and "visited."
Post high-frequency words: Encourage the memorization of common sight words: all, am, are, at, be, but, came, do, did. Visit www.theschoolbell.com for helpful lists of high frequency sight words. Post the words. Make flashcards. Turn it into a game.
Use mnemonic devices: Mnemonic devices help students recall spelling rules and commonly misspelled words. Children benefit from learning memory-aid phrases such as "I before E except after C," or "When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking." The phrase "I am a friend to the end," helps with the spelling of "friend." Or, a principal (not principle) is your pal. Create your own mnemonic devices to help with challenging words.
3. Encourage rich vocabulary
A child's reading skills can be greatly enhanced with the encouragement to use bold and beautiful words. Create an atmosphere where children hear and use lots of interesting and descriptive words. Instead of big, use gigantic or enormous. Crimson in place of red. Engage children in creative songs, stories and finger plays to boost vocabulary enhancement. For a list of children's books and activities that feature rich and robust language, visit naeyc.org.
4. Never give up
Finally, remember that a child who struggles to read may simply be a late bloomer. I was! So much so, I had to repeat kindergarten. Decades later, I teach English and write developmental books for parents and educators. Go figure! All children have their own unique patterns for learning; sometimes it just takes a little more time to unfold — and at their personal pace. Just don't give up.