Literacy and Academic Success

Literacy and Academic Success

There is a disconnect between the skills and knowledge children acquire in P-12 schooling and the skills and knowledge children need to succeed in college. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently highlighted this disconnect:[1]

…while eighty-nine percent of high-school instructors in a just-released ACT survey described the students who had completed their courses as “well” or “very well” prepared for first-year, college-level work in their discipline, only about one-quarter of college faculty members said the same thing about their incoming students…

To remedy this disconnect and ensure economic opportunity for all Americans, will must: rethink our literacy instruction, foster innovative practices, and replicate those practices nationwide. Most importantly, we will have to create unique practices to address the unique and solvable needs of low-income children.

Literacy is the key academic skill on which all future skill and knowledge acquisition is based. Low-income children hear two-thirds fewer words in the home each hour than children of more affluent families. This means that between the ages of zero and three, a low-income child is exposed to some 30 million fewer words than a high-income child. This lack of exposure has the average low-income child arriving at the first day of kindergarten with only one half the vocabulary of her more affluent peers.[2] Research has repeatedly demonstrated that success or failure in forming a foundation of basic literacy in the early grades is a strong indicator of later academic success. In fact, according to the National Research Council, “Academic success, as defined by high school graduation, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy by knowing someone’s reading skill at the end of 3rd grade. A person who is not at least a modestly skilled reader by that time is unlikely to graduate from high school.”[3][4] While leading charter schools have proven that it is still possible to overcome these deficits during middle and high school, it requires tremendous academic remediation to do so.

It is therefore not surprising that schools in which low-income students reach mastery maintain a relentless focus on developing literacy skills. In fact, a recent review of existing schools serving low-income populations found that a laser focus on basic literacy in the early years of schools was a core commonality among high-performing elementary schools.[5] Practices of these high-performing schools, which closely reflect the findings of the National Reading Panel, include: dedicating significant time to teaching reading and writing, explicitly teaching phonics and comprehension strategies; and fostering fluency through extensive practice reading and writing and by inculcating a deep love of reading.  Replicating and building on these practices an important step in the disconnect I described in this blog. I hope to explore other solutions in future posts.

[1] Quoting the Atlantic Magazine: Karen Swalllow Prior, Why I Support the Common Core Reading Standards, The Atlantic April 24, 2013. 2013.

[2] Betty Hart and Todd R. Risely, The Early Catastrophe: “The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3,”American Educator, (Spring 2003).

[3] Catherine E. Snow, et al., Preventing reading difficulties in young children   (National Academies Press. 1998).

[4] In his review of high-performing, high poverty schools, Samuel Casey Carter concludes that a laser focus on basic literacy and math in the early years of schools was a central commonality among high-performing elementary schools Samuel Casey Carter, No Excuses: Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High-Poverty Schools   (ERIC. 2000).

[5] Ibid.

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