To save literacy, focus first on high-quality core instruction

During a crisis, it can feel counterintuitive to examine core systems
By: | February 5, 2021
(AdobeStock/Sergey Nivens)
Susan Lambert, Amplify Education

Susan Lambert, Amplify Education

While it is absolutely the case that this moment is unlike any we’ve experienced before, it is also true that the current literacy crisis we’re facing was entirely predictable.

This reality may seem daunting, but it is of utmost importance to remember that this is not just a COVID issue as we reach for fixes. If the adults decide to correct the system at its core rather than focus only on interventions, we can address this problem holistically rather than piecemeal.

Students must have research-based instruction from the first day of kindergarten to support them as they learn to read. We know how to teach children to read, but we have not always created a coherent system designed fully around this kind of instruction.

Innovation abounds, and the collective efforts of educators, technology partners, and philanthropy should be celebrated.

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Tutoring, flex time, and various other approaches have made headlines over the last few months. And while they provide positive outcomes for families and students who can access the services, they also create an equity problem.

We need to focus first and foremost on the core reading instruction that learners get as part of the regular literacy block. For children learning to read now, we need to double down on high-quality core instruction to get as many of them on track as we can and then intervene with the students who need it.

In education circles, we often refer to the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. While its name would indicate a system for intervention, it is perhaps better described as a framework for ensuring the literacy health of all students—a system for prevention.

Issues in the early grades

Nationwide fourth grade reading proficiency levels pre-dating COVID-19 were stagnant, with only 35% of students reading at or above proficiency, according to the most recent reporting from the National Assessment Governing Board.

In the fall of 2020, assessment of 1.26 million students revealed a significant issue, especially in the earliest grades where substantially more students scored well below grade level expectations, most dramatically in grades 1 and 2.

The National Center on Response to Intervention says RTI “integrates assessment and intervention within a multi-level prevention system to maximize student achievement and to reduce behavioral problems.”

This definition focuses the actions of the system on prevention through risk identification, effective instructional delivery, monitoring effectiveness, and alterations when data reveals a lack of progress.

RTI is a systems approach that includes the planning, resource allocation, monitoring, and modification necessary to ensure all students are reading at grade level.

Simply put, it is a way for adults to provide each student a path to develop as a confident and capable reader.

Interventions: Just add-ons?

Students who were performing at or above grade level saw instruction dramatically interrupted in the spring of 2020. In response, districts should increase the grade-level core instruction delivered during the designated English language arts block.

Adding 30-minute additional literacy instruction each day for the foreseeable future is the appropriate “intervention” for students as we make our way back to “normal.”

Districts and schools where students’ assessments demonstrated a literacy crisis pre-dating COVID should examine their core literacy instruction while also focusing on interventions.

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A focus on core curriculum is also the most equitable approach to reach most, if not all, students during school hours. Interventions, on the other hand, are add-ons at their core.

During a crisis, it can feel counterintuitive to examine core systems—especially when the world is focused on reactive measures. But we should also take a lesson from our amazing health care community: prevention is the best medicine.

Through focused and intentional planning and providing training and support to educators, we can ensure no matter what occurs, our young people are literate.

Susan Lambert is the chief academic officer of elementary humanities at Amplify Education, and hosts of the bi-weekly “Science of Reading: The Podcast.” Lambert has worked in education for 25-plus years as a classroom teacher, building administrator and various district-level roles.