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State literacy summit shines light on reading achievement

Virginia’s steady decline in reading test scores over the last five years should raise alarm for educators across the state, state Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said Monday to kick off a literacy summit in Charlottesville.

“The warning signs are here on these declines, and if we don’t do something now, we’re going to look back in 10 years, and folks are going to say they should have known because the trend was there,” Lane said.

Last school year, 78% of students passed the reading SOL, and pass rates have declined one percentage point per year over the last five years, Lane said. That steady decline is scarier than a precipitous drop to Lane, he said, because it doesn’t generate the same sense of urgency as a steeper decline.

“One of the things I hope you leave here with today is a sense of urgency that this is not a one-year anomaly,” he said. “This is a significant decline that we’ve seen over half a decade.”

To help school systems improve students’ reading achievement, the Virginia Department of Education hosted a day-long summit at the Omni Hotel on the Downtown Mall. Speakers, panels and breakout sessions focused on instructional practices that reflect the science of reading, a body of research that has been developed over decades explain how children learn to read.

“What we know is that, on the whole — and this doesn’t mean your school division or your classroom, but on the whole — school divisions and states have walked away from focusing on the science of reading, and we want to bring that focus back to Virginia,” Lane said.

The declines in statewide reading pass rates persist across grade levels and demographic groups, Lane said during a presentation.

“You’ll see that it’s every assessment across the board, we’re seeing this trend,” he said.

Reading comprehension is the result of decoding — the ability to read words on the page — and language comprehension, according to the scientific theory known as the Simple View of Reading.

The essential components of reading are phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension and fluency.

Lane said that in earlier grades, schools have de-emphasized phonics and phonemic awareness. Those two components help students learn the relationship between letters and the sounds they make and to identify the words on the page.

He encouraged school divisions focus back on those skills, in addition to the other components, especially from kindergarten to second grade.

“The debate is not about whether phonics or no phonics because everybody does a little bit of phonics,” he said. “But what I’m telling you is a student needs a strong basis in phonics to be able to do the other things that happen as you’re reading.”

Charlottesville and Albemarle have put an emphasis on phonics in the early elementary grades as part of a new approach to reading.

Monday’s literacy summit is the first of several that the state will hold to share information about the science of reading and delve deeper in the issue with professors, teachers, parents and other groups.

Lane said the department wanted to start the literacy summits now, rather than over the summer, so school divisions can start making a difference right away.

“Every child can learn to read if you follow this empirical basis and research-based strategies,” he said.

Emily Solari, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, gave the gathered educators a primer on the reading research and discussed how to bring that information into the classroom.

“We’ve known about the science of reading for years, and it’s not making it into the classroom,” she said.

Solari told the group during her keynote address and on a subsequent panel discussion that reading programs need to have systematic and explicit instruction in the components of reading, adding that the science of reading doesn’t mean pushing just code-based instruction without high-quality language and meaning-based instruction.

“I’m not making the argument that we do decoding, decoding and decoding until third grade,” she said. “You have to do them together, and it has to be done in an integrated way.”

Solari said school systems need core evidence-based instruction as a baseline support and valid, reliable screening measures to identify students who need more help.

“If kids are struggling with reading, it’s not the fault of the teacher; it’s the fault of the system,” she said, identifying a range of factors that affect reading achievement.

One system-level change will kick in next fall as the Curry School rolls out a new curriculum for its reading courses that will include the information about the science of reading and how teachers can apply it in the classroom.

“We all have a role in this broad and complex system,” she said.

Raising awareness about the science of reading is one of seven strategies that Lane outlined Monday.

Other strategies include improving teacher preparation programs, expanding early childhood programs, ensuring equitable access to rigorous instruction, increasing support for students beyond the classroom, aligning policy and instructional practices and eliminating the teacher shortage.

“Solving students’ needs, especially in reading, is a complex issue, and there are no single seven things that are going to make a difference,” he said. “It’s going to take all of us.”


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