Why Reading Literacy Matters

Amid the state’s declining literacy rates, early intervention by parents and schools remains vital.

Learning to read is a fundamental and often exciting part of a child’s educational journey. It opens up a whole new world of learning, helping to foster curiosity and a vibrant imagination at a young age.

But faced with the many unique educational challenges posed by the pandemic and its continued impact on learning, many young students in Michigan are struggling with literacy and risk falling behind their peers without early intervention from parents/guardians, schools and/or reading specialists.

“Remote learning and pandemic-related disruptions continue to have a negative impact on reading rates in the city (of Detroit) and across the state,” says Cassie Williams, executive director of K-12 Literacy for Detroit Public Schools Community District.  

Still, while roadblocks to an enriching education vary district to district, as well as student to student, experts in the field agree that early literacy support — whether from family or educators — greatly encourages successful academic outcomes.

“All of us are accountable for supporting children’s literacy growth and development,” says Mary Lose, professor emerita and former director of the Reading Recovery Center of Michigan at Oakland University. “If we intervene vigorously and early, at the first indication of a child’s struggle with literacy, it’s much more effective than waiting until much later after they’ve experienced failure.”

Even before the pandemic, reading rates in Michigan have been on a downward trajectory, according to the 2023 State of Michigan Education Report, “Beyond the Pandemic,” from Education Trust-Midwest, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Michigan ranks in the bottom 10 states nationally for fourth grade reading, falling from 32nd in 2019 to 43rd on the 2022 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) — considered an important predictor of a child’s future academic success.

Michigan’s annual standardized assessment for students, the M-STEP, also paints a concerning picture for students, the report said, with only 41.6% of all students demonstrating proficiency in third grade reading last year compared to 45.1% in 2019. 

“Factors related to historical social-economic inequities continue to play a part as well,” adds Williams, as the report noted students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income households fell at least 12 percentage points below the statewide average in M-STEP scores in 2022.

Michigan’s Read by Grade Three Law — passed in 2016 to improve early literacy outcomes for students — also exacerbated education gaps throughout the state, disproportionately affecting Black and low-income students, according to a 2022 report by the Education Policy Innovation Collaborative at Michigan State University.

Opponents of the law are critical of the legislation’s retention policy, which requires districts to hold back students who do not meet a state standard for reading proficiency by the end of the third grade.

Based on scores from the 2021-22 third grade M-STEP ELA assessment, the EPIC report stated that economically disadvantaged students were “4.5 times as likely to be eligible for retention as their wealthier peers, with retention-eligibility rates of 9% and 2%, respectively.” Additionally, the report found that retention estimates for Black students were 8%, which is “nearly eight times that of White, Hispanic or Latino/a/x, or American Indian or Alaskan Native students.”

“The retention portion of the law had some negative impact in that it seemed to disproportionately impact students whose parents were not able to be as involved in the process,” Williams says.

But the law has had positive impacts on early literacy, too, she says, like requiring schools to identify and provide individualized reading plans for students who are struggling with reading and writing.

Still, Lose says “punitive” approaches such as retention have proven not to be effective. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill in March that will repeal the retention requirement portion of the Read by Grade Three Law.

“What works,” she says, “is intervening early and providing ongoing support to children who need it.”

What parents can do

While that may seem a daunting task for some parents — especially those with students in lower performing or underfunded districts — supporting a child in early literacy can be as simple as meeting them where they’re at and stoking their natural interests, says Lose, who retired last year after a 40-year career as a literacy educator.

“Every child has interests that can be cultivated, so find out what delights a child, what they’re interested in; find out what they’re curious about and aim to provide reading and writing opportunities that tap into their strengths,” she says. “Starting with what children know is always a great way to start.”

In fact, there are many simple things that parents of all backgrounds can do at home to encourage an early love of reading, Lose says. 

From simply modeling a passion for reading and writing themselves to providing opportunities for their child to discuss and process what they’ve read makes a huge impact. No matter if it’s a book, a poem, a recipe or a birthday card, she says, “comprehending evolves; the more we read, the more we converse with others, the more we practice, we can become more sophisticated in our understanding.”

And comprehending the text you read is just as important as reading and writing, Lose says, so don’t pick something too hard at first that can discourage or confuse a child.

Parents who are unsure of whether early literacy intervention is needed for their child should take note of potential warning signs, Williams says, including difficulty manipulating sounds in words, difficulty pronouncing and remembering words, trouble remembering the names and sounds of letters, or frequently guessing at unknown words rather than sounding them out. 

Expressing angst, a reluctance to read or write or appearing to be under stress can be a warning sign as well, Lose adds.

“It’s so important to support children early, not later after they’ve habituated failure,” she says. “Check in with your child’s teacher, and then if they continue to struggle ask the school if they can provide early literacy intervention. It doesn’t have to be a program or a kit, it can just begin the conversation with your child’s teacher and school because early is better than waiting.”

Sponsored content brought to you by Wayne County Community College District. For more information, visit wcccd.edu.

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