During the opening keynote of Learning Ally's Spotlight on Early Literacy Conference, Barbara Steinberg shared a compelling case for investing in early literacy programs. Steinberg, the founder and owner of PDX Reading Specialist, an organization whose mission is to inspire individuals to become confident and capable learners through remediation, accommodation, and inspiration, has 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher and dyslexia and educational consultant. In this Q&A, she explains why early intervention is critical and which aspects of reading instruction can make the biggest difference with at-risk students.
Q: Why is early literacy so important?
Barbara: Research has taught us that a child who fails to read adequately in first grade has a 90% probability of reading poorly in fourth grade and a 75% probability of reading poorly in high school (Gabrieli, 2009).
There are two reasons for this. First, there is something called the Matthew effect. The Matthew effect says that in the same way the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, children who start off behind continue to stay behind. For this reason, we must provide quality instruction in the foundational skills needed for reading in preschool and kindergarten. If we wait until 2nd or 3rd grade to identify struggling readers, then the likelihood students will catch up deteriorates very quickly. And when we wait, it takes four times as long to intervene in fourth grade as it does in first grade (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development).
The other thing we know is that the social-emotional component is just as significant as academic challenges. When we end up waiting and waiting, and we see students in third, fourth, and even later show up with huge reading deficits, the social-emotional challenges become the primary concern. We can teach 98% of students to become skilled readers if taught using science, but repairing their self-esteem is so much more difficult.
Q: Which aspects of reading instruction are most important in the early grades?
Barbara: There are five components of early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, accuracy and fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. All of them are important and all of them should be taught. However, the most important areas of early reading instruction are phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle. These two areas are called the foundational skills -- and they're necessary for students to master for long-term success in reading. We know that 80% of struggling readers share a deficit in the ability to read words accurately and automatically, and the root cause of that deficit is a lack of phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle.
Q: What is phonological awareness and why is it important?
Barbara: The research is clear that the most common cause of children's difficulties in acquiring what's called word recognition, is the ability to recognize a word with accuracy and automaticity. The ability to do that rests on the ability to have strong phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is necessary for using our alphabetic code. English is a code system, and beginning reading instruction teaches students how to break that code apart.
Phonological awareness is the best predictor of later outcomes in reading. And the best news is that direct instruction can make a huge difference. Instruction in this area is one of the few factors that educators and parents can influence significantly. When is it important? Well, it's most important in the preschool and kindergarten years. Why? One reason has to do with brain development. Our brains have the most neural flexibility in those early years, and we're trying to teach our brains to do something that they're not naturally wired to do.
Q: How about the alphabetic principle?
Barbara: The alphabetic principle is the concept that letters represent sounds. If you come to the word "CAT" on the page, your brain processes the letters and translates them into sounds. It might sound easy. However, our alphabet of 26 letters and 44 sounds can be written hundreds and hundreds of different ways. So while the basic alphabet must be mastered, we can't stop there. We must also teach students that two and three letters can make one sound (such as "sh" and "igh"). And all of this must be done explicitly and systematically.
Q: How do decodable readers help beginning readers?
Barbara: Our beginning readers need experience reading stories that they can actually decode. You might recognize a decodable reader like, "The cat sat on the mat." Not the most intellectually stimulating book, which is why we need to continue reading to students. But for students to practice connecting sounds to symbols, they have to read decodable books. So often we "practice" reading by just giving kids books. And when they have difficulty with the book, we practice reading the book. Students need practice at the sentence level, at the phrase level with the words, and with the sounds and symbols. The book is one piece of our instruction.
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