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HOUSE SUBCOMMITTEE HOLDS HEARING ON IMPROVING READING AND COMPREHENSION SKILLS OF CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS

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"Only 30 percent of our fourth- and eighth-grade students tested at proficient or higher in reading on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress."

On November 19, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education held a hearing to examine current federal literacy initiatives and determine how to improve reading and comprehension skills of children from birth through high school. The hearing, “Improving the Literacy Skills of Children and Young Adults,” featured practitioners, researchers, and representatives from business and the foundation world as witnesses.

“Only 30 percent of our fourth- and eighth-grade students tested at proficient or higher in reading on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress,” said U.S. Representative Dale Kildee (D-MI), chairman of the Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee. “Many of these struggling readers face a grim future without our help. Some are likely to become discouraged and drop out of school, while others will graduate unprepared for what lies ahead. For those who do graduate high school, about 40 percent will lack the literacy skills employers seek. This creates a serious dilemma in an economy where the twenty-five fastest-growing professions require greater than average literacy skills.”

Kildee stressed the importance of early childhood education and called for strengthening existing programs that target Pre-K and elementary-age children, as well as adolescent readers. “Researchers have documented a fourth-grade reading slump for years, yet federal investment in reading programs for grades four through twelve remains minimal,” he said. “In order to reverse the high school dropout crisis and prepare all students for postsecondary opportunities, we need to provide reading support far beyond the fourth grade.”

In her testimony, Dorothy Strickland, professor emeritus at Rutgers University and member of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Intermediate and Adolescent Literacy advisory group, focused on the importance of literacy development during the early childhood years. She offered recommendations on how the federal government could improve policy and practice, such as requiring well-conceived standards for child outcomes and curriculum content, early literacy assessments that are age appropriate, and the employment of multiple means of collecting, synthesizing, and making use of information.

Andrés Henríquez, a program officer in the education division of Carnegie Corporation of New York and also a member of the Alliance’s Intermediate and Adolescent Literacy advisory group, discussed Carnegie Corporation’s Advancing Literacy initiative, which works to expand knowledge and practices in literacy beyond third grade.

“Our work has shown that strong literacy skills beyond grade three is the cornerstone for success in high school and for college readiness and beyond,” Henríquez said. “Struggling readers represent a substantial proportion of students who are dropping out of our high schools. As fourth graders, their scores are among the best in the world. By eighth grade, their scores are much, much lower. By the time they get to tenth grade, U.S. students’ scores are among the lowest in the world.”

Henríquez added that early literacy instruction “does not inoculate students against struggle or failure later on.” He offered several recommendations for how the federal government could ensure that high school graduates have the fundamental literacy skills needed to succeed, including more Title I funding for middle schools and high schools, fewer, clearer, and higher common standards, and a comprehensive focus on literacy instruction from pre-K through twelfth grade, with specific support for grades four through twelve. He called the LEARN Act, which was introduced earlier this month, a “critical first step” to meet recommendations at the federal level.

Mary Kay Doré, district student support services manager for the Summit School District in Frisco, Colorado, discussed the work her school district has done over the past three years to improve instructional practice and achieve positive gains in literacy and learning for students. Leo Gómez, professor of bilingual/bicultural education at the College of Education at the University of Texas-Pan American, focused on the unique challenges of English language learners. Sandra Meyers, an education associate in reading for the Delaware Department of Education, testified about how Early Reading First and Reading First helped her state improve the literacy skills of very young children who experience high levels of risk of literacy failure. Larry Berger, chief executive officer and cofounder of Wireless Generation, talked about technological breakthroughs in reading instruction and how public policy can accelerate them.

Complete witness testimony and an archived video of the hearing are available at http://edlabor.house.gov/hearings/2009/11/improving-the-literacy-skills.shtml.

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