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Literacy: More than reading, writing

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By Robin Bass

Aimee Barr takes her children Lauren, 6, and Dawson, 4, to the Spencer County Public Library at least once a week.

Hardly through the door, Lauren and Dawson will race for their favorite books. Dawson loves ‘the dump truck book,’ and Lauren has to have Junie B. Jones.

“She likes to read those to me. Sometimes she’ll read to Dawson,” Barr said. “There have been times when we walk out of there with 10 books, and very rarely do we not read them all.”

Barr read to Lauren when she was very young, and credits this with Lauren’s love of books and ability to get to the point where she could, as a kindergartener, read on her own.

“I have just always felt that if you don’t learn to read well early on, you struggle later,” Barr said.

Struggling to read leads to more than just having difficulty in school. In adulthood, poor reading skills correlate to everything from poor health to a poor job outlook, which can often mean a lifetime of poverty.

More than half of the Spencer County population above age 16 falls into the two lowest literacy levels as defined by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. About 20 percent of Spencer adults cannot read at all or on a very limited scale. Another 38 percent can read only up to moderate levels.

This data is nearly a decade old. Maybe the upcoming census will show literacy improvements. More than likely it will take another decade of concentrated work to get Spencer to Bullitt County levels (48 percent in the two lowest levels) or to those of Oldham County (38 percent).

Elementary

school success

At Taylorsville Elementary School, former classroom teachers turned reading interventionists, Stacy Hieb and Britney Orme, work daily with students, often in one-on-one settings.

They work half a day with first graders needing the Reading Recovery program and half the day K-5 grades in small groups.

“The key is catching them early,” Orme said. “It does take extra to get a child where they need to be.”

Orme and Hieb are constantly evaluating a child’s individual progress, typically on a daily basis. They meet with teachers and host family reading nights.

“We try to create that love of story and love of books,” Hieb said.

“The kids feel really good about being able to do things. You can see in their faces when they’ve accomplished a task.”

The reading program builds skills from learning letters and sounding out words to comprehending what’s read. Sometimes Hieb and Orme must spend a few days on a single element, or step back, because of how reading progresses.

Their program is four years old, designed to address the difficulty of classroom teachers helping a wide range of reading levels. However, their positions, this program are funded on a year-to-year basis, and they worry that state and federal budget cuts could nix the program.

Even if that weren’t to happen, Orme and Hieb would like to see more community involvement.

“As a community, we all need to work together to address this literacy challenge,” Hieb said. “If we had some grandparents, or people that are retired who could come in and read a story – that would be great.”

High school

concerns

Principal Jocelyn Lyons said she worries students are graduating without the skills necessary to compete and succeed in a quickly changing world. And reading is one of those most basic skills.

“I have not been anywhere it’s not a problem,” she said.

She sees evidence in many places from teachers expressing frustration that students are not understanding the content they read to the ACT scores of students. Even the science portion of the ACT is like a reading test, involving analyzing a passage to find the answers.

Preparing students for work or college is one of her top priorities.

“No insult to the state test, but what may be proficient on a test in our state may not be sufficient for them to change jobs 8-10 times by the time they’re 38,” Lyons said. “The thing about being a learner in college – you’re expected to be an independent learner.”

Lyons is hopeful that progress can be made more rapidly with Kentucky adopting the America Diploma Project, a collaboration where government and businesses shared with educators what students need to be workforce ready. The core proficiencies outlined by the project include research and evidence gathering, critical thinking and decision making, communications and teammwork and media and technology.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us, but it’s going to be a challenge for everybody,” Lyons said.

There are other things Lyons wants to do, including raising awareness with parents about their child’s needs, embedding literacy into all content areas (which could be a simple as having students outline a science chapter), and implementing a comprehensive reading program.

The comprehensive reading program would be similar to the elementary level Reading Recovery in that it’s an intervention program to bring students up to the necessary reading levels, and i’ts tailored to individual assessment-based needs.

The program would be initially expensive to install, between $30-50,000, but not as costly to continue running, she said. She’s looking for district support, and she consistently speaks about the reading struggles among high schoolers at school board meetings.

“We need to get past the judgment and into action, because we’re running out of time,” Lyons said.

Community Culture

Perhaps one of the most evidence-based ways to measure a community’s literacy is by library usage. From 1998 to 2009 book circulation increased from 35,922 to 68,877. In part, this represents the library’s collection growth and the growth of the county. But it also bodes well in representing a community’s love of reading.

Library manager Susan Sullivan, also a retired teacher, said it’s great to see young children choosing and checking out their own books, as well as the adults who bring them to the library.

“My feeling on it has been that literacy begins with parents, grandparents,” Sullivan said. “I feel like the earlier you put a book in a child’s hand, the more respect they’ll have for the written word.”