Why the Shift From Learning to Read to Reading to Learn Is so Important
Third grade is usually the last year students are specifically taught how to read in U.S. schools. At the beginning of fourth grade, they are expected to shift from learning to read to reading to learn across the curriculum. Except some of them don’t. In fact, research tells us that only 35% of fourth-grade students read proficiently. Students without foundational reading skills find it much more difficult to do grade-level work in math, science, and social studies. This hampers their short-term and long-term abilities to be academically successful.
When students struggle to make the transition to reading to learn, often called “the third-grade cliff,” it can have serious consequences for their learning. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 88% of students who do not earn a high school diploma were below-grade readers in third grade. While teachers of students in grades 4–8 feel a sense of urgency to help correct students’ reading paths, many teachers do not feel adequately prepared to take this on.
The good news, however, is that teachers don’t need to be reading specialists to help these students. There are research-based instructional strategies that will help students learn to read on grade level—and teachers can incorporate them into their existing curriculum.
Accelerating Literacy Through Effective Professional Learning
Virtually every teacher in America has had at least one bad experience with professional development of the one-and-done variety. But sustained professional learning experiences are different, and teachers acknowledge these kinds of learning opportunities leave them better equipped to meet the needs of all students (Learning Policy Institute, 2021). Professional learning is particularly important for literacy instruction. Even though research has shown how to teach reading successfully for multiple decades, many pre-service teachers have not been exposed to strategies for literacy instruction that are rooted in the science of reading.
Teachers often say they have no time for professional learning. But if it is substantive, sustained, content-focused, collaborative, offers opportunities for reflection and feedback, and provides specific instructional strategies, they will make the time. Why? Because this kind of professional learning provides the tools they need to successfully help their students become proficient readers. Particularly if the professional learning is flexible and allows educators to customize their learning and implementation plans.
Using Age-Appropriate Materials
Not surprisingly, older students rebel at the idea of using texts written for young children, such as Cat in the Hat. It’s important that fourth- through eighth-grade students work with texts that are age-appropriate and reflect the content they are interested in. High-quality literacy professional learning can help educators provide their students with age-appropriate resources, such as sample fluency passages with Lexile® levels appropriate for upper-elementary and middle school students.
High-quality literacy professional learning is designed for all teachers, not just ELA teachers or reading specialists. With professional learning based on the science of reading, every teacher can have the tools to teach reading with confidence. These new strategies can fit into educators’ existing curriculum without adding one more thing to their already full plates.
The science of reading is the heart of effective literacy education. When teachers have good training and tools, they can help their students make that critical transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Training will help them understand the root causes of students’ reading challenges and deploy the appropriate strategies to create equitable learning outcomes for all their students.
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