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Q&A: More than two-thirds of U.S. students can’t read past elementary school. How are we catching them up?

Reading instruction and intervention in the U.S. are focused on young elementary school students.

AI tools could change the traditional rules of the classroom. — © AFP
AI tools could change the traditional rules of the classroom. — © AFP

Parents and teachers in the U.S. recently discovered that we have been teaching reading wrong for decades,  as chronicled by the popular APM series, “Sold a Story,” which revealed how Balanced Literacy programs taught kids how to use reading strategies that did not equip them with the ability to independently read unfamiliar words. This year’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report card showed an astounding 68% of fourth graders not yet reading proficiently; meaning there are over 50 million American students with low literacy skills in grades 4-12.

In response to this crisis, elementary schools across the country are returning to the “science of reading,” which includes (but is not limited to) an emphasis on phonics. Everyone is focused on an important goal: grade-level reading by 3rd grade. But a serious problem remains unaddressed. Millions of current teens and adults do not know how to read.

Reader note: In the U.S., Australia and Canada, 3rd grade begins at eight years old. In the UK. this is equivalent to Year 4.

Enter a mission-driven publisher that is addressing global illiteracy by providing struggling readers of all ages with age-appropriate, relevant, and diverse books they will fall in love with.

Digital Journal sat down with Louise Baigelman, Founder and CEO of Storyshares, who is spearheading a campaign for grade-level reading beyond the 3rd grade.

Digital Journal: Why are so many young people reading below school grade level?

Louise Baigelman: There are a number of reasons older students may be behind in their reading skills. Some are newcomers / multilingual learners, others have learning differences, and some kids were simply not taught how to read in a way that works.

About 60 years ago, a method known as the “three cueing model” was introduced, teaching children to read using “cues,” instead of learning and following predictable letter / sound patterns. This model often completely replaced phonics, leaving behind the students who needed explicit phonics instruction in order to learn to read. As awareness of this problem spread, school districts around the country started to switch away from balanced literacy in favor of science-based phonics and structured literacy instruction.

DJ: OK, so that’s good – the problem is getting solved – is that correct?

Baigelman:  Not necessarily. Reading instruction and intervention in the U.S. are focused on young elementary school students: “Teach everyone to read BY 3rd grade.” But millions of students have moved beyond that point without yet having the foundational literacy skills they need.

This is a literacy challenge that needs new and innovative solutions and materials (engaging books!) to win back the students who make up these statistics.

DJ: Are there reading instruction programs that help students beyond the U.S. school system 3rd grade?

Baigelman: While there are intervention programs for teaching older students who read below grade level, there are not enough high-interest texts to accompany skill instruction. Books used for teaching phonics (called “decodable books”) are written for younger children. Middle schoolers don’t want to read books written for 6-year-olds. You just can’t give “Hop on Pop” to a 7th-grader and expect them to enjoy learning to read, or to read at all.

DJ: What can you give them to read?

Baigelman:  That’s the key question. When I was a middle school teacher, I knew I couldn’t transform my students into readers when their only choices felt like “baby books.”

Storyshares is building the first shelf in the library for those millions of students who are being overlooked; to reimagine the experience for older students learning how to read.

We use a community-powered content model, where we crowdsource new titles from global authors, providing them with the guidance to craft new stories that represent and inspire striving older readers. We have received thousands of story submissions from 180 countries, 500 of which we have refined and published to our collection in both digital and paperback.

Initially, we focused on those students who needed new texts to strengthen their fluency and comprehension skills so they could scaffold up toward grade level. But as the structured literacy movement began to take hold, we learned that we also needed books that taught and reinforced phonics skills for older students. This is where our latest initiative, decodable chapter books, was born.

We scoured the market but couldn’t find any examples of decodables that weren’t meant for kids in elementary school. So, I wrote one myself.

DJ: You wrote a book?

Baigelman: Yes. I kept hearing: “It would be impossible to write a book that would be engaging for an older student reading at such a low level…” So, I started by trying to write one myself. It was a creative process, experimenting with engagement for a teen reader, using only specific sounds along a tight pattern. We showed the finished book to teachers and experts, and they all said: “This doesn’t exist yet. This is exactly the kind of content we need.”

DJ: How did the Storyshares decodables collection grow from there?

Baigelman: Could we create decodable books that were relevant and intriguing for students in grades 3-12? Yes, but we’d need a lot more content. So we engaged our community, guiding authors (and educators) from all over the world to come up with high-interest decodable texts along a cohesive scope and sequence.

Our first series (35 texts) launched in October. Our decodables are flying off the shelves at unprecedented rates. We hear daily from teachers who are seeing student reading transformations in their classrooms already.

DJ: So, what’s next for Storyshares?

Baigelman: Our goal is to spread the power of reading across the globe, and we are just getting started. We are releasing two additional decodable series early next year, written by authors from Senegal to China. We are continuing to accept book proposals from writers of all levels, and we have created an “EdTech Hub” where we share the books and teaching resources with teachers, tutors, parents and school districts.

DJ: Can anyone participate?

Baigelman: Absolutely. For writers, we welcome anyone (even beginners) to use our writer portal to learn about how they can submit content for consideration. Teachers and schools can get involved by joining pilot programs or reaching out to us about bringing Storyshares comprehensive literacy packages to their communities.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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