Hairfield: Read to Succeed bill helps teachers teach reading

Guest ColumnistMarch 23, 2014 

Barbara Hairfield

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— If the Read to Succeed bill up for debate in the Legislature this week focused only on retaining third graders who are reading significantly below grade level, I could not support it. As an isolated strategy to help students, retention does not work. But, the legislation actually is more about preventing student retention: Its central focus is helping students succeed by improving the quality of the teachers who work with them, and for that reason, I wholeheartedly support the bill.

Teachers who are highly qualified and properly trained should be the ones to teach our children how to read and help them when they struggle with comprehension. The bill requires any prospective early childhood or elementary education teacher to pass at least four reading courses, including practicum experiences in reading. These courses would prepare teachers to fully understand the reading process, to diagnose a child’s reading problems and to assist students with effective, individualized intervention. Today, pre-service teachers are required to take only one or at best two courses in reading. This is woefully inadequate to help students who face difficulties with reading.

The legislation also requires all current elementary teachers to earn a literacy add-on endorsement over the course of 10 years. Teachers in middle and high schools also would receive additional training in reading. Prospective middle and high school teachers would be required to take an undergraduate course to understand the process of reading and another class in reading comprehension in their the content areas.

In all my years in education, I have never met a teacher who did not want his or her students to be successful, but I have met many frustrated content-area teachers who do not have the knowledge or skills to help their students who struggle with reading comprehension.

What is more fundamental to a child’s academic future than learning how to read, comprehend and write? Shouldn’t we, as educators, all be properly trained to help students reach their literacy goals and succeed in school and in life? I would argue that this is fundamental to our profession.

As a social studies curriculum specialist, I know that teachers desperately need the tools to enable them to diagnose and intervene if students are having problems reading and comprehending. Once students enter secondary schools, diagnosing reading difficulties becomes more difficult. We must help teachers reach their students and equip them with the reading skills needed to understand complex text.

These young people will need these literacy skills when they attend a postsecondary institution or enter the workforce. Obviously, we have not been doing all we need to do, since 41 percent of our state’s students attending two-year colleges need remediation in English and mathematics.

Gov. Nikki Haley has recommended $29 million for reading coaches, one for every elementary school in our state. These coaches would be a highly skilled source of training and assistance to classroom teachers in diagnosing reading problems and providing interventions. The House has funded this initiative, which has been implemented in Alabama with great success.

The evidence is clear. Struggling readers, especially those living in poverty, are at the highest risk of not graduating from high school or becoming productive members of communities. Having an effective teacher is the most important factor in student learning, more than ethnicity or family income, the school facility or class size.

Because the success of students drives everything teachers do, we must improve the quality of our teacher-preparation programs and provide the very best professional development for all of our teachers, with an emphasis on literacy, if we are going to help students succeed.

Ms. Hairfield is a curriculum specialist for the Charleston County School District and a member of the Education Oversight Committee; contact her at barbara_hairfield@charleston.k12.sc.us.

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