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This past fall, Governor Deval Patrick signed a much-heralded bill focused on improving third grade reading outcomes for all children in the Commonwealth. Such legislation may seem unnecessary in a state that posts some of the highest scores on national education tests, but 39 percent of our third graders are not reading at grade level, and research tells us that the third-grade marker is pivotal. Children whose reading skills are less than sufficient by third grade have a drastically reduced chance of graduating from high school. As a result, these children are unlikely to develop the academic skills essential for participating fully in this knowledge-based economy. Like many other states across the nation, the problem here is not one of program availability, however. The state is peppered with programs to boost literacy for even the youngest children.

As an example, in Boston alone, 24 organizations and advocacy groups cite improving children’s reading as part of their central mission.

Yet here and in other parts of the country, despite the plethora of options and efforts, too many of our children have not reached reading proficiency. Why?

In all, the city and its affiliates offer more than 70 reading and literacy-related programs and services for young children.

Yet here and in other parts of the country, despite the plethora of options and efforts, too many of our children have not reached reading proficiency. Why? The average service or program is not substantial enough, and together the offerings are not coordinated enough, to result in reading improvements.

As a state, we are good at creating programs with broad information-spreading approaches. We keep our fingers crossed and deliver support and services that we hope will make a difference, but rarely do; extensive, behavior-changing efforts that improve children’s reading skills elude us.

For example, a family literacy program that distributes free books to a parent and child may be an important element of a literacy campaign, but that alone won’t change the reading behaviors that increase reading skills. Changing home reading practices takes sustained work guiding families to use books in multiple ways, including, for example, inciting daily conversations about rich concepts and ideas.

In schools and communities, our efforts — whether focused on improving adults’ capacities to promote children’s reading or focused more directly on children’s development — are similarly insufficient: We do once-a-week tutoring and power lunches to help children reach a benchmark, rather than strengthening daily instruction; We provide teachers with one month worth of curricular materials and modeling, instead of ongoing guidance and comprehensive curricula; We give pediatricians time to flag only the most severe language issues late in the game, rather than the opportunity to perform an annual screening of language skills. Given the high and sometimes even tragic individual and societal costs of children’s low reading skills, we could do much better.

Given the high and sometimes even tragic individual and societal costs of children’s low reading skills, we could do much better.

As with public health initiatives such as the nationwide No Smoking campaign, improving children’s reading outcomes demands we do the hard and intensive work of not just raising awareness, but changing behaviors. And behavior change is not easy. Literacy supports and services that change behaviors demand a more sustained, intensive approach; one that, over time, supports children, caregivers, and educators to both build their knowledge and apply what they are learning.

Some Massachusetts programs are stepping in the right direction and carefully crafting efforts that show promise for effecting lasting change. One such promising example is Talk/Read/Succeed!, a Springfield early literacy program that is a collaboration among local agencies and schools. Components of the program include parent education workshops; home visits from teachers; adult education and job training for parents; and early education, after school, and summer programs for children. But even these promising efforts will take sufficient time, resources, and relentless attention to quality in order to actually produce results.

Our legislators and governor have given Massachusetts another chance to be tops in education, but we have work to do first. While we are well-intentioned, our current efforts are not adding up to meaningful improvements. To seriously address the new legislation, all of us in the field working to promote children’s reading development need to scrutinize what we do, and determine if our efforts are sustained and intensive. Only then can we expect to have all our children entering fourth grade as proficient readers.

This piece was co-authored by Joan G. Kelley and Julie Russ Harris, members of Lesaux’s research team.

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