Shore up early literacy teaching

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One of the most important contributing factors to a successful school experience is the quality of early literacy instruction. Students who have had good early literacy instruction are more likely be able to read and write without difficulty. The recent increase in the number of preschool and Reading Recovery programs, and the addition of early-intervention summer school programs have been a plus for Chicago youngsters.

However, changes this decade in Illinois’ teacher certification regulations have been a blow to the quality of instruction in the primary grades. Prior to the changes, all teachers assigned to primary positions needed kindergarten-primary or early-childhood certification. While early childhood teaching certificates are still issued, many Illinois teachers hold K-9 certificates.

Teachers who hold an early-childhood certificate have successfully completed a series of courses devoted to teaching reading and language to beginning learners. Teachers who hold a K-9 certificate are required to take only one reading course, Methods of Teaching Reading.

Having taught that course at local universities, I know it provides a good overview of reading instruction. However, it cannot possibly prepare someone to teach reading in every grade level from kindergarten through 9th. The class meets for 10-16 sessions. Since there are a number of crucial topics that must be addressed, there is time for only one session that deals exclusively with early literacy. A student can miss that one session, still pass the course and be presumed qualified to teach literacy at the primary level. Many universities offer a full course in early literacy, but it is only an elective, not a required course.

The inadequate preparation of early-grade teachers is compounded by the common practice of assigning provisionally certified teachers to kindergarten and 1st-grade classrooms. Provisional certification can be obtained without any professional training in reading instruction.

Last spring, six provisionally certified kindergarten and 1st-grade teachers were enrolled in my Methods of Teaching Reading course. These teachers had taught for the entire first semester without any knowledge of how to teach reading. Class discussions and journal entries convinced me that unsound teaching strategies were being practiced in their classrooms. One provisional primary teacher confessed to a colleague of mine that she did not teach reading at all because she didn’t know how.

Principals are inclined to place provisional teachers in primary classrooms because it is easier to maintain good discipline with younger children. Order and discipline are important in a school. However, the literacy development of entire classrooms of children is too high a price to pay.

We do not allow teachers who have only one course in mathematics to be assigned to teach mathematics to our 7th- and 8th-grade students. Why do we allow teachers with one general reading course to teach our beginning readers?

Solutions to this crisis range from simple and inexpensive to more complex and costly. The simple solution is to give primary classrooms the same priority that middle-school classrooms get. No teacher should be assigned to kindergarten, 1st or 2nd grade unless he or she holds an early-childhood certificate, a reading certificate or an endorsement in reading. Provisional teachers should never be assigned at this critical level.

The next step would be to train the undertrained teachers currently in those positions. Early literacy courses are available at many local universities, some of which will conduct them in the schools.

Another solution is to bring back the reading support staff. Schools no longer have reading resource or reading improvement teachers, unless they purchase them with state Chapter 1 or federal funds. With the steady decline in per-pupil Chapter 1 funding, these positions are disappearing. Often, there is no one in a school to oversee the reading program and support teachers in reading instruction.

Finally, class sizes should be smaller at the primary levels. Even the best-trained teachers are hampered by large classes. I taught in an early-intervention program this summer. It is amazing what can be accomplished when there are 15 or fewer children in a class.

Early literacy is the foundation of a good education. It is far too important to put in the hands of untrained or undertrained teachers. The responsibility of supporting our youngest students in developing reading and writing skills should be given to the best teachers in a school building. If Chicago schools are going to improve, we must address these critical issues.

Shari Frost is a 1st-grade teacher at Norwood Park Elementary School. She also has taught literacy courses at Northeastern Illinois University, National Louis University and Columbia College.