Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

“The time is now to redesign this country’s approach to language and literacy instruction, and governors who choose to can lead the charge,” according to the National Governors Association (NGA) report, “A Governor’s Guide to Early Literacy: Getting all Students Reading by Third Grade.

Acknowledging the fact that only one-third of America’s fourth graders are reading proficiently, the report points out that America’s governors can help address this challenge. They can build a bridge between knowledge and action, connecting what researchers know to what policymakers do.

What the Research Says

To provide the research background on the literacy issue, the report points to three widely accepted research findings:

1.  “Starting at kindergarten is too late.” Because literacy skills start developing at birth and because achievement gaps show up early, infants, toddlers and preschoolers need effective, high-quality early education and care programs that introduce early literacy concepts.

2. “Reading proficiency requires three sets of interrelated skills and knowledge that are taught and cultivated over time.”  The three sets are:

– language and communication skills

– mechanics of reading – such as matching letters to sounds

– content knowledge – knowing ideas and concepts that inform one’s understanding of new texts

3. “Parents, primary caregivers and teachers have the most influence on children’s language and literacy development.”  Too often, though, these adults lack the skills and knowledge to support children effectively at all stages of their development.

“Those research findings apply to all children,” the report says, adding that to significantly improve the status quo, state policymakers must also “address the challenges faced by children in poor families and in households where English is not the primary language.”

What Governors Can Do

Boosting literacy among young children requires an “ambitious” birth-to-third-grade agenda, the report says. Specifically, governors and other policymakers can take five actions to “better ensure that all children are on track to be strong readers by the end of third grade.”

1. “Adopt comprehensive language and literacy standards and curricula for early care and education programs and kindergarten through third grade.”

2. “Expand access to high-quality child care, pre-kindergarten (pre-K) and full-day kindergarten.”

3. “Engage and support parents as partners in early language and literacy development.”

4. “Equip professionals providing care and education with the skills and knowledge to support early language and literacy development.”

5. “Develop mechanisms to promote continuous improvement and accountability.”

The report also notes, “Governors can use the bully pulpit to shine a bright light on the issue and rally diverse stakeholders behind the same goal and strategies.”  In addition, governors could direct their agencies to put research findings into practice.  And governors can “urge all interested stakeholders” to commit whole-heartedly to ensuring that all third graders are reading at grade level as soon as possible.

Governors and States: Learning from Each Other

States are making progress on their own, setting examples and coming up with insights that can be shared.

The report cites Massachusetts for creating an expert literacy panel and for developing, “infant-toddler language and literacy guidelines for dual language learners, as well as guidance for professionals serving dual language learners from birth through the third grade.” The early literacy panel was established in An Act Relative to Third Grade Reading Proficiency, signed into state law in September, 2012.

New Jersey, the report says, “has aligned its standards, curricula and assessments from pre-K through third grade and provides training for school administrators and teachers to support their implementation.”

In addition, “Despite continuing tight fiscal conditions, some states are taking action to improve access to quality child care. For example, Washington increased its income eligibility limit from 175 percent of the 2011 FPL [federal poverty level] to 200 percent of the 2012 FPL. South Dakota recently adjusted its reimbursement rate for inflation to bring it in line with the 75th percentile of 2010-2011 market rates.”

Other states have engaged parents by enhancing home visiting programs. And some states have increased the required qualifications for early educators.

Moving Forward

“Gubernatorial leadership is critical to ensuring that policies and processes reflect the research on early language and literacy development,” the report concludes, adding, “Governors do not have to do this work alone and, in fact, will find far greater success by engaging many public and private stakeholders from outside the usual education policy arena.

“In the end, sustained, focused commitment by all is the key to ensuring that all children are reading proficiently by the end of third grade.”