ST. PAUL (AP) -- Thousands of Minnesota schoolchildren can't read at a level the state considers acceptable. The challenge for educators is figuring out how to reach them.
While 67 percent of Minnesota third-graders showed solid grade-level skills or performed better last year on state tests, the numbers are grim when the data is broken down. More than half the low-income third-graders, nearly 10,000 children, fell below the state's acceptable reading threshold. The same was true for three of four children speaking limited English.
Children who read at grade level by the end of third grade are poised to succeed in school. Those still struggling may end up failing or dropping out later.
Despite volumes of research and the millions of dollars that the federal No Child Left Behind law will pour into reading, teachers say many kids still find it hard to weave all the complex pieces together -- sounding out letters and words phonetically, mastering vocabulary, discovering the pleasure of reading. That's true especially for kids who aren't native English speakers or who come to kindergarten already behind.
In most public schools, learning to read begins in kindergarten and solidifies in first grade with the expectation that students have reading nailed down by third grade.
But reading experts say it's a mistake to stop instruction at third grade.
"There's nothing magical about third grade. It happens that in United States schools we stop teaching kids to read somewhere around grade three. It's the set of expectations that makes third grade the point" of potential failure, said Catherine Snow, a Harvard education professor and reading expert.
"You can tell before third grade who will be on grade level in reading," she said. "Intervene before the deficit gets to be so large."
At Bel Air Elementary in New Brighton, first-grader Sarah Strandmark studied a word in her book. The letters u and n were familiar, but she was stumped by the d-e-r.
Slowly, she strung the letters together like pearls on a strand. "U-u-n-n-n under," she said, smiling as the jumble of letters revealed itself as a word.
Whether Sarah and her classmates listen cross-legged in front of their teacher, Deb Klugow, while she reads or read independently from their desks, the class spends its afternoons on reading skills. Klugow tries to tailor the instruction to the needs of individual children.
Klugow's students use word manipulation, writing and a variety of strategies when they don't recognize a word. Recently, the 6- and 7-year-olds practiced short "a" words, as in cat, hat and mad. At home, they are to read 20 minutes a night.
Prosperity Heights Elementary in St. Paul uses Success for All, a well-known but highly scripted reading program. At the beginning of the year students are tested on their instructional reading level and grouped. A child's reading level may not be his or her grade level. Every eight weeks they are retested. Students not reading at grade level are provided a tutor.
"The focus is on first grade. We want kids on grade level by the end of second grade. The big word is relentless," said first-grade teacher Jean Jones.
Deborah Dillon, a professor at the University of Minnesota's college of education, said a critical piece of effective reading is preparing teachers on how to instruct.
"There is no one way to teach children how to read. You can't mandate a one-size-fits-all approach, which would put a lot of kids at risk. I worry a great deal about that. That could be perceived as easy solutions," Dillon said.
Legislators, she added, need to trust the experts when it comes to education.
"Like No Child Left Behind, we give you money and hold you accountable for testing, but there is no money to work with teachers and professional development to work with kids with different needs," Dillon said.
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