The reading performance of the nation’s school children will soon receive heightened attention and additional funding, as states begin to implement the “Reading First” initiative contained in the recently enacted No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The “Reading First” initiative is a nationwide effort to improve reading skills of all students in kindergarten through grade three. It is designed to provide critical early identification and early reading interventions necessary to prevent reading failure among our nation’s children and to ensure that all children are skilled readers by the end of the third grade.

Recently, Candace Cortiella, founding director of The Advocacy Institute, and a mom-turned-advocate who focuses on legislative issues that affect people with learning disabilities, talked about “Reading First.”

Q: How serious is the problem of low reading skills nationwide?

A: The latest National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) indicates that approximately 40 percent of the nation’s fourth graders cannot read at a basic level. Within subgroups, almost 70 percent of low-income fourth grade students and almost 50 percent of students living in urban areas cannot read at a basic level. Sadly, this is the same level of failure that was reported in 1992. While the scores for the nation’s highest-performing students have improved over time, average-performing readers have shown no progress, and the reading performance of our nation’s lowest performing students has declined.

And, while a lack of reading skills is the most common reason why students are determined to have a learning disability and need specialized services, only 2.8 million school age students are currently receiving special education services because of LD. That leaves millions of students who struggle to read and who don’t receive any form of specialized services.

Q: What is the ?Reading First? initiative and how might parents experience its impact in their local public schools?

A: After a decade of poor reading performance as reported by the NAEP, the federal government has created incentives that encourage poor performing schools to adopt research-based reading programs, and train teachers in the essential components of reading instruction and student assessment. Despite a growing body of evidence on what constitutes an effective reading program, schools have been slow to change the way they teach beginning reading.

“Reading First” requires schools to use scientifically based reading instruction and programs and provide training on reading instruction for K-3 teachers, K-12 special education teachers, and future K-3 teachers. “Reading First” also requires accountability for program effectiveness and improved reading achievement in K-3 students. A system of assessment must be in place, and assessments must be used to monitor student progress, to screen for children at risk of reading difficulty, and to diagnose reading problems.

So far, 25 states have been awarded grants under the “Reading First” program. States receive the grant award over a six-year period. While not all schools will receive “Reading First” funds, parents in the schools involved in the initiative should begin to see an aggressive program of teacher training that will lead to implementation of new, research-based instruction and continuous assessment in the early grades.

All parents of young children should acquaint themselves with the essential components of reading instruction as determined by the National Reading Panel and ask their child’s school if the reading program being used is consistent with those components.

All programs funded through “Reading First” must include the five essential components of reading instruction as identified by the National Reading Panel. These components are:
Phonemic awareness the ability to focus on and manipulate smallest units of sound in spoken language.
Phonics the relationship between the letters of written language and the sounds of spoken language.
Vocabulary Development the stored information about the meaning and pronunciation of words.
Reading fluency the ability to read accurately, quickly and with expression.
Reading comprehension the ability to understand or gain meaning from text.

Despite its rather stringent requirements, the U.S. Department of Education has been quick to point out that there is no “approved list” of reading programs for use under the “Reading First” program. To date, the Department has neither developed nor endorsed any list of instructional programs.

The U.S. Department of Education has also funded a companion program, the “Early Reading First” initiative to enhance the school readiness skills of children ages three to five. Recently 22 states received “Early Reading First” grants totaling more than $72 million.

Q: What is the potential impact of the new federal reading initiatives on special education services?

A: It’s hard to say right now what impact “Reading First” might eventually have on special education programs. Some researchers and policy makers feel that special education currently serves as a reading remediation program for many children who simply didn’t receive adequate early reading instruction. If that is the case, we might eventually see some reduction in the number of children referred for special education services.

As well, if we operate on the assumption that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” then, in theory, school-wide improvements in reading instruction, early intervention, and ongoing assessments will work to improve the reading performance of many more students than just those who might have gone onto the special education rolls.