The slippery slope of an early literacy gap

iStock_000011758998XSmallStudents catch up in phonics only to lag in comprehension

Children who enter school with low literacy skills often catch up to their peers on phonics and decoding by 2nd or 3rd grade, but by then they are lagging behind on fluency and comprehension, essentially trading one literacy gap for another, write two North Carolina researchers in a recent issue of Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.

The study reinforces the need for earlier literacy interventions so that students with low literacy skills can transition to reading comprehension apace with their peers and do not fall permanently behind.

2nd or 3rd grade is too late

“Schools cannot wait until second or third grade to initiate aggressive support for literacy,” write Wayne Foster and Merideth Miller, two educators from North Carolina public school districts.

“Closing the phonics/decoding gap in second or third grade does not answer these children’s needs because, by that time, a text comprehension gap has developed.

“In effect, we are trading one gap for another and putting these students at additional risk for years of poor academic achievement. Educators must actively search for children who are at risk for reading problems and initiate support quickly.”

Children enter kindergarten with high, average or low literacy skills, according to this analysis of Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) data that traced the literacy development for 12,621 students from kindergarten through 3rd grade. The researchers analyzed literacy assessments used for ECLS that tested the students each year on phonics/decoding and comprehension skills.

The skills included letter recognition, beginning sounds, ending sounds, sight words, words in context and literal inference. For analysis purposes, researchers assigned children to the high-, average- or low-literacy groups based on their scores.

Researchers found that children with average skills catch up with the high-readiness group on phonics/decoding by the end of 1st grade, but it’s not until 2nd or 3rd grade that the group with low skills catches up. The large score differences on phonics among the three groups in kindergarten had leveled off by 3rd grade.

Comprehension scores for K-3 tell a different story, according to the researchers. In kindergarten, the high-readiness group showed emerging text comprehension skill while low- and average- readiness groups exhibited low scores in this area. By the end of kindergarten, both the high and average groups had made significant progress, while the low group made no gains. By 3rd grade, the low group, while it had caught up in phonics, was not catching up to either of the other two groups in comprehension. Children essentially go through four stages to become readers, the authors say. “These stages can be roughly divided into emergent literacy, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension.”

The four stages are:

  • Stage 0, from 0-6 years of age, is the prereading stage when children learn that speech is made up of individual sounds and that some words have the same beginning or ending sounds as other words.
  • Stage 1, from 6-7 years of age, is the initial reading stage when children develop phonics skills.
  • In stage 2, from 7-8 years for most, children become more automatic or fluent in the decoding of words and can begin to attend to comprehension and meaning.
  • In stage 3, from ages 8 to 14, the focus changes from “learning to read” to “readingto learn.”

“Literacy skill development must meet certain levels before students can fully access subsequent stages,” the authors write.

More students from the low-readiness group came come from families who lived below the poverty level (33% vs. 14% for the average group and 4% for the high-readiness group. Parent education level was also lower for the lowreadiness group. Some 55% had a parent with a high school diploma compared with 77% for the average group and 91% for the high-readiness group.

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) could play a bigger role in early interventions in public schools, the authors write. SLPs are often the first professions in the special education department to interact with students at risk of developing reading disabilities. SLPs have been placing increasing emphasis on literacy intervention for students with speech-language impairments.

Under the latest reauthorization of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997), the authors write, SLPs have more latitude to support students who have not formally qualified for special services. Some SLPs have worked on reading with whole classrooms of kindergarten or 1st-grade students when there is one IDEA-identified student in the classroom. Now, IDEA has a provision for using up to 15% of special education funds for just these types of regular education preventative measures, the authors write.

“It may very well be that SLPs will be asked to help support regular education students in some form or fashion in the area of (emergent)literacy with the idea of preventing the necessity for special education later on,” the authors write.

Development of the Literacy Achievement Gap: A Longitudinal Study of Kindergarten Through Third Grade” by Wayne Foster and Merideth Miller, Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, July 2007, Volume 38, pp. 173-181.

Published in ERN September 2007, Volume 20, Number 6

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