Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Early childhood education key to literacy

Students have been falling behind in literacy for quite some time. The impacts of the pandemic greatly exacerbated that decline, with the release of the 2022 NAEP test scores showing a five-point drop in reading nationally. Meanwhile, in New Mexico, fourth-graders averaged 14 points below national public scores.

The data have made it clear the process for teaching reading needs a shift, and now is the crucial time to implement.

In order to see progress, there must be a focus on building early literacy with strong foundational skills. This essential early childhood instruction is where children learn to read words and understand what they read so they build accuracy and fluency. Studies show the earlier we can build these skills, the better.

We must take recent studies and research that inform how children learn to read and develop strong literacy skills, and apply those learnings. Giving greater attention and resources toward pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and early reading programs, especially in underserved homes and communities, is necessary to ensure each child is on track in their literacy journey.

Strong literacy skills are linked to higher employment rates and higher monthly earnings, and aside from the simple economic implications, there are extensive challenges that come with a lack of literacy skills.

Long-term studies show that if a student is not reading at grade level by grade three, they may never read at the appropriate grade level. After third grade, literacy instruction shifts from learning to read, to reading to learn. If a child slips through the cracks during this critical period, they will inevitably endure sustained challenges throughout their education, increasing the likelihood of not graduating and consequently suffering a lifetime of obstacles.

There is no doubt that learning to read by grade three is essential. However, the strategy that’s implemented today allows for far too many students to fall short of this goal.

One of the main indicators of children becoming strong readers is at-home literacy, but there is no magic bullet for this essential step in the process, especially for those in challenging home environments and of a lower socioeconomic situation. The expansion of early childhood reading programs in pre-K and kindergarten, accessibility to free programming with local libraries and the continued support of early childhood reading organizations and nonprofits are some of the most realistic opportunities available to get books into the hands and homes of young children.

It’s through these efforts at an early age that we can implement a love for reading. By capturing excitement to learn as early as pre-K – when children are reading whimsical stories and books that rhyme – the chances are greater to grow their engagement into strong literacy skills.

We must take a holistic approach to teaching literacy, placing a greater emphasis on early childhood education. We cannot expect a child to enter their first year of school with little or no previous exposure to reading and books and learn these skills proficiently. Learning to read takes time, attention and practice, so our process and resources must be set up that way from the beginning. The earlier we can share the joy of reading with our children, the more likely they are to find success in whatever they chose to do in life.

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