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OPINION: PA Students Are Struggling to Read –We Must Help Them

It’s time to sound the alarm on early literacy in Pennsylvania.

Almost half of fourth graders across our state are reading below grade level, a challenge that exists in every corner of our state — from urban cities to our rural communities. Research has consistently shown that early literacy is critical to academic success and long-term achievement. A strong, evidence-based reading program, beginning in kindergarten and continuing into the third grade and beyond, gives students the best possible chance to maximize their education.

Because we are not born with the natural ability to read, the skills that lead students to become competent, lifelong readers must be explicitly and systematically taught at a young age with ample opportunity for practice and improvement.

As policymakers, we have the ability to ensure our students get the reading support they need in those early years so they can succeed later on in life.

Currently, one in five American adults struggle with reading basic sentences. For these individuals, tasks such as reading the mail, completing tax forms, or even engaging in civic duties can be nearly impossible.

Literacy cannot be a skill reserved for wealthy families and those who can afford private tutoring. Learning to read is a challenge for many, and that challenge does not discriminate.

To improve early literacy in Pennsylvania, we are sponsoring legislation mirroring a bipartisan proposal from Reps. Justin Fleming and Jason Ortitay that uses a three-pronged approach.

First, it bolsters reading instruction with evidence-based reading curricula, ensuring literacy achievement for children across the Commonwealth. Second, struggling readers will be identified through a universal screening within the first 30 days of school. Finally, looking at the screening data will help schools and educators design and implement intervention plans to prevent children from falling behind.

When states take this comprehensive approach, positive outcomes for students rise. FloridaMississippiNorth Carolina, and South Carolina have all showed and continue to show us what is possible when a comprehensive law is adopted and implemented with fidelity.

After Mississippi’s literacy program was passed in 2013, the state rose from 49th in 4th grade reading to 21st in the nation.

After two years of statewide teacher training in the science of reading, the latest assessment results also showed that North Carolina students in grades K-4 made greater mid-year gains than students in other states using the same assessment, with the percentage of kindergarten students meeting the benchmark almost doubling from 28 percent to 56 percent.

Those are the kind of results Pennsylvania families deserve, and we can’t afford to wait. Researchers have spent decades determining which approaches work best to teach reading, but if our teachers don’t have the resources they need to educate our kids, our outcomes are unlikely to improve. The pandemic brought uncertainty and turmoil to our lives, and our kids need us now more than ever. Literacy is a great equalizer. Whether a person can read is a critical predictor of educational and lifelong success. We cannot afford to have almost half of our students falling short of that goal.

By providing support for early literacy development, our legislation has the potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of countless Pennsylvania children and ensure they are able to reach their full potential.

Investing in education means investing in the future of our state and opening all students up to a lifetime of success.

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