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Could Federal Grants Improve Ohio’s Literacy Rate?

Michael Nutter

November 6, 2019

New literacy initiatives could dramatically improve Ohio’s literacy rates, but they may require schools to rethink how they teach reading.

Last month, the Ohio Department of Education announced that it was awarded two competitive grants by the U.S. Department of Education. The Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant will fund the establishment of “model literacy sites” in Ohio schools, while the Model Demonstration Projects for Early Identification of Students with Dyslexia Grant will support pilot programs that focus on instruction for children with dyslexia. The two grants provide Ohio schools with a combined total of $43.2 million.

These new literacy grants aim to fast track growth for Ohio’s literacy rates. Literacy is a key component of a strong education, yet Ohio has consistently ranked below the fifty percent mark in reading proficiency. This means that over half of Ohio’s youth are lacking an essential foundation for success in their education and beyond, which is why these grants stand to make such a substantial impact in the state.

Addressing Ohio’s Literacy Problem

Compared to the rest of the nation, the reading proficiency of Ohio’s youth ranks a few points above average. Although an “average” ranking may not mean Ohio faces a literacy crisis, America’s standards are dismally low: only 35 percent of American students are proficient in reading.

State lawmakers recognize that Ohio has a long way to go before it achieves widespread proficiency, but these grants will help fund a promising plan of attack. To address low reading proficiency, Ohio is taking a creative approach to target the students that need the most help. Called Ohio’s Plan to Raise Literacy Achievement, the plan details a comprehensive strategy to use concrete data to identify disadvantaged learners. According to the plan, the four categories of disadvantage that negatively impact reading proficiency are homelessness, economic disadvantage, learning English as a second language, and disability. Of Ohio’s 1.6 million students, 60 percent fall into at least one of these four categories.

By focusing on providing personalized instruction for disadvantaged students, the state could make significant strides in overall literacy. Even small literacy improvements can have significant long-term effects on students’ lives, ranging from improved health to more expansive generational knowledge. For example, a watershed study from the National Institutes of Health shows that low literacy corresponds to worse health outcomes due to a lack of visibility into health risks and disease markers. What’s more, according to Project Literacy, illiteracy does significant damage to our economy — to the tune of an estimated $301 billion per year.

The Need for Evidence-Based Instruction

When it comes to literacy, cognitive science might be able to tell us why so many American students — even those who aren’t heavily disadvantaged — have difficulty getting ahead. Cognitive science points to the conclusion that American schools might be teaching reading entirely incorrectly. Although literacy curricula vary by state, many states use a method called “three cueing,” a theory for enhanced literacy education that was first presented to the American Educational Research Association in 1967.

To read a new word, three cueing encourages children to pick up on contextual cues like the beginning letter, the word’s part of speech, and its role in the sentence. Although three cueing caught on throughout the nation, its efficacy was quickly disproved by cognitive scientists. These scientists argued that three cueing actually damages children’s ability to read, encouraging them to guess words visually instead of understanding how to sound them out. Nevertheless, millions of American children are still taught how to read using the three cueing method.

To improve Ohio’s reading proficiency, schools must make evidence-based changes to their approaches. For example, research shows that skilled readers rely more on phonics than context. This process is called “orthographic mapping,” and it occurs when readers can link a word’s pronunciation and meaning with its specific sequence of letters. But phonics and cueing rely on entirely opposite processes, which means that teaching phonics in schools will require total overhauls of curricula. While various cognitive science studies have proven the importance of phonics time and time again, the implementation of substantive changes based on this evidence has been slow.

Improving Literacy at the District Level

To revamp potentially ineffective teaching strategies like three cueing, Ohio schools will require in-depth reevaluation of their teaching methods to instate evidence-based literacy instruction. Though certainly possible, reevaluation and retraining will require significant resources. While these new grants will go a long way toward literacy improvements in Ohio, the reality is that these funds will focus on model schools and pilot programs before potentially trickling down to individual districts. In the short term, improving literacy will have to start with change on a smaller scale.

To begin taking action toward evidence-based instruction in districts and schools, district leaders need to ensure they’re receiving the maximum amount of funding possible from the state. To do so, schools need an accurate reporting system to get the money they’re entitled to for each student.

Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform offers an intuitive and accurate reporting system that allows teachers and administrators to track student data without the hassle of spreadsheets. CheckPoint makes it simple to spot errors in reporting and avoid costly mistakes, ensuring that your students are one step closer to getting the literacy instruction they need.

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