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When LaMonica Williams saw that students in a New York City kindergarten classroom were having trouble reading, she asked their teacher what the main challenge seemed to be. “They just keep reading words that aren’t on the page,” Williams recalled the teacher telling her. Williams, a reading coach, suggested a small change to help students better understand that each written word corresponds with one spoken word. Instead of teaching students to point with one finger under each word as they read, she suggested the teacher show students how to use two fingers to “frame” a word, with one finger at the beginning and one at the end of each word. “As soon as they did that one simple change, students understood,” Williams said.

Williams is the field director of the Jumpstart to Early Reading Program, a ten-week teacher coaching program run by the nonprofit Teaching Matters in New York City. The program, which is funded with philanthropic money and free for schools, pairs kindergarten and first grade teachers with experienced coaches to help improve literacy instruction. Coaches work in each classroom they’re supporting for one to two hours a day, up to two days a week for 10 weeks to support teachers; in some cases, they lead small groups and model how to teach reading, with the ultimate goal to boost foundational skills. The program, which launched in 2019 in New York City, has already seen impressive results in the 20 schools that have participated in the program. By the end of the 10 weeks, 75 percent of students who were non-readers developed foundational reading skills based on their school’s benchmark reading assessment.

This type of teacher support may be even more critical now and in the years to come. Several recent reports have found that many children are behind in reading due to the pandemic and its massive interruptions in schooling. A July report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that elementary school children are on average four months behind in reading, compared to pre-pandemic data. Another recent report from NWEA, a nonprofit organization that creates K-12 assessments, found children are scoring 3 to 6 percentiles lower in reading compared to the spring of 2019. Data released late last year show 40 percent of first grade students and 35 percent of second grade students are “significantly at risk” of needing intensive academic intervention, compared to 27 percent and 29 percent the previous year.

Research shows that children who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade are more likely to be held back and identified as struggling readers in high school; they are also less likely to graduate high school. For decades, America has struggled with reading proficiency. The percentage of fourth-grade students who are proficient in reading has slowly increased in recent years, but still lingers below 40 percent. Part of the problem, some experts argue, is that teachers do not always know or follow research-based methods when teaching kids to read. And while many schools may have a literacy coach or reading interventionist, these staff members are often stretched thin with multiple grade levels to support, Williams said.

Those gaps are what Jumpstart is hoping to address this year through its coaching model, which will roll out in up to 40 schools this year.

Susan Kobal, an elementary special education teacher in Queens, New York, said she plans to infuse what she learned from Jumpstart this spring into her class this year. At first, Kobal wasn’t sure how she would fit another program or curriculum into her day. But she quickly saw an impact even last spring. Her students were “interested and excited” about guided reading, she says. Kobal learned how to group students together more effectively in small reading sessions and received guidance in the literacy elements to prioritize for her students. By the end of 10 weeks, all students who participated went up one or two reading levels, she says.

Williams says the key is that teachers are getting immediate, individual support on the specific reading skills that their students are struggling with. “We help teachers focus in on what are the most important things that the students need to learn,” she said. “The teacher doesn’t feel like ‘I’m kind of off on my own once I learn this.’”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!

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