My name is Heather Efaw. I am the reading specialist at Maple Grove Elementary School in the Boise School District, a position I’ve been in for the past five years. Previously I worked in the Glendale Elementary School District in Glendale, Arizona as a first and second grade teacher. I will never forget one of my earliest trainings when I learned from an Arizona Department of Corrections Prison Official that they base their prison bed projections off of third grade reading levels. This statistic has haunted me and created a desire in me to see more early intervention opportunities for students from low-income and minority backgrounds.
Lately there has been a lot of talk at the state level about what we are doing in kindergarten through third grade to ensure that all of our students are reading at benchmark by the end of third grade. I appreciate the investment and attention to this important initiative. It is clear that we all agree that a solid literacy foundation is critical to the success of our entire education system and ultimately the economy of our state.
I think one piece of the conversation that is currently missing is around the access that our students currently have to quality early childhood education programs. We cannot wait until our children are reading proficiently by the end of third grade to address this issue. It is simply not possible to reach a higher level of proficiency without the foundational skills they need when they enter kindergarten. We need to invest in early childhood education programs first and then we will naturally see our third grade proficiency rates increase.
When a child comes to kindergarten without experiencing a literacy rich environment it is difficult to remediate all of the oral language that they missed from birth to 5 years old. The reading research out there tells us what it takes to be a successful reader. A successful reader is someone who can easily and accurately decode at the word level and one who has an understanding of what they are reading at the sentence and text levels. We know that the best readers have a lot of content knowledge. The building blocks of this content knowledge does not begin at age 5, rather it begins at birth.
I can teach letter names, sounds, and all of the skills we know it takes to read the words on the page. What is much more challenging from kindergarten through third grade (and beyond) is teaching students who do not have the background experiences and language skills to meaningfully interact with texts and their peers in an academic setting. Building background knowledge in a developmentally appropriate way takes time. Time that honestly does not exist in half day kindergarten programs (an issue for another day) and 1st through 3rd grade when you consider all of the things that need to be covered in the curriculum.
All of our students deserve access to quality early childhood education programs. I am not asking our state leaders to mandate that all students attend an early childhood education program. I know there are some families out there who are doing a fabulous job doing this and would like to continue to educate their children on their own from birth through 5. I am asking for the families and children who do not have access to the resources and tools to do this on their own, the 55 percent of kids who are coming to school unprepared for kindergarten. Students are not coming to school unprepared because they inherently cannot learn, but because they have not been given the same opportunities as their peers.
This issue is important and deserves our attention. I want our state leaders to fund early childhood education programs. At a minimum, join me in encouraging our state leaders to change the legislative statute that prevents school districts from using public funds for the education of 3- and 4-year-old students.
If this issue is important to you, I encourage you to reach out to your legislators. You can find their information at https://legislature.idaho.gov/
Written by Heather Efaw, reading specialist at Maple Grove Elementary School.