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Intervention Pays Off

Poor reading must be detected early and remedied correctly

October 04, 1998

Resolving California's reading crisis will require an accurate diagnosis of why most pupils don't read at grade level. It will also require a statewide commitment to provide effective, intensive and sustained extra reading instruction as early as possible and for as long as students need it.

Educators call it intervention. At the preschool and primary level, appropriate additional instruction can strengthen a child's knowledge and skills, leading to success in reading. Early intervention can prevent the need for remediation, which addresses defective or missing reading skills with the goal of raising the student's academic performance to grade level.

In our ongoing series, "Reading: The First Skill," The Times today examines intervention and remediation in school districts in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties. These attempts to help young readers are important throughout the state because only 36% of California third-graders tested last year read at the national average.

The earlier intervention starts, the better. Head Start, the best known preschool intervention program, should be strengthened to teach children the beginning building blocks of reading. Before the first grade, a child needs to learn how to distinguish among a wide variety of sounds and recognize letters. Children also need to learn many, many words. They can learn from parents, older siblings, a skilled day care provider, anywhere; what's important is that they start school prepared to learn to read.

By the second half of the first grade, a good teacher knows where a pupil stands. Trouble signs should prompt teachers to provide extra help, now possible because of California's class-size reduction or the availability of more help from a reading specialist or trained tutor. The right help needs to be given immediately, before a pupil wastes valuable learning time, falls further behind and becomes a permanent slow reader.

Reading interventions vary. But research shows that successful efforts usually are the ones that are made daily, last the duration of a school year, require extra reading, writing and speaking, emphasize reading skills and vocabulary building and generally proceed from easy material to the more difficult. In the most effective programs, youngsters are taught by knowledgeable teachers, teacher aides and volunteer or professional tutors who have special training in children's reading. Pupils are assessed regularly, and their lessons are tailored to allow them to experience success after success as they solve the reading puzzle.

Many school districts that have high numbers of poor readers cannot afford to provide one-on-one tutoring every day for all the students who need it. But there are cost-effective ways to help children make the grade, starting with making sure that every reading teacher can do the job.

The best reading teachers belong in the first, second and third grades. Just as Gov. Pete Wilson and the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved cash incentives to reward school districts that reduce class sizes in the primary grades, Sacramento should provide bonuses for teachers who excel on the new state test for reading instructors or on the national board certification test.

Every elementary school should have a reading specialist who correctly evaluates problem readers in the primary grades, prescribes appropriate intensive help and guides teachers and tutors.

Holding students back will become more common because California now prohibits social promotion. Pupils who repeat a grade need every opportunity--after school, on weekends, during summers or when year-round school is out--to get the correct help.

California schools should spend more of their Title 1 money, federal dollars designated for disadvantaged students, on reading specialists and specially trained tutors.

Although California students are among the worst readers in the nation, failure is preventable for 95% of children. Fewer than one out of five pupils have learning disabilities such as the incapacity to accurately process the information they see or hear, and most can learn if given the right kind of intensive help early and for a long enough period. Children with attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and even distracting emotional problems can eventually do well. So can poor children, minority children and children who speak little or no English when they start school. These challenges are surmountable, but of course less so when a teacher must juggle many children who have problems.

Intervention cannot replace what a pupil gets in the classroom. Nor should it become permanent. Additional reading instruction--early, correct and daily--should provide a kick-start to propel more primary pupils to grade level in reading before it is too late for the students, and California.

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