Editor’s note: The Albuquerque Journal, in partnership with KOAT-TV and KKOB News Radio, continues its yearlong, coordinated effort to explore the issues and seek potential solutions to New Mexico’s ongoing literacy crisis.
Through The Literacy Project, the three newsrooms will publish and air in-depth stories and interviews to identify gaps, resources and opportunities to create positive, workable solutions.
Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Dozens of readers – several of them current and former educators, reading specialists and literacy advocates – responded to the Journal’s initial stories published in May describing the grim statistics that make up New Mexico’s literacy crisis. The letter writers offered critiques, opinions and observations.
What follows are a few of their voices, which are reflective of some recurring themes cited by many who wrote to us. In follow-up interviews, these individuals talked about insufficient teacher training, the increased time and resources teachers need to make an impact and the fundamental disagreement on what and how to teach literacy.
These are their opinions and suggestions based on what they have witnessed at ground level. The purpose of publishing them is to generate ideas and discussion about how we can move the needle forward on this issue in New Mexico, which ranks 49th in the country and has made no measurable progress in the last 20 years. The truth is that three out of four New Mexico fourth graders cannot read at grade level.
Again, The Literacy Project invites all interested parties to email their thoughts and suggestions, with the goal of providing a spectrum of voices as we seek ways to improve literacy across the state. Send your thoughts to email@example.com.
A teacher speaks
Annie Syed, a level three English language arts teacher at Desert Ridge Middle School in Albuquerque, said she previously taught three sections of an accelerated seventh-grade English language arts class at the school in 2018-19. To her surprise only about 50% of those students were reading at grade level, “and their writing skills were even less proficient,” she said.
The accelerated program was later discontinued for seventh graders but not eighth graders. Fellow teachers at the time questioned the wisdom of “starting students on such a competitive, labeled track, as early as seventh grade,” Syed said.
Her response was that seventh grade accelerated programs prepare kids for eighth grade accelerated programs, which prepares kids for ninth grade honors classes. “And by the time they’re in high school, it’s sink or swim,” she said.
Further, she said, “if we take away the labels, how do we best identify and provide the support to the students who are coming in with deficiencies?”
Syed, who has taught for 14 years in charter, private and public schools in California, New York and Kansas, said that in her opinion, Albuquerque Public Schools “does not provide enough professional development to the specific needs of teachers across content areas,” and what they do offer “lacks depth and nuance with respect to teaching literacy.”
For that reason, Syed often pays out of her own pocket to travel and attend out-of-state professional development conferences.
In addition, the process of promoting students if they do not perform at grade level becomes pointless, Syed said.
“A student who is reading at a fourth grade level and going into eighth grade is only going to present challenges for the teacher and the incoming eighth graders. And yet, passing a student on to ninth grade as part of ‘social promotion’ feeds into the low literacy rate we have in New Mexico,” she said.
Syed suggests more vocational programs be created, starting in eighth grade for students “who are just not going to make it successfully through high school.” She said programs could be literacy-based, emphasizing the need to be able to read written text and use basic math found in instructional manuals aimed at respective vocations.
The skills required for raising one’s literacy level, “do not necessarily have to be acquired in a traditional classroom setting,” Syed said.
Expand literacy goals
Thomas McGaghie of Grants also questions social promotion of students in any grade.
“Traditionally, the concern was, why would you want to stigmatize a kid? But, what’s worse, having to hold back a kid in second, third, fourth or fifth grade to make sure the kid gets up to the right skill level, or having that kid move on to eighth or ninth grade, never having had to produce? By the time kids get into high school, if they can’t produce, they fail and just drop out, and then it’s more difficult to get them back,” he said.
A retired educator with more than 40 years of experience teaching at the college level and in adult education, McGaghie is also a past president of the New Mexico Adult Education Association.
New Mexico’s educational system, he said, could benefit by keeping kids in school longer than the current schedule of about 180 days, and moving to “a more up-to-date schedule that reflects the needs of the 21st century.” He noted that many other countries where students perform better than students in the United States have more in-classroom hours.
Further, he said, the summer brain drain is real, and that during the extended summer break “students lose some of the material that they’ve learned the year before, so why not just keep them in school straight through?”
The idea of improving literacy needs to be redefined as something more than just reading and writing at a certain level, he said. It should also include an ability to comprehend history and have a basic understanding of math and sciences. To be functional in our society, he said, people need to have no less than a 10th- or 12th-grade education.
Adult education programs can go a long way to fill in those gaps for people who didn’t get to a proficient literacy level via the traditional school classroom track. In New Mexico, adult education is available to anyone age 16 and older. Parents in particular should be open to filling in the gaps in their own education because “if you can raise the literacy level of parents, then your chances of raising the skill levels of their children are much greater,” he said.
Seeking ‘balanced literacy’
Reading specialist Grace Sussman taught language arts in kindergarten through college level and currently teaches at Central New Mexico Community College, “working with students who want to improve their literacy skills to qualify for college admission,” she said.
“In the beginning, I was shocked by my students’ unfamiliarity with text or print material, and their lack of reading comprehension or reading strategies. To me, that meant our education system has failed these people,” she said.
And many public education officials are aware of the system’s shortcomings, but still struggle.
“They recognize it’s a crisis and have been working hard and long without enough funding and support,” Sussman said.
A realignment of our priorities as a nation with more financing for education would advance the cause of literacy, she said.
At least part of the problem with low literacy is that “reading is a complex process and teachers are not really taught how to teach reading in a way that supports that complexity,” she said.
Related to that is the ongoing debate of phonics vs. whole language in the teaching of reading.
Phonics involves teaching how to match the sounds of spoken English with individual letters or groups of letters and using the different letters to assemble words. The whole language approach does not involve dissecting the words by sounds or letters. Instead it relies on identifying individual words based on literary context. “So students are expected to kind of intuit the phonics as they are immersed in the language,” she said.
“The fact that there’s a debate shows that there is a lack of understanding that we need both. Students need the immersion plus the specific instruction in phonics,” a blending of the two approaches that is often referred to as “balanced literacy,” Sussman said.
In addition, school libraries are often “ill-equipped to supply reading materials that match students’ interests and backgrounds,” and they sometimes spend money on purchasing expensive reading programs that students may not use or need.
“You don’t need a lot of expensive instructional programs, and there have been studies that bear that out,” Sussman said, adding that what’s really required is dedicating no less than 15 minutes daily to students for reading and writing.
“Another simple strategy is reading to students, even at the middle and high school levels,” she said. “By exposing students to what books offer makes a difference in how they regard books and reading.”
Too many cooks
Jennifer Gufreda of Bernalillo taught elementary school for 10 years before taking time off to have a baby and pursue a new career as a teacher of children with dyslexia.
Related to the overall literacy issue is the manner in which schools and school districts adopt expensive programs for teaching English language arts and how quickly those programs are dropped and replaced, she said.
“It’s very cyclical. It seems like every two or three years they’ve adopted another program to teach literacy,” she said.
Gufreda studied for her teaching degree at Santa Fe Community College, “and by the time I hit the classroom, I felt like I had wasted time and money, and I felt completely unprepared,” she said. “We were taught how to assess children’s reading skills using a particular program, and then when you actually hit the classroom they’re using a completely different assessment.”
SFCC textbooks emphasized a specific program of daily small-group instruction to supplement classroom literacy, and which produces testing materials, but the state does not use any of the testing products. “I think any person in a teaching program is going to assume that if we’re learning these materials, it’s because that’s what we’re going to use,” she said.
Instead of the initial assessment materials, she had to become familiar with a new one, which itself was later replaced with another.
Some of the changes were at the direction of the state Public Education Department, some came from district leadership, and some of the more informal assessments were the prerogative of teachers, Gufreda said.
Many of the programs, she said, “don’t take into account the entire literacy framework and are missing components of phonics, phonological awareness, comprehension, text fluency or vocabulary.”
Another problem that affects teaching literacy is that most districts give teachers a block of about 120 minutes a day in which to teach literacy. That time is divvied up by whole group learning, which takes about an hour, followed by another hour or so of small group learning, in which kids with similar literacy skills are brought together and the teacher works with them to address specific needs.
“The problem is that for some of our students who may have learning disabilities but don’t qualify for special education services, that’s simply not enough time,” Gufreda said.
“It’s also clear that we need to support parents more, because we have a lot of parents who can’t read, or read at low literacy levels, and they can’t help their kids as those kids move into higher grades in school.”
Readers interested in offering their thoughts and comments can email firstname.lastname@example.org.