Senator Chuck Wiger: Need Action to Improve Reading

It is time to declare war on illiteracy in Minnesota.

The gap between those who can read and those who cannot read is growing. It is a disturbing trend that must be reversed.

Because we are One Minnesota, we need across-the-board leadership to meet our goals of having students reading well by third grade.

The truth is, students who are not reading well by the end of third grade are four times more likely to not graduate on time or to drop out of school.

As a state, we cannot afford for that to happen. Our future depends on a growing, well-educated workforce. It is not acceptable that we have among the best ACT scores in the country, and the worst achievement gap between white students and students of color.

Currently, according to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Education presented to the Senate on January 28, the percentage of white students in Minnesota who read proficiently at the end of third grade is 68.5 percent. For Asian students it is 54.6 percent. For American Indian/Alaskan Native students it is 36.3 percent. For black/African American students it is 34.3 percent. For Hispanic/Latino students it is 38.5 percent. For students with two or more races it is 56.2 percent.

At the other end of the age spectrum, 61,822 adults are enrolled in adult basic education programs. Of that number, 42 percent read below the third-grade level.

It is time to address the problem in a constructive way. I recently introduced the Minnesota Reads bill, SF 81. The bill would establish a Minnesota Reads Action Council with 26 public members including teachers, administrators, business leaders, school board members and higher education teacher preparation educators.

Members will be charged with designing a strategic, statewide reading campaign to promote literacy for all students and adults. They will focus on what works and will issue a report to the legislators and provide draft legislation for implementation of effective reading strategies.

Reading proficiency must be a priority in our schools. We can only expect results if there is leadership and commitment to our children.

Becoming a literate person means more than being able to recognize words. Literacy also means being able to find information in stories, identify themes, compare and contrast text and decipher implied meaning.

Students need to learn to read before they can read to learn.

I recognize that there is no silver bullet to address the issue of literacy. We all can help by partnering with volunteers in business, public health and libraries. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach. The solutions we come up with must fit the problem.

There are evidence-based programs such as Reading Corps that work and are getting results. Reading Corps uses AmeriCorps tutors to work with children ages 3 to 9.

In the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, the school board recently invited all the kindergarten teachers in the district to attend a board meeting to receive an achievement award for eliminating the gap in scores between white children and children of color at that grade level. Their strategy involved intensively working together on curriculum and intervention. Effectively teaching reading is a highly complex activity that involves training using the most respected techniques.

Community members can be part of the solution. Children benefit from being read to and people from churches and other community groups can be trained in proven practices and fill a growing need for all children who want to be read too often.

Early childhood education is also part of the solution. Newborns, infants and toddlers have developing brains making millions of connections that set up a child for learning. Loving interaction helps the developing brain. Language development is based on the amount of direct language a child hears in the first three years. By the time they are three years old, children in poverty have been exposed to 30 million fewer words than their middle-class counterparts. Clearly, third-grade reading goals cannot be reached without addressing early-childhood issues.

February is “I Love to Read Month,” and here are some recommended by literacy experts:

  • Encourage children to set aside time every day for reading.
  • Have children try crossword puzzles and other word puzzles.
  • Discuss current events and stories you read.
  • Encourage children to read daily news stories and magazine articles.
  • Provide a reading area in the home.

Here are some literacy websites with more information:

I realize that it may take some time to bring about dramatic increases in reading proficiency. But we must push forward. Our future depends on it.

As always, please contact me with questions or suggestions regarding any issue. You can visit me at the Capitol in my office in the Senate Building, Room 2219. Or, you can let me know if you would like me to stop by your home or apartment. I can be reached by email at sen.chuck.wiger@senate.mn and by phone at 651-296-6820. My cell is 651-770-0283.

This article was first published in the White Bear Press

Senator Chuck Wiger
Chuck Wiger represents District 43, which includes portions of Ramsey and Washington counties in the northeastern Twin Cities metropolitan area.

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