Riverbend Awareness Project

Superintendents Karla LaOrange and Scott Woolstenhulme share their passion and knowledge of literacy, what it is, and how literacy can empower individuals.

Idaho Library Directory 

Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy

National Center on Improving Literacy

Khan Academy

Show Notes

Superintendents Karla LaOrange and Scott Woolstenhulme share their passion and knowledge of literacy, what it is, and how literacy can empower individuals. 
Idaho Library Directory 
Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy
National Center on Improving Literacy
Khan Academy

What is Riverbend Awareness Project?

The Riverbend Awareness Project brings you a new conversation each month about important causes and issues in our community. Every month of 2024 we will sit down and have a conversation with a professional from our community about significant issues like heart health, Alzheimer’s, literacy, and more. We’ll then share that conversation with you on the Riverbend Awareness Project Podcast, with the goal of sharing resources, and information that will help you have a better understanding of the particular problems, and solutions, associated with each topic.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this podcast episode are solely those of the individuals participating and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Riverbend Media Group or the Riverbend Awareness Project, its affiliates, or its employees. It is important to note that the discussion presented is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Listeners are encouraged to consult with qualified health care professionals for any medical concerns or decisions. The Riverbend Awareness Project is a product of Riverbend Media Group.

Russell: Hi, this is Russell

Melissa: and Melissa.

Russell: Thanks for joining us on the Riverbend Awareness Project. Each month we learn more about important nationwide topics that also affect our community.

Melissa: This month we're focusing on literacy and the powerful impact it can have on a life. We are in studio today with Karla LaOrange and Scott Woolstenhulme, and I'm going to let them introduce themselves.

Karla: I'm Karla LaOrange. I'm the superintendent of Idaho Falls School District, and I've had a long standing passion for literacy. I've taught elementary school for about 13 years and did intervention as part of that work. And then in my graduate work, the majority of it was focused on literacy, including my ongoing dissertation that's not done, but it's focused on literacy.

And then I'm also completing my dyslexia specialist, so I can be a reading interventionist. And it's just a passion for me to have students read and read well so that they have options in their life and can pursue their own passions.

Sott: I'm Scott Woolstenhulme, superintendent for Bonneville School District 93, also here in Idaho Falls, and I have been an educator for about 25 years.

My education background is in English teaching at the secondary level. So I taught high school and junior high English, and I also served as an elementary principal for a year and really got to understand how important it is for students to learn to read and write effectively at an early age. And then, through some graduate work as well; my dissertation focused on how technology can help students learn to read and write, and help teachers be more effective in their instruction.

Russell: How would you guys define literacy? What is literacy?

Scott: For me, you know, typically we think about literacy just generally in terms of reading, but it's really more than just reading. It's how do we help students learn to express themselves and understand others through written and verbal language?

And so while we really focus on helping students learn to read in our schools and write, speaking and listening is also a really important part of that. The overall goal being: how do we interact with others in a way that we can understand the ideas of others and express our ideas as well?

But Karla has a has a really great background in literacy and a lot of years teaching it. So I'd love to hear what her definition would be.

Karla: Oh, I think you hit it really well. Really, if we think about it, reading represents speech in symbols and that when we write, we're also representing speech in those same symbols that uses different processes in our brain.

But that's really what we're doing. So reading and writing, because literacy combines both, empowers people to communicate, to express their ideas, to record those so other people can access them. And I honestly can't think of a time in the history of the world where there's been a greater need, between social media, texting, email, just all the things we access on the web.

There's never been a greater need to be literate and to be able to communicate your ideas, both in speaking and to understand what other people say, but also in reading and writing, it's a really empowering skill to have.

Melissa: How does literacy intersect with other forms of cultural and digital literacy?

Scott: So I'll take the lead on this one. You know, digital literacy is something that's a term that we really started talking about in the last, 10 to 15 years. And I did have a time where I was serving as our technology director, and something we thought a lot about as well is how do we help students develop, again, not just our traditional thoughts about literacy with print books, but as we start to navigate this...at the time, we called it web 2.0, but this, this, arena where students are sharing so much online, how do we help them become literate in the appropriate ways to do that?

But the foundation of that is still what Carla just talked about, and that Superintendent Lawrence just talked about, and that is it still comes down to communication and still comes down to reading and writing and be able to speak and listen effectively. But as you think about in terms of digital literacy, it really opens up a whole new world for students.

And they really have to think about how the impact of the things that they say, the and where the ideas that they're, that they're being exposed to, where they come from, and how do they effectively evaluate, the merit of those ideas to still the end goal, be there for ourselves to become learners and to really be able to navigate, the world that we live in.

Karla: And on the cultural literacy side, culture really impacts our ability to understand what we are reading and of course, what we express in writing. So let me give you a really simple example of this one. A very simple sentence: "The sun is a ball of gas." Pretty easy to read that sentence, but when we think about the word like, "ball,"
we think of something that we play with, right?

That we play games with, that you would shoot a basket, that you might swing out and hit in this context. That's not what we're talking about. So understanding it's a different kind of ball but still a sphere. But it's not the kind of gas that we also put into our automobile. It's something completely different. So not having some background coming from a different culture, bringing different understandings of games, of what the word ball could mean, and having a background in science that there's different definitions for what gas can be and how it's used in our society makes a big difference in our ability to understand even a very simple sentence like that. Our background knowledge, our vocabulary, and our experience. Because if you ever have a chance to travel outside of, you know, where we live here in Idaho Falls, and I don't even mean outside of the country, just different parts of the country, you have different cultural experiences. You have different cultural terminology. My husband comes from the Midwest.

When I first met him, his mom would say, "have a seat on the divan." And I have to tell you, I was like, what is that? I have no idea what she's talking about. Again, that cultural literacy, even if I can decode that word, you know, if I can read it, it doesn't mean I can understand it. So the culture we come from, even just within the United States, can impact our ability to read and write.

It's so important that we develop that background in students, and the students who don't have the opportunity to go to the museum, to attend a performance at the Colonial— let alone if you come from a completely different background— makes a tremendous difference.

My daughter and I had the opportunity to work and clean a building for a year, to go to Bolivia to help build a school, and being in a place where I could speak none of the language— I really don't know any Spanish— and to also see a culture that was completely different, just in how you might order food and how you would walk down the street, just things that you take so for granted. And then you try to sit down and learn a language and read it. Cultural literacy really impacts what we can read. We can sound out a lot of words and not necessarily understand them.

We could probably all read a medical text. I probably would not understand most of what I read.

Russell: This may be a dumb question, but what would be the difference between cultural literacy and just like understanding different definitions of words?

Karla: So when I'm talking about cultural literacy, I am trying to attack that from both sides. In literature, traditionally, we're talking about the culture that we bring and our background and how it impacts our ability to read.

So I was trying to give you an example of even if you could read the words, you might not be able to understand it. And that there... I think we think of culture as always someone from outside the country. And certainly the differences are much greater when you do that, but there are different cultures here in the United States.

My daughter spent some time in Sweden. We had the opportunity to go back there, and I'm very chatty with people at the grocery store when I'm checking out. And you don't do that in Sweden. And it was a big cultural misstep for me to do that. People don't interact at all. So that can impact not just how you act, but also how you would read text because you would understand it differently with that cultural context.

Scott: And I think culture's an interesting idea because we can think about in terms of our, you know, geographical cultures, and what did your geographical cultures look like? But honestly, every family has its own culture, right? And I was blessed. I grew up in a family where both my parents had a college education. Books were always in our home.

I always saw my parents reading. I really grew up in a culture of literacy, and as a result, I love to read. It was my favorite thing to do in. My parents would never ground me and send me to my room because that wasn't a punishment for me. It was my very favorite thing to do— to escape to my room and to get lost in great literature, great reading.

But we have a lot of families that that's not their culture, right, for different reasons. And, books aren't an important part of their families. We have a lot of families— I know we'll probably talk about this— but where both parents have to work to support their family, and kids don't have that same exposure to reading or literacy, or even education isn't as important.

So the culture isn't just about our geographical areas, but it's really about what are the traditions and the expectations and the things that are important in our homes and and in our schools. We see kids coming from a lot of different family cultures. And then for teachers, the question is how do we help kids that are coming from such varied experiences and expectations to help other students reach their potential?

Karla: Seeing that value for text and seeing that that's an important source of information for us as a family is really important. And we have to remember, there are families where both parents are working two and sometimes three jobs to be able to provide for their family. And so they don't really have resources to buy books.

And I think, even when you look at the Idaho Falls Library, the adult section may be underutilized, but the children's section is usually very busy. But access is still an issue for a lot of our students— getting to a library, knowing how to find a book. And I know those sound like really simple things if you come from a family that has either valued literacy or has taken you to the library, but if you're a child who's never had that experience— and it doesn't mean that your parents aren't doing a good job, sometimes they, like I said, are just working two and three jobs to provide for the family, and they're doing their best.

But, kids don't have access to that. Even simple things like learning that a book... that words go from left to right, learning how to turn pages. Those are really important pre-literacy skills. And students come to school without that understanding that words go left to right, and that text goes from top to bottom on a page.

So having those library resources, having people there to read out loud to students and making it as accessible as possible and providing books to children, really matters. It makes a big difference. And then, of course, having families is, as Scott pointed out, having families that value that is always helpful.

Russell: So here in Eastern Idaho, we have cultures from all over the world that kind of mix together, and they may have different ideas of what literacy is or have different things that contribute to being literate.

What are the effects of this and how does being bilingual impacts literacy?

Karla: So, my daughter speaks Swedish, and one day she was trying to teach me how to say this Swedish word, and I kept repeating it to her and she'd say, "no." And she would say it again. And we went through that about 10 or 12 times.

And then I just started laughing and I said, "I am saying what you're saying to me." And she said, "you're not." And we were both just laughing because when a baby is born, they can make every sound of any language in the world. But within a week or two, their brains start doing what we call pruning. They prune away some of those sounds so that we start to hone in on the sounds that we are hearing, and the language that we're surrounded by.

So if you're coming from a second language, you're going to be like me trying to speak Swedish. I was— I can't— I just could not make my mouth make that sound. I needed a speech language person to help me know what to do with my tongue and my lips and how to push air out of my mouth to make that sound.

I have found that same problem with Spanish. I've had students come from Mexico, and I'm trying to say Spanish words to them. And one student, I turned a card around to show him in Spanish what I was trying to say, and he burst out laughing, because I obviously was not even close to that. So that is one of the challenges that they have, because when we learn to read, we'll say, "cat, C-A-T, cat," and then, "oh, we know what a cat is."

We've heard the word cat. It sounds like something. But if I was sounding something out in Swedish or Spanish, I could say what I thought the word was, but I would have no idea if it was actually a word, because I'm still trying to learn the language. So that's one of the challenges that second language learners have, regardless of whether you're an adult or a child.

Because I'm producing what I think is in written form, but I don't know the language enough to know if that's actually a real word from that language. So we have to develop their language skills simultaneously as we're trying to teach them to read. That's the challenge for teachers. So I think that's a big piece of it. When we take a look at the cultural aspects, and different cultures do value literacy in different ways.

And those are real challenges that I've experienced as a teacher, as a principal, and as an administrator. And I think really the best way we do that is to partner with people from different cultures. And we have been most successful at doing that, at getting people who maybe don't speak English, but their children are coming to one of our schools, when we can get one person out of that community that speaks the language that everyone else speaks to come and get involved in school and then others will follow.

And I used to think, we're being nice. Why can't we get them to come? But as I was able to sit in a language that other people were speaking and I had no idea what they were saying and no one could speak to me in English, I started to realize how isolated you feel and how you kind of pulled back, because I can't speak to you.

I don't know what you're saying. I obviously don't fit in or I can't. And so you do hold back. So trying to find ways that we can have people who are native speakers and understand a culture kind of take their hand and bring them into school without an expectation that they speak English, but more of an expectation of we can learn how to shelve books.

You don't have to be able to read. We just help you understand the Dewey Decimal System. And I've had parents who do not speak English do that before, but they need someone that speaks their language and is familiar with their culture to kind of bring them in. And we've had in elementary school— Fox Hollow Elementary has done a tremendous job with that, with their families who are Hispanic and speak primarily speak Spanish because of one parent who stepped forward in courage and then others came with her and followed her, and now they're more involved in school.

And that's really what we want. But it's that challenge of getting over shame or feeling like you don't belong and finding a pathway to help them feel that and feel like there's a way that they can contribute to the school.

Scott: I think— I appreciate that from Karla. And just one thing that started to, in my mind, change over the last few years is traditionally, we would have thought of our our English language learners as Spanish speakers, and that's still predominantly the case.

But we're seeing more and more students come from other countries. And so our old mindsets about how we help those students is starting to shift. Used to be we have, you know, these handful of people in the school that can speak Spanish, we can interact with the families that way, which is good. But as we get these families from a lot more diverse areas, it's creating new challenges for us.

And we have to think differently about how do we help support all English language learners, not just those that come from Spanish speaking countries?

Karla: You know, to speak to that— I know some of the new research, that was being shared with me just this week is really... if we can take students who come and put them into a classroom where they're learning to read and write in English, but everything else is in their native language, whatever that is— so math, social studies, sciences in their primary language, but actually it builds their confidence there, which actually helps them learn how to read and speak and write in English better.

But that becomes a resource challenge for us in a school because we are not funded for a class. For classrooms like that, we're funded more to rely on tutors and don't have as many teachers who have the qualifications and the experience to teach a second language to students.

Also to teach, I might have students were speaking Spanish, who are speaking Russian, who are speaking Mandarin all in one classroom with my English speaking students and recognizing the challenge of that and the resources that we need to bring to help those students along. And again, that's an investment in our community and in our future.

Melissa: I feel like you kind of already spoke to this a little bit, but I wanted to dig deeper. Are there are some other factors that contribute to literacy struggles?

Scott: Yeah. So, on thing we talked about is we get more and more students coming into our schools that aren't coming from our country, they're coming from different countries, and then that certainly creates a challenge. And a lot of times we may just think that that's a challenge with them learning a new language.

But what we found is oftentimes students haven't... they're coming from impoverished circumstances. And so they haven't developed literacy in their native language either. So it's really a double struggle for our teachers to say we have to teach those foundational literacy, and when they don't have it in their native language, it's even, you know, that much more challenging to help them learn it there.

But I think, you know, technology's been an interesting one, and I think it a lot of times it gets a bad rap, saying, you know, kids are spending too much time on devices and that's taking their... that's distracting them. And they're not coming to school as ready as they were. And that certainly could be having an impact.

I think for me, it's not nearly as much about the device as it is about what are kids doing when they're exposed to that screen time. And, you know, when I was a child, I grew up watching Sesame Street and Electric Company, and those were all about literacy, and teaching me in front of the TV how to decode words, how to put words together to make new words, how to understand vocabulary.

I mean, I had a lot of language exposure from watching TV, but the content was fantastic content that really helped me develop those early literacy skills. And so that's one thing I would just encourage as parents is, as you're looking at the activities your students are doing on devices, the more that we can help students be exposed to language— they don't necessarily have to be being taught those same decoding skills I learned from the Electric Company, but just that exposure to language and listening to books, reading books, that type of exposure can really help improve kids literacy versus doing things that doesn't help build that really deep, rich understanding or exposure to language.

Karla: Yeah. And I would just build off of what Scott was talking about with language. It's so critically important. You know, there was a time when we went to the grocery store and we put that little baby or that one or two year old in the basket, and we'd walk through the store and say, "we need apples today."

"Let's find the apples. Where are the apples?" And we're pointing at apples, and then they get a little bit older. We give them a bag and tell them to go get five, and they count five apples into the bag, and then they get a little older and we have them weigh, and then after that we have them calculate how much it would cost.

We teach them to round, and how to figure out the cost of those apples. And it's really tempting now to put that little child into the basket and hand them your phone so that you can be efficient when you shop. But what we've lost is all that language interaction going on between the adults and that child, where we're saying apples are round, apples are red. Oh, look, this apple is green. So apples can be red and green. And helping them learn to hear language even when they can't speak. Being able to hear that language helps them develop better language skills, better vocabulary, which of course is going to help their reading. So again, it's like Scott said, what you do on the device is very, very important.

But we know language is critical to becoming a good reader. So being exposed to a lot of language, we know that there are big differences in what some kindergartners bring to kindergarten as far as the number of words that they know, and it'll be 6 or 700 word difference in their spoken vocabulary and in the vocabulary that they understand.

Well, think about in kindergarten. Most of them don't read, some do, but the vast majority don't. So how do we give them instruction? It's verbal. And so now we have a 600 word difference or deficit really in what kids can understand. So teachers right out the gate are having to make up that difference. And probably the other thing that I think is important to understand about language, you don't hear a lot about dyslexia anymore.

And I think for a long time the conversation I heard was they see letters backwards. But we know that's not what dyslexia is. Dyslexia is actually a language processing in your brain, the way your brain processes that language. And so students who have dyslexia can actually speak and understand very well, but the way their brain processes language, it impedes their ability to understand, I mean, to read phonetically, and to sound out words, and it takes a lot of repetition for them to get that.

So language is still one of the most important pre-reading skills that we can have. And I think this conversation points out really why our teachers have big challenges. They're dealing with different cultures— from country of origin, to your family— and every family is different and unique. Plus, the language experiences a child brings to school and those language experiences really impact them throughout their life, as the students... throughout the time that they're in school.

So that's a really important thing. And I'm like Scott, I'm not opposed to digital devices at all. I think you just need to make sure that you're careful about that screen time. I know the... What is it? The young children's... I can't remember the acronym. Their association recommends no screen time until a child is three years old.

So. But again, it's really what they're watching and how much you're speaking to them. If you can constantly talk to that baby about everything, you're doing it, it makes a big difference for them when it comes time to read.

Scott: Absolutely. Yep. I just think that's super important. And sometimes I think parents are at a loss to what can I be doing?

Especially if it's your first child, you know, to get them ready for school and in those first few years. But they're such incredibly important years. And so just like Karla said, the more parents will engage with their students and or their children in speaking with them, talking with them, even if you're talking to a baby and the baby may not process or understand what you're saying, that exposure to language has huge benefits in getting them ready to be learners and readers when they come to school.

Karla: And it can be really simple. With my oldest daughter, her name was Carly. So we do: "Your name is Carly. You write a Harley with your friend Charlie. You eat barley." This. That word play with sounds is so incredibly important. Really fun for them. And also reading books from the minute you bring that baby home, sitting them in your lap, pointing to the words so they start to see words go left to right and the text goes top to bottom. How we turn the page. All of those things are very important pre-reading skills that are pretty easy to do at home. And just talking to them. We're going to go clean the bedroom right now. We're going to vacuum. And just talking to them constantly makes a big difference.

Russell: How does income affect literacy and how do we kind of work around that?

Scot: Yeah. So typically, and you know, I want to say this is a broad generalization, right? And every family is going to have different circumstances that are unique to them. But in general, students who come from low socioeconomic circumstances are coming from poverty, typically those families are coming from generational illiteracy, like we talked about. Typically those students are not getting exposed to the same level of language that the kids that are coming from— that are educated, and typically families that are not poor, have. And so it certainly has a key role in that. And to me, it goes back to that's why school matters so much; school can be that great equalizer, that regardless of what circumstances these kids come from, we have the professionals in the classrooms that can help support kids, to help them learn where they need to learn.

So outside of school, that socioeconomic status is probably the number one indicator, as well as parents level of education, are really the two key indicators that are so closely related. They're almost the same. But those are the things that really determine kids' level of success and readiness for school. But what we've seen through research and decades and decades of evidence is school systems and highly qualified and effective teachers can overcome those inherent differences that kids come to school with.

Karla: And I think we have to remember that we bring a certain mindset to how we see those things. My husband was a photographer for the Post Register for a lot of years, and every once in a while, for a feature photo, they would run a picture of students who were swimming in a canal. Certainly not what we want our students to do.

But one night he said to me, "what I think people don't realize is these kids can't afford to go to the pool. This is their only opportunity to go swimming." Now. Is that where we want them? No, but that is their only opportunity. And then we forget also what comes with those opportunities, similar to the young lady that I spoke about, who I'm working with on reading and the opportunities that were closed to her.

My daughters took dance. They learned what the word "plié" meant. They learned what position one was, they learned what position two was. They played soccer. They knew what a free throw was from playing basketball. We just did a lot of rich things in the summer and after school. So they bring all this vocabulary, all this background knowledge to learning to read.

Our students who come from families who are impoverished often have parents who actually are working really hard. Contrary to what some people may think, that they're lazy and they're not doing anything, they're actually working really hard and oftentimes multiple jobs. But there is there's nothing left for those extra things that actually help prepare kids to be able to read and write at a higher level.

And so I think it is really important that we recognize that those families are doing their best and that we need to help them through— a highly skilled teacher break through those. But this is another way that my parents, my father in particular, was very dedicated to athletics. But, I grew up near a school that was impoverished.

That was the school that we attended, and my parents were very good about picking kids up and taking them to basketball. And my mom would bring in dinner for those kids if needed, so that they could practice during a different time. And I would really love to see us consider that it really does take a whole village to raise a child and that it is to our benefit to help everyone grow and develop, rather than just being concerned about my child and making sure that my child gets the best, and that my child gets opportunity.

When we're exposed to different people and we help other people learn and grow, we are all better and stronger. And I really think that that's an approach that we need to take. As things have become more challenging economically, as families have struggled. But we understand that, but understand that we can help each other and that we can make a difference. Again, for everyone and for those kids.

Scott: Sometimes, as we take our kids on field trips, I can think of a couple principals of those little schools that have students come from a lot of impoverished substances, and that will literally be the first time that kids even knew that there was a zoo in Idaho Falls. Some kids literally had no idea that there's a river in Idaho Falls because their families have never traveled that far downtown, even though it's only a couple miles away.

Kids will have never been to, you know, the Nutcracker ballet that we take them to. Again, to me, it's just underscored how important school is because it does provide those opportunities for students and helps them recognize what a wide world there is right here, even in our own community, that they don't always see coming from those limited circumstances they may have.

Karla: You know, I remember a time when school funding was cut in Idaho Falls district,and part of that resulted in elementary field trips being cut. So we weren't going to the museum, and we weren't going to the Colonial or any of that. And someone reached out to me and said, "well, I would like to sponsor my child's classroom to go on this field trip."

And I said, "you know, I support field trips. I think they're great, but we have to sponsor the entire grade level to go." Otherwise, I have students that will never leave their seats and others that probably won't be in their seats. Very much so. And I know some people really pushed back on that. But great community leaders did step forward, and they did make those contributions so that all students could have those kind of experiences that are important and really develop us more as a person and as a literate human being and develop cultural literacy more than I think we realize.

And I think we also underestimate how many of our students don't have those experiences. I think people would be surprised to hear what Scott said about they don't know there's a river in the middle of town, but that is the case. They don't. I had a Boy Scout come to me, and he had done a coat drive and he had hundreds of coats, and he said, "but I don't know what to do with them. I don't know anybody who needs a coat."

And I said, "oh, I've got a couple of schools. We can help you out. So we set up in the gym and let people come and get them. Again, it's our experience and our mindset that we think everybody has this, and everybody doesn't. And I know, Scott, you probably have too, I've experienced some pushback on why do we provide lunch at school.

Why do we provide breakfast at school? Because some families are doing their very best, and we want to make sure that children get their basic needs met so that they can learn, and recognizing that their experience is different than ours, but that we can make up that difference.

Russell: Do we think of literacy as a "you are literate or you are not literate?" What do these different levels do in someone's life? Like, I think most adults reach a certain reading level and then they really never improve past that. So, yeah. Could you just talk about how we should think about literacy in terms of skill level?

Scott: Sure.

Karla: Can we throw one thing in there? A-literacy. Some people are A-literate. They can read and actually read well and they choose not to. And that's a problem too. So we have literacy, illiteracy, but we also have A-literacy. And you were going to start Scott, so why don't you go ahead.

Scott: No that's a great point. So, going back to the first question, there is a level that we talked about of functional literacy, right? And that is— there's essentially a base level where just to function every day, to be able to go to the grocery store and to read the words at the grocery store, to be able to, you know, do things like do your taxes, like we're doing right now, to be able to go to the DMV and to be able to take a driver's license test, like there's just this functional level of reading and writing that to be able to function in society, we have to achieve.

And that's typically... I would say most tests are probably written around, and probably to speak more accurately, but probably around the fifth or sixth grade reading level is really about 80 to 90% of your tests. And so to your point, you know, as I graduated from high school, I was a very fluent reader, very fluent writer.

I felt like I could do things well. But then when I went to college, I realized that that level of reading and writing that I attained was not sufficient to be able to be successful in college, and so that I had to increase my skills past that. And then same thing as we moved into graduate work. So it really depends on what the expectations for your job are, and what your expectations for your own education is. They determine what level of literacy you need to achieve.

But just for a typical person doing a typical thing to be able to function, they really do have to be able to read at about a fourth to fifth grade level. And so, what we focus on to start, and this is something that is very well known in education, something I focused on in my dissertation, but if students don't learn to read grade level text by the end of third grade, our instruction in our schools typically shifts from what we talked about: helping students learn to read, to reading to learn. And so if they haven't learned to read at grade level by the end of third grade, they're going to struggle for the rest of their grade level.

So— not that we don't try to do things to help and support them, but when they don't have those foundational skills, they're much more likely to end up dropping out of school, which leads to all kinds of other unfortunate life consequences when we don't help kids to graduate. So... So they talk about... When I think about literacy, that's really my first thought: how do we help students learn to read by the end of third grade?

Karla: And Scott's right. And the research is showing even at the end of first grade, 75% of students who are not reading at grade level at the end of first grade will never catch up. That gap gets bigger because more new or newer concepts are introduced every year. So staying on track is really important. So for some students, they can get that with one exposure in a classroom, you know, the lesson that the teacher does.

Some need additional practice, additional exposures, so within a smaller group, and sometimes some need a third exposure all on the same concept. Students with dyslexia or a reading-learning disability: a typical student needs 4 to 8 exposures, students that have a disability can need anywhere from 50 to the last thing I heard was 2000, just recently.

So they just need a lot of repetition and practice to create the neurological pathways in their brain, so that they can remember and also so that they can apply to text. I think you ask a great question about... as students get older, I think we really have this idea that if we're functionally literate, if we can read at a fourth or fifth grade level, then if there really is no more to learn.

But Scott gave a really great example about that, because in fact, there is much more to learn. We need to learn how to read different kinds of text. If we're reading text—and I'm saying take out the pictures, take out the captions and the headings, compare/contrast or cause/effect or something that's sequential, which could even be reading directions.

We approach that text differently depending on what we're looking for or what kind of text it is too. So we have to look at what is the structure of the text, what is the purpose in what we're reading? What are we going to do with this? Reading a novel for enjoyment is very different than trying to follow directions, to put together something from Ikea or someplace like that where there might be a lot of directions.

So the text, as it gets more complex, learning how to break apart vocabulary— is it a Greek root? Is it a Latin root? What does when RE- is in front of the word do? I'm using a very simple example here, but that means "to do again." So learning how to apply that to a lot of different words or science words tends to be very Greek oriented.

So learning those different derivatives or those different roots helps you unlock the meaning of words. So text gets more complex. There's actually a lot more to learn about how to take those foundational reading skills you have and approach text. And I would agree with Scott that with functional literacy, you'll be able to drive, you'll be able to fill out a job application, but there will still be many doors that will be closed to you.

And that's really what we as educators do. We are merchants of hope. We're here to help open doors. I mean, that's our passion. And and so it's really important that we help children reach that potential so that they can choose which doors are open and close to them.

Melissa: What are different ways that becoming literate and having those higher level literacy skills can empower people?

Karla: So, I'll tell you a story that maybe doesn't. It shows what the lack of literacy does. I had the opportunity to work with a young woman who was never taught to read, and she was married and she needed contribute to the income of their family, but her choices were very limited. So she decided to nanny.

She nannied for several families, but as the children got older, she couldn't help them. Even with the basic kindergarten and first grade reading homework that they would bring home, she couldn't help them read text and practice that at home, which is a big part of what we ask or hope families will do to support the reading development of their children.

And so she would have to quit. In the end, the only job that she could really get was working at a thrift store where she would source clothing and price it. And the people there were very kind to her. They let her orally fill out her her job application. But this is a young woman who's articulate, who's bright, who learned to compensate so that other people couldn't tell she'd use voice text— she'd have it read back to her— but those doors were all closed to her. I think we take so much for granted to have someone sit in front of you, and we had started; I started working with her and tutoring her, and she was crying and I thought, oh my gosh, I know this is hard, but I promise you, it's going to get better.

And on the second or third day when she cried again, I said, "I'm sorry. This is— I know learning to read is hard, but I'll help you." And she said, "no. I'm just so grateful that someone is finally helping me learn to read." I think if you can read, we take it so for granted. I mean, even here, sitting in the studio, there's different things on the wall.

I can glance at them. I know what they say. If she came into this room, she would not be able to do that. And I think it's a skill that we take for granted, we assume everyone has, and so we assume they have whatever opportunities they want, when in truth you can look literate like this young woman, but you're really stymied by your inability to read.

Again, it just opens opportunity or that door is closed for you too.

Scott: Yeah, you know what? I was doing my undergraduate work, I read The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and that book just really resonated with me. And so, for listeners that aren't familiar, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in the, you know, the early 1800s.

And he just grew up in those terrible conditions, watched an uncle be murdered by a slave owner. He watched his family members be, you know, beaten and all those horrific things— that was just like the world that he was used to, right? That was the only world that he knew. And when he was, I don't remember the age, but somewhere between 5 and 10 years old, he was sold and went into town.

And the mistress of that home where he was sold to started to teach him to read. And that went on for a period of months before the master told her she couldn't do that, because if she did that, he could not tolerate being a slave anymore. Well, that's exactly what happened. Once he learned to read, he recognized that world that he was in, that wasn't the only world that was out there.

And it opened up his mind to this whole other world of possibilities that he didn't realize. And so he continued to find ways to get books. He continued to teach himself to learn to read until he could finally escape from slavery, become emancipated. And that story has just always resonated with me that, you know, we talk a lot about this functional literacy and just be able to get by in day to day life.

But it's so much bigger than that, because when you allow yourself to be exposed to those other ideas and you start to see that whatever conditions I'm in right now, there are other people out there that have totally different experiences, different opportunities. And those are the things I want for myself. And I really believe that literacy is the key for us to unlock generational poverty in our communities, in our state, and in our country.

Karla: Yeah, I really agree with that. Literacy is the key to unlock a lot of the problems that we face. When you read a book, and you could see that in Scott when he was talking about Frederick Douglass, it touches our hearts. It helps us understand someone whose life is very different than ours and experience those that are different than ours.

And it helps develop empathy, which we know is an important skill and one that that we need more of right now. And also helps us learn, to overcome adversity and that other people have faced adversity and they have overcome that in their own lives, that there have been challenges and that they might have gotten discouraged or even depressed, but that they found a way to make a path forward.

So I think there's just a lot of empowerment that comes through literacy. And I'm always disheartened when I hear people saying things like, you don't need an education and you don't really need to graduate from high school. You don't need to pursue anything afterwards. But again, that might sound appealing. And there are there are a few people who are able to become quite wealthy without an education, but they are few and far between.

If you look at the number of people in the world, there really aren't a lot of them. You need that skill to live the life that you want and pursue your own dreams.

Scott: I think there's a really important thing that I want to emphasize. And that is, earlier you asked us about our definition of literacy.
And what does that mean?

Russell: Yeah. Yeah.

Scott: One thing that will always get widely reported is that 2 out of 3 students in America cannot read. That data comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And on that test, year after year, it shows that only about 1 in 3 of students in American schools read what they call "the proficient level," and that is fundamentally different than a student learning to read.

And so as we look at what does it mean for a student to be literate— for me, it means a student can pick up a book that's at their grade level. They can read that fluently, and they can explain to their teacher what they read. If we look at those statistics, we're much, much better. We're closer to eight out of ten kids in our school district who can do that.

So just as we— I don't want to underemphasize the importance of literacy, but I also want to make sure that our community understands that our schools are not failing our kids, and we have a much higher rate of literacy in our schools than what gets reported in the national and local media. It's much higher than than 1 out of 3 students.

Karla: And I think understanding how those tests are constructed— so, I'm not going to nerd out here, but they're basically on a bell shaped curve. And what they're designed to do is identify about 60 to 63% of the students at grade level and the other 40%, the test is designed so that they won't be. So whenever we break through that, we are doing something that is really significant.

So we need, to look at the skills students need rather than look at those test scores and say, "that's defining our schools." I think there's much better work going on, and our students read much at higher levels than what those test scores may indicate. So one thing we really need to do as a state is really identify what does it mean to be literate and come up with an accurate assessment that measures that, and then see our school's progress towards that, because right now our current assessments don't do that well.

And that's the push from the state. Debbie Critchfield is doing a great job. I'm on a committee that is working on that right now, and we fully support that because it gives our teachers better information to use rather than "you're at the 50th percentile," which is not as useful for teachers as knowing what skills you've mastered and what skills we need to teach you next in the sequence so that you become a literate student.

Russell: So for someone who is struggling with literacy, I think there's it can be difficult to get help. And I think part of that reason is, and I don't know this for sure, but I think that kind of collectively we mostly view illiteracy as a moral wrong, as being illiterate, as a moral wrong. I know, so I took band and there was kid who couldn't read music, and whenever we'd be reading music, like he... he would just be very ashamed of himself because he hadn't been taught these skills. Could you guys just talk about how that can cause some friction with finally being able to escape illiteracy?

Karla: We have such great research, but also personal stories, about the shame that goes along with even reading aloud in class, if you think about that.

For kids who could read? Well, it was fun. It was fast. And then when you heard someone else struggling to read, it just felt like time stood still. Everybody was trying to almost say the words for that child and how demeaning that has to be for a child. And I think what we have to understand is that brains are wired differently.

So it really isn't the child's fault. What we know now is it's not because they're lazy. We just have to create a connection in their brain. And for some people, it takes more practice, it takes more exposures, and it's a little bit harder work. I am not ashamed to say, there was a time in my life I have never turned a cartwheel in my entire life.

Scott: Me either.

Karla: Oh, good. I feel better because in ninth grade P.E., my grade got dropped. One grade. If you couldn't turn the cartwheel. But nobody taught me. And so it's like that sometimes— you haven't been taught like the young lady that I worked with. Sometimes your brain is just wired a little differently. And so we have to teach differently.

Again, the challenges that our teachers face, and why I think they're such heroes and why we need small group instruction. Some kids don't need that additional help. Others do. And we know there's certain ways that we need to teach to help those kids that struggle with reading learn how to read. But taking out the shame and really helping everyone understand we all have different abilities, different talents— we believe in a growth mindset. We believe that we can help every child learn, grow, and probably grow more than they believe they can. But it takes time. It takes effort, and it does take skilled teachers to make that difference in a child's life.

Scott: Yeah. And unfortunately it is a stigma that goes with it. Right. And so, oftentimes we see that students behavior escalate in school because it's more socially acceptable to be a bad kid than to be a stupid kid.

And that's how they don't want to be perceived. And so I think that's for us why it's so critical that we are focused, really heavily on, let's say, let's do everything we can to make sure every kid is learning by the end of third grade, because, like, just to your point, then they if they don't, then they're going to struggle with that stigma for the rest of their education.

And this is... As Karla mentioned, you know, the reading aloud part, and that brings in a whole other set of issues. And I personally have a daughter that is very, very bright. But from the time she was young, she had some issues with her speech development. And so she went through some speech therapy.

But as she was learning to read and read aloud, it came across that she wasn't as bright as she is because she was just struggling with, you know, to articulate the words verbally. And we didn't know as parents the inside of her mind. She was actually understanding very, very well. And it's just been... it's been so rewarding as a parent to see her overcome those speech difficulties and really see how bright and intelligent she is.

But oftentimes, sometimes that gets masked when kids do have struggles with reading or reading aloud or speaking and articulating their thoughts with things.

Karla: You know, like Scott, I had a daughter. I forgot that until you mention, well, no, I didn't forget I had a daughter. I mean, I've forgotten this story. My oldest daughter, in kindergarten, they were doing a screening at school, and we found out that in one eye, she could only see a pinprick of light.

We ended up going to Primary Children's Hospital for about five years, but she had to patch her good eye. So then all she can see is a pinprick of light out of her other eye. Right? When she's learning to read. This happened in kindergarten, and she had to wear that patch clear until almost fifth grade. And to see the way adults... honestly, their responses to her were, much more punctuated, I guess, than than kids.

Kids might ask her questions like, you know, can you see, do you have an eye behind there? We were getting pizza one day and a little boy asked her that, and she came over and I could tell that she was getting ready to cry, and she said, "he just asked me if I had an eye behind my patch."

And I said, "tell him no, but you can scratch your brain." And so that made her laugh. But adults, the way they would respond to her... She wore very thick glasses on the one eye that she did have, which magnified her eye and also made it look really fuzzy. And she really struggled with her self-esteem, and she struggled to learn to read because of this visual processing problem that she had.

So I too have seen as a parent what that can do. And I think we need to work really hard to take those stigmas away because everybody has different challenges. We just overcome them in different ways. And I would really agree with what Scott said about behavior. If you think about when somethings you struggle with as adults, what do we do?

We stop doing those things. We avoid those things right? Where kids have to show up to school every single day. And if it's really, really hard for them, behavior is a way to avoid. I can get sent out of the classroom. I can make everybody laugh, and at least then they like me and they see this good side of me, even though it might be disruptive to class.

So those are some of the outcomes or results of that shaming too. So as adults, I think we need to be really careful not only to teach our children that everybody has different talents and everybody has different challenges, but to be empathetic about that and to be careful about how we respond, because honestly, I was so surprised at how people would respond to the physical look of my daughter, during those five years that she wore that patch.

You probably experienced that with the way your daughter spoke.

Scott: Yeah. To me, the key is as we look at helping everyone be successful, we have to understand the why on why they're not right. And to Karla's point, it could be from some physical challenges they may be dealing with. It could be with some speech challenges. There's just there's always a why behind that.

And so the better we get as educators and discovering what the why is, the more effectively we can help them to achieve what we know that they can do and are capable of.

Karla: And this is a little aside in some ways from this topic, but I know in Bonneville School District and Idaho Falls School District we're really focused on getting teachers to collaborate together in Professional Learning Communities. We call them PLCs, and Bonneville has done a great job with that. They've really led the way, but we're working on that really hard in Idaho Falls, too, because of all these unique and distinct differences in students. We need to give teachers time to get together and talk about students and share their different expertise so that we can figure out how to unlock learning for every single child.

So sometimes I think people question, "well, why do teachers need that time?" Because like all other professions and really, no matter what you do, you need to speak to other people who are doing that work to help you get better and to draw on on the things that they know to improve your own practice and in this case, better serve our kids.

Join us for part two of our literacy episode as we dive deeper into the evolution of teaching literacy and learn what we can do as individuals and as a community to improve literacy.

Melissa: Please remember to share, subscribe and rate the Riverbend Awareness Project to help us drive awareness,

Russell: and you can let us know what you think by sending an email to podcast@eiradio.com. Thanks for listening.