Riverbend Awareness Project

There was so much to learn about literacy we had to have a part 2! We dive deeper into the evolution of teaching literacy, how national events can impact literacy, and what we can do as individuals and communities to improve literacy.

Idaho Library Directory 

Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy

National Center on Improving Literacy

Khan Academy

Show Notes

There was so much to learn about literacy we had to have a part 2! We dive deeper into the evolution of teaching literacy, how national events can impact literacy, and what we can do as individuals and communities to improve literacy.
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.

Melissa: Hey. This is Melissa.

Russell: And Russell. Let's jump back into our discussion on literacy with superintendents LaOrange and Woolstenhulme. So we've been talking a little bit about how teachers are meeting students where they're at to help students learn the best.

Could we talk a little bit about different learning styles and how teachers or how parents can work with their students' natural learning styles to help improve literacy?

Karla: So can I jump in on this one? Sorry, Scott.

Scott: Go ahead.

Karla: Ok.

Scott: I'm curious if we're on the same page on this.

Karla: I think we probably are. This may be surprising to you. When I was teaching at a university, I had the opportunity to go to a conference at Virginia Tech, and the majority of people who teach at a university are not educators. Right?

They come from business or nursing or whatever field. So, the first session that I attended was about how learning styles are not supported by research. They are not real, and the research has never supported them, and there is no research at all behind it. And they said, I thought this was so interesting, the only field that still seems to believe in and hang on to learning styles is education. And I have to tell you, on the plane on the way back to Idaho, in my head I kept thinking, "I've been taught forever about learning styles," and I'm processing this in my head.

But if we stop and think about it, if all you could do is see, if we made it so you couldn't hear, you couldn't touch anything, all you could do was see, your learning would be impeded. Likewise, if we made it so all you could do is hear, but you couldn't see or touch anything, and do it yourself, your learning would be impeded. So every single one of those, none of them really work alone. Our brains are much more integrated than that and rely on different systems in our brain. So that's... from my understanding and at least all of the research I've read, it's honestly a myth.

Scott: Yeah. So, true confession here. So as I was teaching English, and this goes back to the late 90s, that that's really when this idea of learning styles was popularized. I read the book. I was like, oh, that makes sense.

And so I had my kids all do an inventory on style. They researched it. They presented it to the class. And then to Karla's point, you know, we find over time, like, there's really nothing that supports that. But what we do know is that, again, every kid is unique.

Every kid comes with their own strengths, their own abilities, their own cultural backgrounds that we talked about. And if you go into our K-3 classrooms, what you'll see isn't okay. We're gonna have an auditory track and a visual track and an aesthetic track, which are kind of the origination of that idea about learning styles. It's... we're going to try to integrate, to Karla's point, all facets of the brain. So we do have kids that are doing things, actively with their hands as they're learning to form letters.

They're doing it in some sandboxes. They're listening to the teachers. The teacher's cueing them. They're seeing the things visually. So we're still working to help, to Karla's point, integrate and all those different ideas.

But it's really about how can we engage the student's brain actively so that they really are retaining those things and learning to do the word recognition that's so fundamental to them becoming good readers.

Karla: And you need different skills or different systems in your brain more heavily for different things. If I'm reading directions, I'm using my visual processing a lot more. Some students will verbalize that while they're reading because that helps them. So I may use both of those.

Now it's time to go build, put together, bake whatever directions I just read. Well, now I'm going to be using my hands, my memory. I've got to remember which step comes next. When I can't, I have to look back. So we pull more heavily on different aspects of our brain depending on the tasks that we're doing, but it's always integrated.

Scott: Right. I think inadvertently you touched on a really important topic when it comes to education. That is, unfortunately, sometimes we get to be the subject of fads in education. And so some idea gets put out there. It becomes popular.

A book becomes a bestseller. And then we start jumping into that without really understanding or knowing that what is being popularized is really, in fact, going to make a difference with kids' learning. And I think literacy instruction, that's been just a really interesting challenge for decades in our country. And I was just at a reading conference 2 weeks ago, and there's a researcher, one of the lead researchers, and he's lived in the United States for a long time. But he just looks at, overall, the impact of different things that happen in schools and then education, which ones really make a difference and which ones don't.

He says, typically, I don't come to reading conferences because in America, you guys really like to fight about reading. And there's just generations that show that. And so, right now, we're kinda going through that again, and there's been a new term that's been popularized called "the science of reading." And it could look like it's like the next new fad, but really what it's saying is "let's look back at the evidence for the past decades of research and show truly what makes a difference in kids' learning, and let's make sure that our instruction is aligning to those practices." But sometimes things get popularized, and once something gets... kinda takes root in a school or a school system or in a state, it's hard to let those things go and it really takes years years to untrain people or to help people unlearn past things because they thought that that was the very best way to do things.

Karla: Yeah, Scott hit something really important in the literacy world. We've gone through different phases where we taught students to read just by memorizing words. Then we saw that that wasn't really working, so we moved to phonics. And then something called balanced literacy, whole language came on board. And the idea there was we just need to read to kids, basically.

And if we read to them, they're going to pick it up— kind of akin to if you listen to a lot of classical music, you're going to be a classical pianist. That doesn't work. Right? You have to practice. But it did catch hold and we would teach kids to look at the first letter of a word and then guess what the word would be.

Well my oldest daughter who had a vision problem did experience that, and so she could usually understand the gist of what she was reading. But if it said "rabbit" and she... if the text said "rabbit" and she read "bunny," that worked when maybe you're reading first and second grade texts. That didn't serve her so well later on in her life, and even in college that was a challenge for her. So that's one of the practices that we've taught is look at the letter, take a guess. If you can't figure out what word it is, just what would make sense in the sentence.

But that doesn't teach us to decode an unlocked code as text gets more complex. So the science of reading is moving us away from balanced literacy. It's taking the very best of what we know about phonics, which is getting the most attention right now, but it's also bringing in what we know about helping kids learn more vocabulary, about how to deal with different text structures, and about how to unlock meaning. It's really bringing the evidence. We're looking at research and saying, "what's not researched—" because we can research anything.

But what really is showing evidence that it works for children and works at a high level. Because sometimes things work, but only work for a small number of students, so we're looking for things that work for a high number of students that are most predictive of reading success. And honestly, it's pretty exciting to finally see research, the world of research, evidence-based research, and teaching, and the medical world, what we know about the brain, all converging and coming together. It's why that expertise as a teacher is so important, and it's really fun to be part of that work.

Scott: Yeah. And what I appreciate about it is, like I said, it's not a new fad of "oh, here's something we've learned in the last 2 years." A lot of the evidence goes back to a panel that was convened in 2000. So it's 20 year old research that's saying, you know, we have this national panel, and we just... we haven't fully implemented the things that that panel came together and said, "here are the the core elements that need to be in instruction to really help all students learn to read." So sometimes it takes us too long to implement the best practices.

And I said, "sometimes." Unfortunately, we have seen where trends or ideas or fads get brought into education, and they're adopted too quickly without enough thought or deliberation on the impact of those.

Karla: You know what's interesting, and this may be too much of a bird walk, but I had the opportunity about a year ago to go to the George Bush Library in Dallas. And he had a big push called No Child Left Behind, which was bringing phonics back and making it the focus. And there was kind of that argument in the United States between balanced literacy, just read to kids and they'll learn, and the phonics group right as 9/11 happened. And if you think back, George Bush was in a first or second grade classroom in Florida when 9/11 occurred.

And so he left that classroom, that school. He was visiting a school where the teacher— a low income school and the teacher used phonics very effectively, and of course he had to leave to deal with this national emergency. Well, that national emergency actually pulled away a lot of the resources and attention that they had intended to put into No Child Left Behind, which allowed balanced literacy, whole language to really take root and take hold because now our focus had to be on national security. So it's interesting how sometimes things at a national level that you think are completely unrelated can really impact education.

Melissa: So speaking to national events impacting education, how did the pandemic and distance learning impact literacy?

Scott: You know, it was certainly disruptive. And as we... We really did not wanna close our schools. And it was personally heartbreaking to me as a superintendent to know that we're gonna shut our school doors for our kids, because for a lot of our kids, that meant that they were losing access to a warm place to be. It meant losing access to warm meals in the school. It meant losing access to caring adults that were there to help and support them.

And I know it's not a lot of our kids, but for some of our kids, that teacher in the classroom is the adult that really makes an impact in their life and is there for them. And so even with kids whose parents love them, when they're just to support their family, they're out of the home and working for 10 to 12 hour shifts each day. You know, that teacher just plays such a critical role in developing a safe and caring environment and safe place for their kids. And so that was certainly a struggle. What we saw is our teachers did the very best they could to continue education.

And I think one thing that's fortunate in Idaho is we did not close our school doors for nearly as long as other schools and states across the country did. And so that next year, we opened back up. But even that short term, we certainly saw a drop in our in our literacy rates. And so, what I love though is that coming back out of that, we have, over the last 4 years, not only grown our literacy rates, but we're higher than we were before the pandemic. And so just a real testament to our teachers and their dedication and us continue to focus and do the right things, the professional learning communities that Karla talked about, us trying to implement really evidence based practices about literacy and helping students learn to read.

Those things are paying dividends. But for those kids that struggle through that, I mean, those are the ones I really worry about is when they didn't get those foundational skills, they're they're still continuing to struggle. And, of course, we're trying to help and support them, but there's still definitely an impact and a deficit for those kids who went through that shutdown, especially in those really early K-1-2 years.

Karla: Yeah. I think that the more time that passes between when we came back to school and between COVID and when we came back to school, we see really with more and more clarity the impact of that time away from school.

I think language development— we've talked about how important that is— and certainly in the home, you can have a lot of language, but being at school exposes you to different language and you're surrounded by students and you're just immersed in language all the time, plus the instruction that's connected to that. It's very hard to do some of the early literacy in particular instruction that is needed. We know that students are better off if they pick up a pencil than if they keyboard as an early developing reader. They're the... what happens in your brain from actually physically writing is much deeper than keyboarding.

That doesn't mean later on keyboarding won't be okay, but the recommendation is that keyboarding shouldn't even be taught until kids are 10 years old. I mean, that's very different than our practice, but that writing is very important. Scott talked about kids using sand tables to write letters. That's really difficult to replicate in a virtual environment. Now a lot of good things were developed, a lot of good things were done, but we have a shortage of language, that inability to use the different ways that help our brain make connections and really use our motor skills to help reinforce language, so that we're making the letter "K" in the air as we're saying the letter and saying the sound, and then we're applying that to paper.

That's hard to replicate— and the time. I mean, for young children, 10 or 15 minutes of instruction over Zoom is probably... you're hittin your sweet spot. You may be be able to go for an hour. Whereas at school, we would have them for 5 or 6 hours a day. So it's a lot different learning than can happen over Zoom. So I think that— or in a virtual environment.

I think that we have bounced back. I think we've made tremendous efforts to close that gap for especially our kindergarten and first graders who were impacted by by COVID and by being away from school. Everyone was, but for literacy in particular, those students. So I think that we've done a lot and we're getting better and we're making up that difference, but there's definitely an impact for them.

And I also think on the social side of things, and I know sometimes we don't like to talk about that, but when kids were isolated like that, they also lost the ability to interact. I think one of the things that I saw, and it was there, but really pronounced after COVID, is young adults were much more hesitant to speak to adults at a university. And they don't have their parents to do that for them. They want to text or they want to email, but they don't want to sit down and say, "I don't really understand this. Can you help me?"

And it's really important that they are able to to make those face to face interactions to get a lot of the things that we need. You can email about that, but in the end, you're going to need to come in so I can help you. And so I think we've seen that isolation has impacted our relationships. And we're going to have to work really hard to work past that because we know that mentally and emotionally, as much as people can frustrate us sometimes, isolation is not to our benefit.

Russell: So we talked a little bit about learning disabilities and kind of the problem that's there, especially with dyslexia and maybe having a speech impediment or speech problems.

What are ways that we found to kinda work around that and help students feel more comfortable with like, I don't know what skills maybe they were gaining by reading to the class, but how have we been able to combat that and improve students' skills?

Karla: You know, on dyslexia, I think one of the most important things that that has happened in Idaho was we passed a dyslexia law. Idaho was, I think, the 49th state, maybe the 50th to pass a dyslexia law recognizing that dyslexia is a disability and that we need to support it as a state because we'll have up to about 20% of our readers that have dyslexia.

Now it's a continuum. Sometimes it's very severe. Sometimes it's mild. So you'll see a continuum there. But, Robin Zickmund, from Boise was— is a mom, not was a mom, but is a mom— of a child who's severely dyslexic. She moved here to Idaho, and there were no resources to help him. And she was a driving force behind that legislation.

And what that legislation has triggered is some funding for professional development, because it included a requirement for teachers to have training in dyslexia so that they can learn to recognize the signs of dyslexia and also so that they could learn about the instruction. And the great thing was it was K-12. It wasn't just our kindergarten teachers and our 1st grade teachers because if a child has dyslexia, they are going to have dyslexia for their entire life. But what we do know is that really good instruction in kindergarten, first grade, especially, second through third, that 95% of students who have dyslexia, those symptoms can be addressed. Again, they'll still... that's still how their brain is wired, but we create those neural pathways with the right kind of instruction and close that so that they can continue to be successful as they move through school.

So I think the dyslexia law was one of the really important things that we've done. We still have a lot to do in professional development. We're in the first year, really, of of that law, but I think it's helping teachers understand the science of reading better, help them apply it in their classroom. Idaho has something called the SMART project where they can actually take— teachers can take a class that really helps them learn what they need to know to teach reading more effectively, but it's coupled with a coach from the state that comes in and observes those teachers teaching and coaches them, you know, similar to what you would do in athletics and helps them apply the things that they're learning and then look at the outcome for their students. Those are some important things that Idaho has done.

And I think in a career, in a profession that is really service oriented, sometimes people talk about you spend a lot of money on on your teachers and on the aids that serve the teachers. Well, we're very dependent on skilled teachers and educators to help children learn to read. So that is where our resources should go and go to supporting them. So I think that's one of the the big initiatives from the state. I think we could each talk about things we've done at our district, but I'm very appreciative of those things from the state. So I'll let Scott talk for a minute and then I'll come back.

Scott: One important part of that dyslexia law is it also required our teachers at secondary schools to go through at least an initial training so that they could recognize the signs of dyslexia. As a former classroom teacher, I think that would have been super helpful.

Right? So as an English teacher, I certainly had kids at all levels of reading, but I never had any training at all to know is this a is this a disability issue that we should be treating as a disability and getting the student extra help and support to get, to learn how to accommodate and to get through that disability, or is it there are other factors that are at play? So I think that's a really important thing too as as we talk about dyslexia. It's not just focused on elementary, although there's a heavy elementary focus, But there's certainly a new awareness for our secondary teachers. On the speech and language, disabilities that students have, again, that this is something that's different.

I think from when I was in school, I don't ever remember speech therapy being a part of what was provided in special education as I went through the system. But that is something that we provide to students now through the special education program, which is fantastic. And we have qualified speech language therapists that are helping kids, learn how to formulate their speech correctly and to overcome that disability. And again, I've had 2 kids in my own home that have benefited from those plans and that therapy. One of the challenges is, special education is just never adequately funded.

And so, as much as I wish it were, and it's a federal law and we should have sufficient federal funding to adequately implement that law, it's just not there. And so, the cost for that is always... It's a pretty big ticket item, and those are things that we just have to... From a budgetary standpoint, we still have to provide to students. But then what is the impact when our resources are going there because we're not getting enough funding from the state or the federal government to support those special education needs.

Karla: That really— that is definitely a challenge. I'm so glad that you addressed the secondary, the 6-12 side of the dyslexia lot.

Because I think for a lot of children that have a learning disability or reading disability, we've kind of had that fallback where you've talked about the shame. But part of that has been they're just lazy. But in truth, they really aren't lazy. They just learn in a different way, and we need to teach them differently. And helping teachers understand that this is a disability and how to teach differently is empowering for the teacher and then can take away that stigma.

So there's a lot of wins there. Scott's right though. We know now up to 20% of our students will have dyslexia. We are not funded at the level to be able to provide specialized instruction through special education and paraprofessionals that can also help deliver that instruction for 20% of our population. And so it is a challenge from a budgeting perspective when we know that the evidence is telling us it's about 20%, but the funding really isn't following suit.

Melissa: What are some other ways that teaching literacy is evolving, and how has technology impacted that evolution?

Scott: So for— I think I'm going out of turn, Karla. I'm sorry. So I'll... I can speak to our district, and I think every district is probably different. But we've become much more intentional in our approach in how we expect teachers to help students learn to read.

So before, I'd say before the last 5 years, it was really just a lot of autonomy for our teachers to find whatever resources they could find. And however they had learned to teach students to read, that's what they were doing. Right? So as a system, and we're talking, you know, for our K-3 teachers, we have about 350 teachers in our district that teach in those grade levels. Every one of them can be teaching in a different way, different method, different resources.

And when our commitment as a school district is design success for every student, that's not a helpful way to get there. Right? So we become much more intentional by providing professional learning to our teachers saying, here are resources to use to teach phonics, and then we're expecting our teachers to go through training to learn how to effectively do that. So we become much more systematic and thoughtful and evidence based in how we're expecting all of our teachers to teach. And then our responsibility as a school district is to make sure they have both the professional learning opportunities and the resources to teach that way.

Karla: And I think we're mirroring exactly what Scott's talking about in his district. I think the big changes, and this is a word that you will hear in literacy and in education, is we use structured literacy. But that isn't just a buzzword. I mean, I hear it used that way, but it means more than that. It means that we have a practice at the beginning where we're working with the sounds of words, and we're playing with the sounds of words, kind of like the rhyming thing that I did with my daughter.

Sometimes with real words, sometimes with nonsense words, words that aren't real, but we're playing with sounds. From there, we are manipulating letters, whether we're using magnetic letters, whether we're using letter tiles to create words that we're hearing and representing those and maybe changing out one letter to make a different word. So "bat" becomes "bit," and it becomes "bet" just by changing the vowel, or we might change the beginning letter. So it could be "bit," "pit," "hit," like that. So that we're... we're actually manipulating letters, and then we're going to write some new words with those same sounds.

So we're using paper and pencil, and then from there we're repeating that by writing sentences. We know now, and at first I thought, "what?" We know now dictation is actually really important. Word dictation and sentence dictation. So those are some really specific examples of how literacy instruction has gone from whatever you would like to do in your classroom, whatever you've been taught, whatever you think works, to we know these things work for all children and especially for the 60% who need more practice to learn to read.

Because about 40-50% of our kids will learn to read pretty easily, and we know for 20% of them, it's going to be more difficult. And then there's a range in between. So those are some examples kind of professional development, the kind of curriculum materials. The other big shift I think we're seeing is that we really expected teachers to write their own curriculum, to find passages to read, to find the letter tile, words that we were going to work with when we know actually there is a sequence that you should do those in that is more powerful when you go from "bit" to "kit" to "pit," instead of just making those up by by yourself. So instead, we're providing teachers with good programs, with good text to read that matches what I'm learning.

If I'm learning short "I," then I'm reading a lot of words with short "I" in them, so that I'm practicing as I'm reading. When we're doing dictation, I'm writing a lot of words with short "I," so I'm practicing again. So that's kind of the repetition piece. So instead of teachers having to create all that on their own, and then we want them to teach, now we're trying to provide them with good resources that have those things so that they can say, instructionally, this is the best match for my second language learners. This is the best match for my students who are struggling with short "I"

This is the best match, so they're becoming more instructional experts. They still understand curriculum, but it's more like a doctor. We go in, we find out what your area of struggle is based on the evidence, testing and what we see you doing in class, and then we're taking the best instructional practice, and we're applying that so that you can learn. And I think that's a lot more exciting for teachers. I love designing curriculum, but really the great part about teaching is seeing kids succeed.

Seeing them learn something that they thought was difficult for them, that's the joy of teaching. So I think the shift is not only honoring the evidence, but it's honoring teachers and the value that they bring to their classroom every single day.

Scott: And I think it's important to know that the reason we've been able to make those shifts is because of the support from the state and additional funding that really targets literacy. So without that additional funding, we wouldn't really be able to make the shifts that we've been able to make. And so it's been great.

It's been a focus from our governor, from Governor Little. It's been a focus from our legislature, and that support has been invaluable in helping us provide the professional development and those resources to our teachers. One of one of the challenges is the funding kinda came in these phases, and sowe... they shifted how they used to provide funding, which is really "here's a little bit of extra money to do after school work with your kids to here's a bigger chunk of money. You figure out the best way to use that," which is great, but it was a limited amount of money. It's always limited, but it was just a smaller amount of money.

And then about 2 years later, they said, "okay. Let's double that money," and then they increased it again. And so rather than having, like, this plan of, okay. Here's your money. Figure out the best way to use that.

We've kind of layered things on top of each other. And if we could wind back the clock, I wish we could've just known, okay, in 5 years, this is going to be your money and design your inner structure that way. So we've had to kinda add things and add things and add things where it would have been much better to, 7 years ago, say, okay. Here's gonna be our approach with shifting to the science of reading, and here's the phases we're gonna go through. But our teachers have been remarkable in adapting to those changes, implementing the resources they had.

And to Karla's point, there's the teachers that are really implementing it are seeing the impact of it. And there really is nothing more rewarding than seeing a kid who has struggled, to learn to read developing those skills and being successful in the classroom. There's no paycheck that outmatches that reward you feel as a teacher.

Melissa: I'm gonna switch gears a tiny bit. It's still related, because it's all related to literacy, but what are some things that parents can do? We kinda talked about it at the very beginning, but what are some things parents can do to start kids their kids out on that strong path of reading?

Scott: Yeah. So like we talked about earlier in the podcast, the number one thing is to talk to your kids, especially early. So from the time that they're babies until... I don't think we should ever stop talking or listening to our kids.

But super important before they come to school and they have that opportunity to have a wider exposure through their interactions with their peers and with teachers at school to really recognize how important it is for our children to speak and to listen to us speak and really get that exposure with a lot of words. And so over and over, the research shows that's the very most important thing. And then closely related to that, like we talked about is if you can find ways to read to your kids. I know not all families have access to those resources, but if you go to thrift stores, there's typically a pretty good stock of books in thrift stores. We have great public libraries here. Whatever you can do to and at schools, we really try to support that as well.

So we have a a preschool newsletter that we try to send out to families that sign up for it. And through that, we could offer them books that they can read to their kids at home. So any type of exposure and just really fostering that love of language and love of reading in your home will pay huge dividends for kids for their success both in school and after school.

Karla: So I'm going to share an unpopular viewpoint. This is unpopular viewpoint of the day, maybe.

Really one of the best things that I think we as parents can do, and I've been guilty of this too, but one of the best things we could do is put our phone down, because the language is going to happen when the phone is down. And what we know now is some of the research that has changed, and this will seem unrelated to literacy, but it ties in, is that when moms are holding their baby to feed them and they hold their phone in one hand, and the child sees this mom reacting to what they're seeing as they're scrolling. Right? I'm laughing. I'm scowling. I'm looking bored. Well, a child learns how to interpret social cues from what they see on their mom's face. So I learned, oh, that's frustration. So that probably means I should stop what I'm doing.

But they're getting a mix of signals as this child is being fed. And so we are finding the kids are not picking up on social cues the same way. And that is connected to language too, because we're not talking to the child, we're scrolling. Instead of doing wordplay or just talking to them, you know, in the loving ways or the cooing even, just hearing the sound of a human voice. All of those things are really important things that we can do day one, from that child's life.

So really put our phone down. The same thing. I sit in meetings where I see families, and I'll see the parents on their phone, and we need to teach kids how to listen. None of us are good at that, me included. But we need to teach them how to sit and listen.

That's an important skill, too, for learning to read. We don't need them to sit forever, but we do need to learn that to sit and listen and understand. And then as Scott said, use our language. We've talked a lot about that. One of the things that I've seen popping up around Idaho Falls recently, and I was so excited to see it, are the neighborhood libraries, you know, that are just free, and you can go and open those up.

I think, as Scott was talking, I thought, you know, I probably need to do some work to get those into neighborhoods, but that would be more difficult to have one of those neighborhood libraries and then also to replenish those and to make books as accessible as possible and to show kids that I read aloud to you, I enjoy books, I look at text as an information source, and see that in a really positive light. But language and then as much reading as we can do at home, and again pointing to the words, going left to right, top to bottom, and also reading to your child things they cannot read on their own. Harry Potter was really popular when my my children were young. My youngest daughter was way too young to read that, but we'd go in the backyard. My husband and my girls would get in the hammock and I would read a chapter every night.

And that created a really loving and fun memory for them, but also this love for this text at the same time. So it's okay to read to kids and read things to them that they can't read alone yet because they understand more complex literature when you do that. And there's also some great informational text out there that is written for children. One of my personal favorites is All Thirteen. It's the story of the Thailand soccer team that got caught in the cave when it rained when they were in there, and has lots of pictures.

It's written for fifth, sixth grade students. It's a great read aloud. My daughter is a teacher. She did it as a read aloud for her class, and they were mesmerized by it. So we don't have to avoid informational text.

It can be, we have so many good informational text sources now, too. So I would just encourage families whatever you could do. Oh letters on the fridge, that's another one. Even just having kids put letters in alphabetical order or just playing with the letters and pretending to read is also a pre-reading skill. If kids memorize books that you're reading over and over to them, that's okay too.

They're not reading, but they are getting the sense of language and the order of words and all of the good things that come with reading. So there's a lot of that kind of thing that you can do. And I think once kids are in school, it's just continuing that emphasis that reading and literacy is important. So are we having conversations with our kids about the things that they're learning at school, the things that they're reading in books?

Scott: For me, it's just a lot like, my kids like dessert, but I never let them have dessert instead of dinner.

Right? But sometimes when it comes to screen time, that's exactly what happens is let them turn on the TV or play a game on our switch instead of saying, "have you read first?" And so, really, I think that that's the best mentality we can have is we should have a our healthy nutrition first before we go to dessert. So for kids, making sure that they are taking time to read independently, to read for fun, just to continue to emphasize the importance of that, and then let them have the screen time afterwards is a great thing to do. And again, I appreciate Karla's reminder because as an adult, I'm not always great about that.

And the very best thing I can do as a dad is to put down my phone at dinner time, engage in good conversations with my kids, listen to my kids, talk with my kids. And just again, it matters to them both individually, just them knowing that I care about them more than I care about whatever's on my phone, but also it really does help develop that literacy and that language interaction.

Karla: Oh, I love that. And all of that practice at home as kids get older. You think about it, what we practice we get better at.

Right? We practice in athletics. We practice the piano. We practice for dance. We practice whatever we're doing.

Same for reading. So if, particularly with our young readers, if you can practice with them at home and if they're struggling, one strategy is called echo reading. You can read the sentence and then have them point to each word and read the sentence and then start to fade out some of those words so that they're carrying a little bit more of that load. But for our students who struggle, if you're learning another language and someone would point to a sentence and read it to you, that load on your brain is pretty heavy, so you're not memorizing. I always have people say, "aren't they just memorizing?"

But really they're starting to make that association with their words. It's actually a research practice that we do with early developing readers. And then Scott's right, a family book that you're all reading, whether you're reading it out loud or we're sharing what we're reading individually, creates those really good conversations. And again, they're practicing. And there is a tremendous difference.

I don't have the statistics here with me, but there's a tremendous difference in the number of words, vocabulary words, kids who read a lot know compared to kids who read very little or not at all. So just that reinforcement and practice.

Russell: That's gonna be a lot easier for families who are already literate. Can we use this as an opportunity to break into intergenerational illiteracy? Can you guys just talk about your experiences with that and maybe what this problem is?

Karla: One of... I taught a student whose parents had gotten married in high school and very young. And they really struggled with literacy and they struggled economically. But more than anything, they wanted their children's lives to be different, and they worked really hard to make that difference. And now with the digital literacies that we have available, you can go onto YouTube and there are picture books that are read out loud just to, well, to whoever watches— I was gonna say kids— but picture books that are read out loud or someone is pointing to the words and they turn the pages.

So that's a resource parents can use. There's a lot of resources where you can go online and kids can select text and it will point to the word and read to them. There are definitely barriers there for families, but the Internet has opened up a lot of free resources for families that they can access. And again, that speech to text kind of AI that's available will read to children and that can at least help make up some of that difference.

Getting them to the library, to some of the groups where they read out loud to them is another way to do that too. And using older children— if you're not the first child, older children in your home that hopefully are literate can also do that reading aloud with those younger kids. And that can create good bonds there as well as practice that reading.

Scott: To me, it's just why public schools matter so much. Right?

It is so so difficult to overcome that as a family if you don't have the resources. But as as kids go to school and they get that instruction, that's the whole point of schools is to unlock intergenerational illiteracy and to provide resources to families where otherwise, the kids wouldn't have those. So I just think the more families and parents that are really concerned with that engage with their students, really have their students share with them what they're learning at school, the more it'll benefit the parents as well.

Karla: And I think we have to to really come to the understanding that that's how we do break through poverty. Education is the key to empowering people's lives.

Generational poverty occurs when people don't have options. So when we empower them with the skills and the things that they learn at school and the confidence that comes from being able to learn different concepts in math and in literacy, then students are able to pursue those dreams and passions. But it's so important and I would really hope that that we will invest in that dream instead of dealing with the consequences that come from illiteracy.

Scott: Absolutely.

Melissa: Are there resources that you guys know of in the community for adults who are seeking to have better literacy?

Scott: I'm not aware of any.

Karla: CEI, I believe, still offers their GED program, which will have some tutoring to help adults get their GED. But it's really specific to helping them pass the test, I believe, is my understanding. It's a good resource. It's good work that they're doing.

That's actually something that down the road, not next year, but a few years down the road, that I hope to tackle in partnership with the Haven, the men's shelter downtown, and actually in partnership with the jail. We do know that research is showing us about 60-70% of the people in prison read at a third grade level or below. Because when you don't have opportunity to have a job, you might be creating other opportunities for yourself that are not the best opportunities to pursue. So I'm actually interested in pursuing some of that work and bringing accessible, free resources to people who really are interested in learning to read. Because second to teaching a child to read, working with adults who really understand the impact of illiteracy on their lives and have that desire, it's really fulfilling.

But it's changing a life. It is. And as a community we could do that. I mean not everyone who can't read has a reading disability. Some of... you know, there's a certainly a a good segment of them that do, but not all of them.

Sometimes it's opportunity like the young lady that I have worked with. So that's something that I would like to tackle. We're still working on some things for our students first.

Russell: Did we specifically ask what advice you guys would give parents who have children who are struggling to read?

Karla: The advice that I would give to a parent who has a child who's struggling to read is one: focus on their strengths.

And that may not be reading, but focus on their strengths. Tell that child you believe in them and you believe they can learn. Be a tireless advocate for your child. Now that doesn't mean you need to maybe speak in a demeaning way to educators, but be a tireless advocate. Ask questions.

Ask the teacher how you can partner with them. Or if they're in special education, ask the team how you can partner with them. Because I think you're gonna find by and large that schools want to partner with parents. But you need to be that tireless advocate in looking for resources and looking for teaching strategies, but very much focusing on, "I believe in you. We just need to find the right way for you to be taught."

"You're fantastic at math, at music, at athletics, at languages, at art," whatever your child's interest and talent is. Focusing on that is going to help them as they persist in something that is very difficult. We find that children who are supported that way at home will come through better. They come through with less shame, they come through with more self confidence, and they come through believing that persistence and hard work will benefit them and that they have a parent who's out there trying to help them have the best experience and learn in the best way possible.

I think so often we as parents feel that shame too. And the story of my daughter who had that visual problem and consequently struggled to read, you know, I know what that felt like inside. It gave me so much more empathy for parents who have a child in special education, which my daughter couldn't access. She needed it, but because we were trying to improve her vision, there was nothing else that could be done to try to help her. So it developed an empathy and a heart for parents who, like everyone, wants their child to fit in, wants them to be liked, wants them to succeed. So focus on the good things.

Tell that child you believe in them, and then advocate for them.

Scott: Yeah. That's great advice, Karla. And I just to highlight what she said, really working with your teacher is going to be super important. And what the teacher, I think, can provide is that professional expertise to say, "this is where to start and things that you can do," and then as a parent to reinforce or consistently implement that.

Karla talked a lot about practice earlier, and it's really gonna be that consistently working with your student. But the teacher can help you know where to help them so that we're not putting a kid into a situation where they're getting more and more frustrated. Right? Going back to the piano analogy. If we're asking them to play Tchaikovsky and they're just learning chopsticks, then it's not... it's going to be a frustrating and not a rewarding experience for them.

So really, that collaboration with the teacher— to target very specifically, here are the things that you can work with your student on and then consistently implement. Those will be the best way we can help students achieve success. And that partnership between teachers and parents is absolutely invaluable.

Russell: That's actually the the answer to another question I had, which is: I think there's this idea with parents who, like, look at their kids' math homework or at their kids' reading homework, English homework, and they say, "well, that's not how I did it in school. So I don't I don't know what's going on here."

And so, like, the parents working with the teachers is a great way to help the parents help the students the best.

Scott: Absolutely. And as we have shifted things in education, I have that exact same experience as a parent. Even though I'm an educator and I'm in the system, sometimes my fourht, fifth grade student brings homework, and I'm like, this isn't how I learned to do it. And so now, collaboratively, we have to work through that and learn how to do it.

So, as we do shift and try to improve things in education, school will look different for our kids than it looked when we were in school. And I think sometimes people think, well, that's not my experience, so therefore, it's not the right experience, when really we're continuing to grow and improve as a system and trying to provide kids with the education they need for today's world. And that's not the same world that I grew up in.

Karla: I agree with Scott. One resource that might help parents is Khan Academy. And if you just Google Khan Academy, they have thousands of videos that explain a concept and they break it down and you can stop the video and work through steps of, like, a math process. And it's a free resource. So it's a great resource for parents when your child brings a concept that either they're doing differently or you just don't remember how to do it because it's been a while since you've had to do that.

But that's a great free resource parents can use and feel a little more knowledgeable in helping their child.

Melissa: What can we do in our communities as individuals? Are there ways that we can help to improve the literacy? We talked about parents and that relationship, but as an individual... I'm a single adult. I don't have kids, and I don't work in an elementary school. I'm not a teacher. Are there things that ordinary citizens can do to help improve literacy in their community?

Scott: You know, we had really good conversations, and it goes back before the pandemic. But there's a group in Idaho called Idaho Business For Education, and they were business leaders that have come across the state to say, "how do we work together to help support education across the state?" And when I talked to them, I said the very best that we could do is to promote everything that we've just been talking about of how do we how do we create this focus on learning, this focus on literacy.

How do we make that a culture in our community? And there's communities that have done that. They've had community-wide initiatives. I think Boston Reads is one of them that I can remember. But as a community, they came together and said, "this is what matters to us because schools are playing an important role, but if we really wanna solve the problem of illiteracy in our community, it's gotta be a community-wide effort."

And so by doing those things, then they could organize, you know, events for families, things like where they could go and get, you know, books to read. Some of our schools— I think Idaho Falls District 91— they've done this. They've had, like, the one book.

Karla: One District, One Book.

Scott: One District, One Book, where they're all reading that, but we could do that altogether as a community.

So I think right now, it's a little bit of a challenge to say individually what could I do. But I know collectively as we come together, and if this is important, talk with community leaders, and say, how do we come together so that our libraries, our schools, our businesses can all work together to support this idea of literacy? And then there's plenty of opportunities, I think, through that to find ways that we could all contribute and help.

Karla: I think this is such an important question. I was at a meeting about this at the state department last Friday.

And the superintendent of Sun Valley said that when he was teaching fifth grade, he asked his students to figure out what percentage of a year they spend in school and they guessed 75%. By the time they took out weekends, summer, holidays, the time that they're asleep, the time that they're home, it was 13% of a year spent in school. So we really need the community's help. So what can you do as an individual? One thing that would really be helpful, and you would need to work with the local school, but we always need people to come in and listen to kids read.

We always need that. You could work one on one with a child in the hall or in the classroom or a small group of students and listen to them read. Any there are a lot of things teachers could have you help with and that— or come in and read to them. Guest readers are always really fun. And where you're on the radio, if you came in and told them that, I can tell you first graders would think that you were Patrick Mahomes or something like that.

They would just think you were a rock star, and they would treat you that way too. So there are things like that if you really want to get down to that level. Now you need to work with the principal. We have requirements for people that come into our school, but that would be one way that individually you could help.

You could contribute to purchasing books either for children or for the school library. That's another individual thing. That really, 5 or $10 can make a difference there. I mean, we can purchase a book for that price.

And then Scott's right. Community initiatives that really focus on and help us educate moms about what they can do. I mean, as educators, these questions are easier for us to answer because we've spent our lives studying how to do this and we've practiced that with kids and we're able to do those with our children. My oldest daughter who went into education was taking a class, and they were talking about different child development things and she would call and say, "did you know that when you did this," like the word play with her name, "that that would help me develop language?"

I was like, "yeah, I kinda knew that. It didn't just happen by accident." So helping young parents know what to do. Because if this isn't your profession, you don't know, and you shouldn't be expected to know. And then initiatives where we can work with business leaders to create a community focus, to help children have access to books, and things surrounding literacy.

Scott already mentioned writing. I remember as a principal, walking into a kindergarten classroom, and a little boy was rolling this pencil across his forehead up onto his hair, and I knelt down next to him and I said, "hey, what are you doing?" And he said, "I've never seen one of these before." And I think that that's so far out of our realm of possibility for most of us that we don't understand. But he was really doing what a young child would do when they first see a pencil.

Right? So there's a lot of things I think we can do as a community. We are powerful. We can make change. It's just what Scott said, deciding that this is what we want to get behind and knowing that we're making a difference in every child's life when as a community, we wrap our arms around literacy.

We know literacy is connected to prison rates, graduation rates, employment rates. So this is really where you want to invest. It is the deal breaker for not just children's lives, but for our community and for our state. And then you get to be part of being a merchant of hope, which is really fun. It's the good work.

Scott: And I just really appreciate you bringing us and inviting us so we could speak to this. So I know you say you're... you can't do anything, but just giving us this opportunity to speak to the importance of this is fantastic. So I appreciate your your attention to it and that and recognizing how important this is for our community.

Karla: I agree with Scott. This is a great opportunity. I got to nerd out, and it's the good work. It really is why we're here, and we're so appreciative that we have a community that's asking these questions and is interested and wants to help.

Melissa: We wanna give a big thank you to superintendents LaOrange and Woolstenhulme for taking the time to come and teach us about literacy and share their passion for this important topic.

Russell: This month we'll also have episodes about the Ronald McDonald Family Room and share stories about how this amazing resource can help families.

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.