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The changing role of literacy today, part 2

How to get student to read on grade level

We know we must teach children to read proficiently, yet the age-old challenge of getting a child to read on grade level still persists. Fortunately, science and technology are providing a roadmap.

Science tells us that when we are born, we house all of the tools to learn to speak. On the other hand, we must learn the skill of reading. There is no corresponding “reading center” to the language center in our brains. Instead, every child must go through the meticulous task of learning to read; through the amazing adaptive abilities of the brain we can acquire a skill that was invented only a few thousand years ago.

According to Professor Maryanne Wolf, John DiBiaggio professor of citizenship and public service, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research, and professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University, “It took our species roughly 2,000 years to make the cognitive breakthroughs necessary to learn to read with an alphabet … our children have to reach those same insights about print in roughly 2,000 days.” Those 2,000 days are roughly from birth to about first grade—in other words, at a fairly fast pace.

But what of the child who, for numerous reasons, can’t get this monumental task done in 2,000 days? Whether because of external circumstances or different learning modalities, for some children it may take longer, and we must teach these children, too.

Literacy today is a story of both great promise and deep concern. Children who are proficient readers have the world in front of them. From classic literature to computer coding, today’s young reader has the ability to gain knowledge at a pace that wasn’t possible even a generation ago.

For children who face poverty, language barriers, or learning challenges, the story is much different. There are currently 25 million children in the country who do not read proficiently and their fate should concern all of us. This is where technology can, in some instances, lend a hand. One such solution is Reading Is Fundamental’s flagship digital product, Literacy Central, a suite of free technology-based tools that promote and support literacy. Literacy Central provides digital support materials for the books that educators use in the classroom.

(Next page: Resources for helping students learn to read)

However, building a child’s capacity and love of reading begins long before children are in school. Research shows that the precursor to a child’s ability to read is that the child was read to by others. Therefore, we must encourage parents and caregivers to read to their children. This involves parents, teachers, literacy volunteers, and society as a whole. There are several options for high-quality free and paid options in addition to RIF’s resources. provides free and paid options with educational resources for use at home and at school, while Smart Exchange gives educators an opportunity to connect with each other, share resources, and save time preparing lessons.

RIF has long recognized the importance that networks of caregivers and volunteers play in driving literacy impacts and child outcomes. To this end, RIF also recently launched Literacy Network, a portal focused on providing literacy tools for parents, volunteers, and reading mentors to support children on their reading journey. RIF builds capacity at the local level through community partners to help build a culture of literacy in communities nationwide.

Here are few organizations that have materials that can be used in the classroom or in the community.

The SAG-AFTRA Foundation develops highly engaging read-aloud video resources with celebrity readers.

The National PTA provides resources and support to ensure a direct connection between school learning and home connections.

Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority includes thousands of committed volunteers that engage with and support children around in their local communities.

The most important thing we all can do is to support literacy in our communities. RIF believes that literacy is a lifelong adventure that opens doors to life’s possibilities. The key is to meet children where they are as they embark on one of life’s most fulfilling journeys: learning to read.

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