Arkansas has made a strong commitment to making sure that children learn to read at an early age, and the federal government has recognized our efforts with a grant of $38 million to improve literacy. The money will be sent to Arkansas over the next five years. It is the highest amount possible in the category of literacy grants distributed by the U.S. Education Department.
The state began its statewide reading initiative in 2017, when the legislature approved Act 1063. Also known as the “Right to Read Act,” it requires more rigorous teacher training in the science of literacy, especially for elementary school teachers. Legislators followed up with passage of Act 83 of 2019. It requires school districts to follow a specific plan for training teachers in the science of literacy, and the plan must be tailored to the district’s literacy needs.
The state will use the grant to strengthen its overall literacy instruction and build a culture of reading, with an emphasis on helping children who are disadvantaged. They may be living in poverty or they may have a disability or they may need extra help learning English. The state Education Department has labeled its literacy program R.I.S.E. That stands for Reading Initiative for Student Excellence.
Since it began in 2017, more than 6,000 Arkansas teachers in K-6 have received training in literacy instruction, and more than 3,000 teachers in K-12 have gone through intensive training in the science of reading. Phonics is a main component of the science of reading. The focus of R.I.S.E is to provide more explicit phonics instruction. One goal is to get away from predictable texts that have lots of pictures. Instead, instruction will focus on decoding new words, teaching students to look at words and sound them out before relying on pictures for visual clues.
Parents are encouraged to help their children build up a vocabulary of “sight words,” which are frequent words that kids memorize, often with flash cards. Examples are “the” and “me” and “from.” The latest research indicates that it’s better in the long run to teach children to decode the phonic parts of sight words, rather than simply memorizing them. That’s because they will then learn patterns that help them decode longer words and words that are seen infrequently.
Arkansas has partnered with experts at the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia to apply new scientific methods to our literacy programs. As more research is completed and new methods are tested, schools will change their strategies to incorporate the most successful of them, always with the goal to improve students’ ability to learn.
In related news, 175 Arkansas schools will receive $6.7 million because their students scored in the top 5 percent and top 10 percent on standardized tests known as the ACT Aspire exams. Schools also qualified for the rewards if their students showed significant improvement on the tests. The amount that each school receives will depend on its enrollment. This year, a smaller school got $6,000 and a larger one received $90,000.