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New approach may help kids learn to read so they can read to learn

When Delegate Carrie Coyner was on the Chesterfield County School Board, she discovered the state would send extra money to districts where young children were struggling to read. Sadly, she says, that money was no guarantee of improvement.

“Last year we sent $27 million to localities specifically for children who are behind and saw the needle not move for 70-80% of those children with all of that money being spent,” she says.

Carrie Coyner
Carrie Coyner
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Delegate Carrie Coyner (R), worked with Senators Louise Lucas (D) and Jennifer McLellan (D) to pass the Early Literacy Act.

So Coyner, who’s a Republican, worked with two Democrats in the Senate – Louise Lucas and Jennifer McClellan -- to craft the Virginia Early Literacy Act. It aims to ensure that all third graders can read well.

“Third grade is that year where we start to shift from learning to read to reading to learn,” Coyner explains.

If we could get children started with strong reading skills, Coyner argued, we would spend less on remedial programs and efforts to keep older students from dropping out.

“We spend a lot of time focusing on graduation rates, and we spend a lot of time throwing dollars at our students later on in their career, because they’re behind, and I always said if we could just address the early years – those K-3 years – and get as many kids as possible on grade level for reading, we would spend a lot less time trying to catch them up.”

The bill, approved by the House and Senate with bi-partisan support standardizes teacher training at colleges and universities, provides money for reading specialists and requires all districts to use instructional materials based on what we know about the brain and learning to read.

“We have not as a Commonwealth been consistently been using scientifically based reading approaches. There’s a program called Reading Recovery. Some people like it as a program, but there is no data that shows it is effective in teaching kids to read.”

To ensure passage, Coyner also worked with experts at the University of Virginia’s school of education and with the law school’s State and Local Government Clinic to research the best approach to early literacy and to lobby for the measure.

“Law school students showed up to committees to testify," she recalls. "They helped prepare one-page flyers and get those out to different delegates and senators.”

They pointed to other places that had taken this approach to boosting reading skills and scores, noting Mississippi had moved from last place among states to 21st in the nation within six years.