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Next Federal Reading Initiative May Be Broadest Yet

May 20, 2009 2 min read

From guest blogger Kathleen Kennedy Manzo:

In the wake of the demise of the federal Reading First program last year there’s been a lot of speculation about when and how the federal government would again attempt to tackle the nation’s significant literacy problems. There’s been little question about whether there would eventually be a successor to Reading First, which pumped about $6 billion into K-3 reading instruction across the country since 2002.

There’s been more discussion of the issue lately (Eduflack outlines his own suggestions here). Now there’s a draft bill circulating which details a federal reading effort that would target children of all ages, essentially from birth to high school.

Could this signal that the recent federal hiatus from reading-reform issues, prompted by the controversy over Reading First, might be coming to an end? A Senate aide confirms that there is bipartisan interest in the bill, which reflects the handiwork of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based organization that has focused a lot on adolescent literacy. The bill, I’m told, could be introduced after Congress’ Memorial Day break.

The proposal holds true to many of the tenets of Reading First, particularly the need for instruction grounded in skills that also builds vocabulary and comprehension. But it goes further in making writing a key component of effective reading instruction, as well as the importance of students’ motivation to read.

Reading First drew criticism from many in the field for ignoring those elements. Some other additions might answer some of that criticism as well: There is an expressed emphasis on what are described as “the characteristics of effective literacy instruction.” Under that banner students would be exposed to a variety of texts, reading practice, and text-based collaborative learning. Also emphasized are language development, the family’s role in building literacy, and the need to build students’ interest in reading.

Instructional materials used by grantees in the program would need to be “based on scientifically valid literacy research,” the draft says. There’s no detail about what that term means, and under Reading First the demand for materials and strategies based on “scientifically based reading research” caused a lot of confusion and was interpreted in different ways. It also led to a lot of commercial products marketed as “research-based” that didn’t necessarily meet the standard.

Reading First was also slammed for real or perceived conflicts of interest among federal officials and consultants involved in the program. The draft bill, and new rules instituted at the Ed. Dept. in the wake of the Reading First controversy, try to address those problems.

The proposal, of course, carries a hefty price tag: $2.3 billion.

Do you think the feds should get back into the reading reform business? Does the draft bill address all the key points, and adequately tackle the problems in Reading First?