By Christina Veiga, originally published in Chalkbeat New York
As a leader of the education department’s efforts to get New York City’s children reading by the end of second grade, Andrew Fletcher had to quickly adapt when the coronavirus pandemic closed school buildings.
His job, an intimidating one in typical times, is now even more daunting because of the abrupt shift to remote learning in mid-March. Nearly half of New York City’s third-graders — some 48% — are not reading at grade level in third grade, state test scores show.
As families struggled to access and navigate the technology — and saw first-hand how hard it is to teach children to read — Fletcher and the education department turned to WNET Channel 13, the local public station, to come up with a televised solution. Soon, “Let’s Learn NYC!” was born, aimed at children in pre-K through second grade. The weekday show, airing daily from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., beams public school reading coaches into the living rooms of students.
“We particularly wanted to target those younger grades, knowing this could be a great supplement to the remote learning work happening in schools and that it would be super easy,” Fletcher said. “A family could just turn on the TV and get access. No other devices would be needed, no connectivity, no cable. Just television.”
Officials estimate the channel is available for free to 99% of city families. The show ramped up to two hours of programming in June, and will continue airing through the summer. Educators film their own segments with whatever devices they have at home. They get help from their own families, who listen along to story times, share orange slices for a math lesson, or act out a puppet show about world cultures.
Given the array of approaches to reading instruction in each of New York City’s schools, Fletcher says the show takes an “agnostic” approach when it comes to curriculum, focusing on where kids should be and providing opportunities for review. He knows it can’t replace what happens in the classroom, but still helps bring a small sense of normalcy to an unprecedented time.
“It’s not fancy. It’s not animated. Kids are seeing — not necessarily their teacher exactly, but folks who they see in schools every day: New York City educators giving instruction very similar to how they do in school,” he said. “I feel like there’s an instant comfort level in the way we have done it.”
Chalkbeat spoke with Fletcher and one of the show’s stars, Anna Scretching-Cole, a literacy coach at P.S. 11 in the Bronx, for tips on how to help emerging readers stay on track during a critical time for their learning.
Here’s what they had to say about reading with your children and picking the right books, with some words of encouragement for worried parents.
What can parents of emerging readers do to help their children stay on track?
Scretching-Cole: Whenever I talk to teachers and parents, the one thing I tell them is just to read — not just to read to you child, but with your child.
Really engage them in the story, like, ‘Oh my gosh, why do you think this happened?” Asking simple questions, like ‘Would you do the same thing as this character?” And if you’re reading a nonfiction book, “Wow, did you know that information about ants?” Really trying to get them into the story with you is so important to help children develop that love of reading.
Fletcher: We really talk about it being interactive, so it’s like the story time segments that folks see on Channel 13. Of course, we pretend to be interactive on that because we can’t actually hear the kids talk back to us, although they do. I know they do.
What if a child doesn’t want to read?
Fletcher: It could be an access issue, but partly it boils down to finding books about topics that kids are interested in, and not saying that something isn’t fair game. For example, for a while, graphic novels or comic books were not something that teachers wanted to use or that were recommended. But I don’t see a problem with it. If Captain Underpants is what the child wants to engage with, why not? So it’s finding books that are of interest and – and this is a tough one for parents – making sure that it’s an enjoyable experience.
Sometimes parents stop the child every other word because there’s a decoding issue. It becomes more laborious and the child is just no longer interested.
Scretching-Cole: Challenge the child. Even my 4-year-old, when she says, ‘I’m so bored, I don’t want to read any of these books,’ my challenge to her is, ‘Well, I want you to write your own then. If these stories are boring to you, then you probably have a better story.’ Any way that you can get them interacting with letters and sounds is a win.
Fletcher: But also, make sure parents don’t ignore the print [in favor of using the picture to figure out a word]. We want parents to encourage children to use what they know about letters and sounds, to sound out, to blend the sounds of the letters they’re seeing represent. When they’re writing, to stretch words apart, to segment the words into different sounds to figure out what letters stand for those sounds as they write them – that’s what inventive spelling is all about. It’s just a balancing act with parents where they don’t get too obsessed with it where they drive their children crazy.
What about parents who don’t have the time or skill set to help their children learn to read? Many might be essential workers, or aren’t fluent in English. How can those students stay on track?
Fletcher: That’s a tough situation. The show is doing what it can. We’ve made sure that every episode has a lesson geared towards phonological and phonemic awareness, and phonics to a greater or lesser degree.
Take advantage of anything and everything the school is offering in terms of remote learning. A lot of teachers, and our coaches, too, are reaching out to do one-on-one tutoring work and small group intervention work. We just have to make sure families and schools are connecting to find out whether that’s happening.
For the summer, we’re looking into a volunteer tutoring situation that would go along, in a way, with our ‘Let’s Learn NYC!’. That would be available to students and families to deal with any learning loss from the spring and make sure kids are where they need to be in the fall.
Teaching reading is complex. We know that from the amount of kids who struggle. So it’s not just something a family member can easily do, and our job is to support them as much as possible.
Lots of research shows that kindergarten through second grade is a critical window of time for learning to read. How worried should parents be about the potential long-term effects of the prolonged school building shutdown?
Fletcher: I don’t think that ship has sailed. I don’t think we’ve lost so much time that we can’t get it back. We will have to work this summer to support the way we can via Channel 13, via, hopefully, this volunteering tutoring, and then hit the ground running hard in the fall. For K-2, we have to make sure kids learn how to decode, that they learn how to recognize words. Because if that doesn’t happen, we know by third grade, we’re just opening the door for increased intervention.
We have to be really careful when we get back, figuring out where kids are at, given the spring and summer, and how do we — not even remediate, how do we accelerate? We’ve got to figure out who needs what, fill those gaps to meet those needs, and move forward from there. We will have to be more focused than ever on the basics.
Scretching-Cole: At this point, I also want to make sure our kids are all right mentally. Because if they’re not all right mentally, they’re not going to learn the things that I’m teaching them. I think parents are going to have a really difficult task this summer – not an impossible one. Make sure they’re speaking with their child, make sure they’re all right – so that when September comes, they’re ready to hit the ground running. We’re in this together. We’re partners in this and we need everybody on board.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.