OPINION: Guest writer

OPINION | AMANDA LADISH: Reading for all

Ensure literacy instruction access

One of my greatest treasures is a blurry Polaroid of Mom sharing a book with me. We both have on '70s denim and we are pointing to the illustrations on the page. "Pet Show!" by Ezra Jack Keats became my first favorite book.

As an older kid, I perused my grandmother's Redbook, Glamour, and Daily Word magazines and spent many afternoons and long summer days with Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, Stephen King, or Alice Walker. During an especially tumultuous junior year, I was frequently found truant from class, immersed in a book in the Fayetteville High School basement library. Later, I shared board books with my daughters and had to fight a misconception that it was too early to read to babies.

As a literacy teacher, I often have conversations with my students about their motivations to read on grade level, which range from their performance on high-stakes spring exams, to filling out job applications, to reading a contract for that dream Lambo.

I've worked hard to build trust with my students, and they are open and honest with me about their fears and aspirations. Often it's the ones you would least expect who have future teacher aspirations: that student with an ankle monitor, the one who always wears a scowl, or the hyperactive kid. Earlier this year I overheard a ninth-grader named Jessica tell a friend that "if I were gonna go to college, I would graduate as a reading teacher."

Most Arkansas teachers are trained in the science of reading, but training is district-led and random rather than statewide, equitable, and cohesive. Some educators receive research-based curriculum and some do not. Moreover, schools need the materials to support students in the five pillars of reading development.

Our students are not where they could or should be when it comes to literacy scores. Ask educators statewide about what they need to provide effective literacy instruction and they overwhelmingly cite resources to implement the literacy part of the LEARNS Act.

I was lucky to win a local grant to expand our classroom library, and my students now have access to books that hold their interest with cool graphics and embedded phonics lessons. What about students and teachers from smaller rural districts who may not have similar opportunities? How can we ensure equitable access to high-quality literacy instruction for all Arkansas children? For our kids to be able to read on or above grade level, we must first meet the critical needs of our most vulnerable communities.

Educators like me are thankful that Attorney General Tim Griffin has approved the For AR Kids ballot initiative. If passed, the amendment would ensure quality pre-k for all Arkansas 3- and 4-year-olds, afterschool and summer programs, wraparound services for kids who live in poverty, and guaranteed quality special education. Kids like Jessica would greatly benefit from such programs.

My students with reading teacher aspirations are sharp, bright, and fierce. Over the last two school years, we have been working hard to get our academic language to a higher level. Recently, my students were debating future professions. I overheard Jessica say, "If my mom was a teacher, I would brag about it to everyone!" This statement alone revealed to me how far her mentality around school has evolved.

Just as it's never too early to facilitate a love of reading, it's never too late to support struggling readers. Students in poverty, students with special needs, and those who face instability at home over the summer especially need support via extended, wrap-around services. Let's make sure we do this, for Jessica and all our students.

Amanda Ladish is a secondary Critical Reading/English Language Development teacher in Springdale. She is a Teach Plus Northwest Arkansas alumna and 2022-2023 Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow.

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