WELLSBURG - A key to improving children's reading skills is matching their ability with books that challenge them - something teachers and parents can do using an approach developed by Malbert Smith and adopted by 21 state Departments of Education and used in schools in all 50 states.
The president and co-founder of MetraMetrics of Durham, N.C., came to Brooke High School Monday to share his principles with nearly 300 Brooke County teachers and 20 guests.
Smith, whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the Lexile Framework for Writing he developed measures the complexity of a book, or how difficult it is to read; and a student's reading level.
SPECIAL GUEST — Malbert Smith shared some of the principles of reading and match instruction that have been adopted by schools across the U.S. with Brooke County teachers and guests at two sessions held Monday in the Brooke High School auditorium. -- Warren Scott
Through MetraMetrics' efforts, more than 100,000 books and hundreds of millions of Internet articles have been entered into a database and ranked according to their difficulty.
Teachers and parents who know a child's Lexile score can find reading material suited for him or her through a website found at lexile.com/fab.
Kathy Kidder, Brooke County superintendent of schools, said Lexile scores are sent home with Brooke County students in the fall for all but first- and second-graders, whose scores are sent around the middle of the year because they are assessed in the fall.
The scores also can be accessed by contacting the school board at (304) 737-3481.
Smith said it's very important that reading material for children not be too challenging because it can discourage a child. But it also shouldn't be too easy so they can be better prepared for more advanced material in the future, he said.
Smith said unfortunately textbooks for students in grades kindergarten through 12 have become much less demanding in the last 50 years, especially for the high school grades, while reading required of college students or for other career preparation has become more complex.
"We've got to make sure we grow the ability of students to read complex texts," he said.
Smith said one way to do that is to expose students to more non-fiction, which generally involves a broader range of vocabulary.
"To really grow your vocabulary, you have to read a lot," he said.
Smith advises teachers and parents to direct youth to non-fiction books on subjects that interest them.
Teachers of subjects other than reading should recognize their texts also support reading skills by expanding students' vocabulary and test their comprehension, Smith said.
He said students need to read at school and at home, particularly in the summer, when studies have shown their ability weakens with less practice. Parents can help by taking their children to the library and when possible, having suitable reading material available at home.
Smith said teachers should recognize low-income families may not have access to the Internet and the Lexile website that suggests books. They can help by piling lists of suggested reading, based on students' interest, for the summer break.
Smith strongly suggested that public schools dispense with the long summer breaks that are a holdover from when many students aided their families in farming.
Smith said there's a common misperception that students' academic performance is declining.
He said a Gallup poll found many Americans surveyed indicated confidence in public schools has decreased almost steadily since 1970. But the same survey also showed confidence in many other institutions, including the government, hospitals and churches, also has waned.
Smith said this may be because people are becoming more cynical or are exposed to more negative news, Smith said.
But the National Center for Education Statistics has shown student performance has improved and the number of dropouts has declined since 1970, he said.
"Most people believe we are going south. We're actually going north. We just need to go north faster than we are," Smith said.
He said there's still cause for concern. About 42 percent of freshmen in community colleges are enrolled in remedial courses, while 20 percent of freshmen in four-year colleges are taking the courses.
Of them, about 41 percent are likely to drop out of college, according to the NCES.
"We're losing too many students who drop out. It's one of the biggest problems we have," Smith said.
He said a survey found about 22 percent of eighth-graders watch four or more hours of television a day and the same percentage miss three or more days of school each month.
Smith said his own family went without any television from 1994 to 2005. While the move wasn't popular with his children initially, he and his family found themselves spending more time talking and spending time together, he said.
Smith said parents can at least follow his parents' example in prohibiting children from watching television until their homework is done.
He encouraged all parents to stress the importance of attending school and to encourage reading and writing at home.
Smith also spoke to teachers and guests about his Quantile Framework for Mathematics, an approach he developed for assessing students' ability in math.
His presentation was at no cost to Brooke County Schools. Dolly Kidd, a reading coach for Brooke County Schools, had sent him a rap-style poem she had written about Lexiles.
Pleased with Kidd's effort, Smith, who has a godson in Pittsburgh, offered to give a talk for the school district.
Brooke County school officials invited staff from other school districts and the community to attend also. Among those who accepted were a few educators from Upshur County.
(Scott can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)