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Statewide Culture 0

Raising Reading Skills in Arkansas


Learning to read forms the foundation that students build on for the rest of their lives. Reading is an essential skill, but many children struggle to read, affecting their entire education and their motivation to stay in school. Several programs in Arkansas are determined to change that.

The R.I.S.E reading program was born through the collective effort of educators and Arkansas’s educational administrators. In 2015, less than half of Arkansas students in grades three through ten scored at a Ready reading level or above, which meant over half of Arkansas students were below reading levels for their grades. To assist students in raising the level of their reading skills, the Arkansas Department of Education created R.I.S.E. Arkansas—the Reading Initiative for Student Excellence.

Photo Courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Education

The initiative was taken to the Arkansas legislature in January 2017 as Act 1063, the Arkansas Right to Read Act. The measure brought to focus the Science of Reading approach, which emphasizes using phonics and phonemic awareness as the core of learning to read. The Right to Read Act, which passed in 2017 and was amended in 2019, requires Arkansas teachers to receive professional training in scientific reading instruction and demonstrate the use of this reading approach in the classroom.

The Science of Reading supports teaching students to sound out a word by using phonics instead of using the first letter of the word and a picture to guess its meaning. It also supports a shift from using levelized readers with high-frequency sight words to texts students can read through the use of phonics. Another novelty of the Science of Reading is grouping students by their level of deficits, where they need to improve, rather than by their overall reading levels. This means teachers can focus on small groups of readers and improve the necessary skills in each group.

Photo Courtesy of ARKids Read

Besides training teachers in the Science of Reading method, another goal of Arkansas R.I.S.E. is building collaboration within the community. Arkansas is fortunate to also have organizations focused on literacy outside of the public schools. One of these groups is the non-profit organization ARKids Read. ARKids Read was created through the efforts of Central Arkansas pastors and business and community leaders who recognized the need for nurturing a love of reading. They wanted to focus their efforts on reading through building relationships. The program began in 2012 and matched at-risk students in the area with local volunteers who work with the students during school hours to raise their reading levels. The volunteers receive training from ARKids Read on literacy, socio-emotional concepts, and the Science of Reading training as well.

Executive Director of ARKids Read says, “Our goal is to provide support to teachers by giving them the extra hands and feet they need for struggling students. Our tutors aren’t teachers and don’t pretend to be, but what they can offer is a safe, consistent place for our Arkansas students to practice skills and build academic confidence.”

Photo courtesy of ARKids Read

ARKids Read also offers summer reading programs to help students combat the summer slide and catch up to their grade levels in reading. The organization is hosting AKR @ The Library this summer from June 3 to July 22. ARKids Read tutors work one-on-one with students each week. “AR Kids Read is always looking for people who are interested in getting involved and supporting their local schools and students.  We offer placements at in-school and afterschool sites as well as in our summer Library Program,” French says.

Check the ARKids Read summer programs website to see if there is an AKR @ The Library near you and register your child, or reach out to ARKids Read if you want to be a tutor for the summer reading program, the school year program, or both. Volunteers can complete an application on the ARKids Read website, and staff will contact them to complete a background check and child maltreatment check and schedule time for training and onboarding.

Photo Courtesy of ARKids Read

The final goal of the Arkansas R.I.S.E. program is to build a culture of reading within Arkansas communities. The program encourages schools to build ties with community partners to promote reading within the school and the community. The Arkansas Department of Education created the R.I.S.E. Arkansas school awards to honor schools that have implemented the Science of Reading techniques and are building out partnerships within their communities to promote literacy. From 2018 to 2023, 47 schools in Arkansas have earned the award.

The Arkansas LEARNS Act passed in 2023 and brings an even stronger focus on literacy in Arkansas schools. The LEARNS Act maintains the Science of Reading approach but also adds extra training for teachers in the form of literacy coaches. These coaches, who complete additional training through the Arkansas Department of Education, assist in training classroom teachers in schools where students are struggling to meet the Arkansas Right to Read Act requirement that students achieve grade-level reading standards by the end of third grade. The Department of Education will have up to 120 literacy coaches with each coach serving two to three districts in the state.

Photo Courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Education

With the R.I.S.E. reading program, community partners like ARKids Read, and the addition of literacy coaches, Arkansas students are better positioned to raise their reading levels and become lifelong readers. The Arkansas Department of Education maintains a list of Family Resources for those interested in learning more about the Science of Reading and activities for families to do together to encourage a love of reading.

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Kimberly S. Mitchell loves journeys, real or imagined. She has hiked the Inca Trail, walked into Panama on a rickety wooden bridge and once missed the last train of the night in Paris and walked several miles home (with friends). She believes magic can be found in life and books, loves to watch the stars appear, and still dreams of backpacking the world. Now she writes adventures to send her characters on journeys, too. Pen & Quin: International Agents of Intrigue - The Mystery of the Painted Book is her debut novel. Find out more at KSMitchell.com.

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