Poverty, Literacy, and Early Intervention

How Educators Can Empower Every Student

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Recently, Gallup released their 2017 Survey of K-12 Superintendents. In it, readers will discover a number of important findings, but our team of researchers and educators were particularly struck by two pieces of information. According to the poll, when asked about upcoming challenges in their districts:

“81% of superintendents strongly agree or agree that improving the academic performance of underprepared students will be a challenge for their district this year.”
“74% of superintendents agree that the effects of poverty on student learning will be a challenge.”

(Gallup, Leadership Perspectives on Public Education, 2017 Superintendent Survey)

The effects of poverty on student learning are very real, and not a result of a lack of motivation or intellect on the part of students. Poverty influences a child’s learning in a variety of ways, including increased stress, decreased exposure to language, and even changes in brain development (Scientific Learning, 2017). You may have heard of the “30 million word gap” — where students in poverty will accumulate experience with approximately 30 million fewer words than their privileged, wealthier peers, by three years of age (Hart and Risley, 2003). Through research, experience, and connections, educators know that students enter the classroom carrying the weight of their circumstances on their shoulders. Educators also know that many of these disadvantages will not be directly visible to teachers and classmates.

This means that as educational professionals — classroom teachers, school counselors, district leaders, and even learning science companies like ours — it’s up to us to prevent that weight from inhibiting student learning. Every student should be empowered to perform at their highest potential, no matter the external forces at work.

While educators cannot directly control — as much as they may like to! — the experience a child has with factors like poverty and privilege outside of the classroom, there are actions you can take to work towards equity and access for the students in your learning community. In this blog, we wanted to share a few that we believe have the power to influence change.

Community and Parent Engagement

Consider again the 30 million word gap: so much of a child’s experience with language and learning takes place before teacher interactions in kindergarten, or even preschool. This is absolutely not to rest any sort of blame with parents, but instead to draw new, refreshed attention to the idea of early intervention. As educators, you cannot directly influence large groups of children before they reach school age, because they simply aren’t in your classroom. However, as active and caring members of a community, you can. Consider contributing your time or skills to local organizations that work towards parental engagement and early literacy, such as your local library or parent engagement groups. In your own classroom, don’t hesitate to try innovative parental engagement strategies after hours. Check out our blog on engaging parents of English Learners for inspiration.

Social and Emotional Learning Initiatives

If you are truly considering the experiences a child has with factors such as poverty outside of and within the classroom, then academic instructional changes are not enough. Poverty influences the way students experience the world around them and impacts a student’s view of themselves. In order to provide them with the foundation and continued support they need to reach their academic goals, it’s crucial that you build out a social and emotional learning strategy for your classroom. Making time for SEL can be challenging, especially when you’re attending to a wide variety of academic needs, but it’s key to ensuring that your instructional efforts pay off for students — both short term, in your classroom, and long term, as they pursue college and career. To get you started on formulating an SEL plan, check out this guide with specific strategies from our Applied Learning Sciences team:

Instruction that Works

While you can’t directly reach children before the effects of poverty begin to influence their learning experience, you can work to build up their vocabulary, fluency, and confidence with powerful instruction in your school. This means selecting instructional materials and pedagogical approaches that work for you and your students. These won’t be the same for everyone, and it’s important to keep that in mind as you make your selection. If you have a learning community with widely varying needs and performance levels, then early intervention will have to be focused on providing the right tool, at the right time, to the right student. If you have classrooms with widely underperforming populations of students, who are in need of intensive instruction to bridge achievement gaps, then you’ll need to look for different characteristics in instructional materials. In that case, take a look at how Direct Instruction might help drive consistent outcomes for your students.

Works Cited

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2013). The Early Catastrophe. In The American Federation of Teachers. Retrieved November 8, 2017, from https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/TheEarlyCatastrophe.pdf

The Gallup 2017 Survey of K-12 School District Superintendents. Retrieved November 08, 2017, from http://news.gallup.com/reports/217103/gallup-k-12-superintendent-report-201708.aspx

Vasconcelos, K. (2017, April 4). 3 Ways Poverty Impacts Children Learning to Read. Retrieved November 8, 2017, from http://www.scilearn.com/blog/impact-poverty-on-the-reading-brain