BY CLIFF HIGHTOWER,
Citizen Tribune Assistant Editor
An initiative by the Tennessee Department of Education is trying to catch younger students up with their reading skills after the COVID-19 pandemic affected learning over the course of the year.
The free At-Home Decodable Book Series is available for students in kindergarten, first and second grades.
“It’s part of a family piece, trying to bridge the classroom to home,” Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said.
The booklets can be ordered online through the Tennessee Department of Education website and contain more than 20 stories while using phonics to help develop reading skills.
A decodable book is a story sequenced to include letter sounds and words familiar to readers that allow them to practice phonics and develop strong reading skills.
Schwinn said Monday that there have been more than 34,000 books ordered since the program started on Thursday. It is part of the state’s Reading 360 initiative.
The short-term reason for the reading program is to help with students who may have fallen behind.
“We think the urgent need is for the pandemic,” Schwinn said.
The funding for the program is being paid for through federal relief fund dollars, Schwinn said.
The usual cost for such a program would be around $15 to $25 per family or $2 to $3 per book, Schwinn said. But because of the extra money, the program will be able to be funded for the next three years.
“It’s all free,” Schwinn said. “The state is paying for that access.”
Schwinn said the department will revisit the success of the program at that date to see if it will be continued.
There is also a correlation with another initiative by the state. During the Lincoln-Reagan Dinner last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said the state would start holding students back in third grade that do not have the expected reading proficiency to progress.
Schwinn said that will occur in 2023 and that students will be held back, go through remedial programs or have to attend summer school before advancing to the next grade level.
The decodable books being offered over this summer and over the next few years gets a head start on that and will, hopefully, help younger readers be prepared.
Once people sign up, they can expect the first round of books to arrive within two to three weeks.
Buddy Smith, assistant director for Hamblen County Schools, said the school system has also been involved in a literacy program through the governor’s office to help get books in the hands of kids. He said this will be added benefit on top of that. Plus, for years, Imagination Library has also offered free books to children in an effort to improve literacy.
“Anything that puts books in the hands of kids is a good thing,” Smith said.