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WVPEC announces statewide ‘Sparking Early Literacy Growth’ projects to help close disparity gap in reading proficiency

A teen boy reads a book to a young boy as they sit on the floor of a classroom.

The West Virginia Public Education Collaborative has joined forces with the West Virginia Department of Education, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Marshall University's June Harless Center to improve the state's literacy levels through "Sparking Early Literacy Growth" that will target early learners. (WVU Photo)

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Even amid talk of COVID-19’s “lost year of learning,” the urgency to help West Virginia’s youngest learners strengthen their reading and writing skills was never lost on the state’s education leaders. 

Heeding the call to raise West Virginia’s third grade reading proficiency rate, which hovers at 44 percent, the West Virginia Public Education Collaborative, housed in West Virginia University’s Office of the Provost, joined forces with the West Virginia Department of Education, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and Marshall University’s June Harless Center to double down on their commitment to improve West Virginia’s literacy levels by the end of third grade. 

In just shy of a year, the partners worked with dozens of literacy experts to select nine “Sparking Early Literacy Growth” projects that will target early learners in West Virginia and test innovative strategies that zero in on widening literacy disparities.

While the projects range in scale, student population, grade level and region, they all aim to rectify the alarming discrepancies in proficiency rates among schools even in the same county that share comparable demographic, economic and rural compositions, where some elementary schools boast of 90 percent reading proficiency rates while others stand at 25 percent.

“These ‘Sparking Early Literacy Growth’ projects work in tandem with efforts led by the West Virginia Department of Education’s Transformative System of Support for Early Literacy to bridge divides in grade level reading while addressing very specific causes of low literacy in high need areas,” said Donna Peduto, executive director of the WVPEC. “By banding together with educators, innovators, local leaders, students, researchers and parents in communities across the Mountain State, we hope that each of these promising projects will help break through silos and reach as many of West Virginia’s most marginalized students as possible.

According to the National Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, disadvantaged children often do not have exposure to the reading and vocabulary that develops early language and cognitive skills, with 61 percent possessing no children’s books at home. By age two, these children are already behind their peers in listening and counting. By age four, they may hear as many as 30 million fewer words before reaching kindergarten. By age five, they may only recognize 9 letters compared to 22 among children raised in more affluent households.

“We owe it to our youngest learners to make sure they have the best educational footing to reach their full potential. We hope that these projects reach students who need the most help improving their literacy skills early on in their education journey so that ultimately they have the lifelong learning skills necessary to land better career opportunities down the road, many of which demand higher levels of education or advanced skillsets,” Peduto added. 

Of the 64 applications submitted, nine were selected by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, totaling $400,000 to fund projects statewide.

The projects will vary in approach and resolve. They include addressing low vocabulary rates, learning challenges in homes where English is a second language, difficulties transitioning from one grade to another or teacher preparation programs that may inadvertently contribute to students’ learning impediments.

“It’s undisputed among researchers and practitioners that reading proficiency by the third grade is a key milestone in every child’s learning journey, which is why the Benedum Foundation has taken on third grade reading proficiency as one of its 75th anniversary initiatives,” said Jim Denova, WVPEC member and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation’s vice president and lead program officer on this grant. “West Virginia as a whole is not doing well in terms of third grade literacy, but more importantly, averages mask disparity. There are serious achievement gaps between and among communities, student populations and grade levels. This effort is designed to test interventions that close these gaps. It is our ultimate goal to present promising practices, tested through these demonstrations, to policymakers that can be adapted to work for all students across the state.”

An overview of each Sparking Early Literacy Growth project is listed below. Learn more and view full descriptions.

Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation grants were awarded to: 

  • WVU School of Medicine will train pediatricians in early literacy at WIC offices to help low-income parents with at-home learning for children birth to five.
  • Pocahontas County Schools will create a peer learning network for kindergarten through second grade teachers to curb learning loss between grades.
  • Mylan Park Elementary School in Monongalia County will establish an instructional model whereby teachers and classes for preschool through kindergarten students will stay together from one year to the next to curb learning loss between grades.
  • Logan County Schools will open an extended day/extended year program with one-on-one training to address grade transition and summer learning loss.
  •  Weirton Elementary School in Hancock County will establish an extended day/extended year plan that incorporates community learning hubs targeting the lowest performing students and students most affected by COVID-19 school closings.
  • Lewis County Schools will supplement the school day with online student and parent tutorials for the poorest performing students and those most affected by COVID-19 school closings.
  • Moorefield Elementary School in Hardy County will offer workplace tutoring targeting parents and guardians of students for whom English is a second language.
  • West Liberty University College of Education will add personalized mentoring in student diagnostics and individualized learning plans to its graduate program in elementary education.
  • Berkeley County Schools will offer an in-service professional development bootcamp concentrating on student diagnostics and individualized learning plans.



CONTACT: Katie Farmer
West Virginia University
Office of the Provost

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