Finding a way to battle against illiteracy

M.V. Language and Literacy Project says it can help Island students.

Nancy Rose Steinbock says the Martha's Vineyard Language and Literacy Project can help identify reading problems.

An incoming MVRHS senior wants to go to college next year, but he can’t — he’s functionally illiterate. The average college student reads 351 words per minute. This incoming senior reads 71 words per minute — a first grade level.

According to Nancy Rose Steinbock, an Island speech pathologist, learning disabilities like the one the senior deals with aren’t caught early enough. Steinbock is specialized in oral-written language disabilities, including the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. She believes reading failure can be predicted as early as preschool. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) doesn’t begin testing students until third grade, which, according to Steinbock, is too late. “Kindergarten to third grade, you’re learning to read,” Steinbock said. “Third grade and on, you’re reading to learn.”

That’s why Steinbock and fellow advocate Lori Scanlon are starting an Island-based program that addresses literacy failure in kids. The program is called the Martha’s Vineyard Language and Literacy Project. “Our program is going to be SLP (speech-language pathologist)-driven,” Steinbock said.

“Our mission is to identify kids in preschool, provide access to early assessments, and implement evidence-based instruction at a low cost,” Scanlon said.

According to Scanlon and Steinbock, the signs are easy to identify when you know what to look for. Steinbock likes to use informal evaluations and interviews with parents and children.

“I don’t care if he’s in first grade,” Steinbock said. “He can tell you if the classroom sounds like noise. He can tell you, ‘I feel bad.’ He can tell you, ‘I can’t keep up.’” Steinbock says it’s a skills issue, and kids are falling behind because of a flawed education system.

“Kids don’t understand phonics because they’re not taught in a consistent or systematic manner,” Steinbock said. “They don’t know how to write because cursive writing has been largely eliminated from the classroom. These are old neurologically based skills that then drive literacy.”

When a student receives below-average MCAS scores, they’re put on an Individualized education program (IEP), where they work in smaller groups with other kids at their skill level.

“Kids are failing, and then being evaluated,” Steinbock said. “We need to be preventing failure.”

Child Find is a legal requirement that schools identify all children who have disabilities and who may be entitled to special education services. By not doing so, they are denying FAPE, or Free Appropriate Public Education, as required under the federal law IDEA — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Steinbock works one-on-one with kids who’ve slipped through the cracks in the school system. Her speech and language therapy is described by parents as systematic, explicit, direct, and instructional. “We start at the child’s level, and give them the sense that they are going to move forward, and do it quickly,” Steinbock said. According to Steinbock, Massachusetts has the second highest number of kids on IEPs in the country. “It’s significant,” Steinbock said. “And we’re trying to be responsible.”

“We are supposed to be best in education,” Scanlon said. “But we are one of eight states in the country without dyslexia legislation.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Language and Literacy Project will identify struggling children in preschool, and guide them all the way through high school if needed. On Saturday, August 25, Steinbock gave the first in a series of presentations about language literacy at the Oak Bluffs library. She’s hoping to equip parents with the tools to advocate for their children. Steinbock also encourages teachers to attend the series. The first talk focused on the at-risk preschooler, and the next talk will be some time in September.

“What we’re offering for the first time on the Island is a comprehensive speech and language project,” Steinbock said. “People won’t need to go off-Island anymore. They can get a comprehensive evaluation right here. But first, we need sponsorship.” According to Steinbock, the startup needs about $6,000.

“The tools are expensive,” she said. “But you need quality diagnostic tools that cut across screening, oral language, and written language domains.” Steinbock said there’s an overall shortage of speech pathologists, especially on Martha’s Vineyard.

“The work of SLPs is significant,” Steinbock said. “If they are doing their work well, they are building those comprehension skills for early literacy that drives that learning process.”

She hopes the Language and Literacy Project will bring practicing SLPs, college interns, and clinical fellowship fellows to the Island.

Language illiteracy can lead to a number of health and behavioral issues, such as depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-medication. “Imagine if you went to work every day and failed,” Steinbock said. “School is kids’ work, and we don’t put that into proper context. We have to find these kids before the walls close in.”

“Parents hear, She’ll grow out of it, he’ll grow out of it,” Scanlon said. “The problem is, they won’t grow out of it.”

“These are just a few examples,” Steinbock said, “The point is, the system is broken.”

For more information on the Martha’s Vineyard Language and Literacy Project, visit