Our school is about to start the second year of our focused work in rebalancing our literacy program and refining our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. In this series of posts, I will outline and document the discussions, decisions, learning, planning, and implementation process. I know many schools are having these conversations and I hope that our story is helpful to you and that you will share your work, questions, successes and challenges with me to help us.
Why are our students struggling with reading?
While we are about to start year 2 of our implementation plan, the work actually started before we had a plan. I arrived at AISJ in August 2019 as the new k12 Inclusion Services Coordinator and Coach along with a new Elementary School Principal Mrs. Barbara Rynerson. When considering the literacy data and our Elementary Learning Support Program with our Director of Teaching and Learning Dr. Robert Evans, we were puzzled by the consistent, and surprisingly high, percentages of students who were struggling to become proficient readers. What was going on? What were we missing? How might we need to change our literacy instruction to address this and what systems of intervention would best support this work? We needed to spend some time getting to know the school, the program, the students, and the teachers before we could begin to formulate a hypothesis.
During the first half of the 2019-2020 school year, we both spent time in classes, participated in grade team meetings, worked through coaching cycles in literacy, and just observed and listened with these questions in mind. We also began to have more targeted conversations with our Literacy Coaches Gill Porteous and Rachel Cole. As our team began to survey the reading instruction provided in the ES, we began to develop a couple of hunches:
- A lot of time was spent developing a love of books. Our kids were developing that appreciation.
- A lot of time was spent developing comprehension strategies. Our students are making connections and talking about books with their teachers and peers.
- Not very much time was spent on teaching phonics, phonemic awareness, or phonological awareness in an explicit and systematic way.
- Student writing and spelling is not developing as we would want. They might have great ideas for their writing, but the execution of those ideas was often underdeveloped.
- Teachers are passionate and committed to our students and improving instruction. They identified similar concerns and were willing to consider other approaches or ideas.
So what new learning is needed?
When considering the Simple View of Reading model pictured above, we began to realize that our instruction was heavy on the language comprehension side and maybe too light on the word recognition side. A rebalancing of our program was probably required. Our Director of Teaching and Learning Dr. Robert Evans, suggested that we consider LETRS as a possible PD that might support the work on which we were embarking. Barbara, Gill, Rachel and I all signed up and completed LETRS Part 1 Course over the course of February-July 2020 – right in the middle of Covid. It became a sort of refuge within the storm of those days. A respite in which we could think critically about reading instruction with like-minded people working on a common goal.
First of all, the course is excellent and I cannot recommend it more highly. If you have a background in reading intervention, it might be a bit of a review, but it is very well done and worth the refresher. If you are new to the teaching of reading or did not get a lot of instruction in the Science of Reading in your teacher training, then this is essential learning.
The first unit of the LETRS course presents the theoretical background on which the course is based. This includes an in depth consideration of Scarborough’s Reading Rope (pictured above) and the Science of Reading. The Science of Reading has been well established, yet it has been shockingly slow in impacting the daily reading instruction in many schools. Ours, unfortunately, it seems, is one of them.
The goal of reading is of course, comprehension. Yet you cannot comprehend what you can’t decode. If students do not develop strong decoding skills, they are just guessing. A strong vocabulary and oral comprehension skills might allow a student to compensate for weak phonemic awareness and decoding skills in early elementary school, but the lack of decoding abilities catches up to students in later elementary school when their reading and writing skills stagnate.
The LETRS part 1 course focuses heavily on the Word Recognition Side of Scarborough’s Reading Rope. There is an in depth consideration of the essential phonological and phonemic awareness skills, a scope and sequence of these skills, common assessments, and strategies for instruction. There is also a scope and sequence for phonics instruction, including assessments and strategies for instruction. For us who have a lot of training and instruction in this area, it was an excellent review and provided great tools that we could immediately use and share with teachers. As more of our teachers have been completing this course in the past year, many have found the experience transformational. This is not an exaggeration. Teachers who did not have strong reading training in their teacher training program found this information new, surprising, and has revolutionalized their understanding of how students learn to read and have them rethinking their practice (more on that in the next post!)
To be continued . . .
Following completion of the course, our small task force used what we had been learning and discussing to create a multi-year plan to address our identified goals. I will write about that and the start of our implementation process in my next post. Stay tuned!