Our Journey to Rebalance Literacy Instruction and Refine our MTSS – Part 3: Setting Our Path to increase teacher confidence and skill in literacy instruction

What are our Goals?

At the start of the 2020 school year, despite the ongoing difficulty managing the changing COVID landscape, or perhaps because of the urgency to address the literacy needs of our students within that landscape of interrupted learning, we were determined to stay focused and move our work forward. As discussed in my previous post, we had identified a number of opportunities for growth and we felt that they would be addressed within the following goals articulated by our Literacy Team:

  1. All elementary teachers will have the confidence and skills needed to teach literacy effectively.
  2. All elementary teachers consistently and regularly use literacy assessment data in a constructive manner in order to address the needs of their students.

I will consider our work to address the first goal here in this post and discuss the second goal in my next post, as that connects most closely with my discussion around our refinement of our MTSS (as explored in this previous post)

In order to develop the skills and confidence of our teachers in the area of literacy instruction during the 2020-2021 school year we embarked on the following: internally led professional learning, learning led by Dr. Nancy Akhavan, the evaluation and adoption of a structured phonics program, and the start on another cohort of teachers in the LETRS training program.

Internally Led Professional Learning

Our first steps to develop greater understanding of the science of reading and to develop our practice in this area was led by the initial cohort of literacy leaders who had completed the LETRS course. We led a series of workshops with the entire staff, supported teachers in grade level team planning and through coaching cycles with individual teachers in this area. While we knew that we needed to adopt a structured phonics program, we also knew that we could make steps to improve our phonics and word study instruction while we were researching programs for a full implementation in the following year.

At the beginning of the year and through out the year, we introduced teachers to Scarborough’s Reading Rope and the Simple View of Reading. We highlighted the need to improve our phonological awareness, phonics, and word study instruction. We were using Word Their Way at the time and identified a couple of high leverage strategies from the LETRS course, taught them to teachers and encouraged them to incorporate them into their work with the Words Their Way resource. Some key ideas are shown below.

Elkonin Boxes

Elkonin Boxes

Elkonin boxes are very useful for building sound discrimination skills among our students. As shown above, they can be used to both develop phonemic awareness and the development of spelling and word recognition skills. Teachers began to use this within their Word Their Way instruction.

Word Chains

Word chains are used to give students practice in recognizing subtle differences between similar-sounding words. They are carefully planned to show students how to apply sound-symbol correspondence and hear that words can differ by only one phoneme. For example: gob, cob, cub, cup, cap, cab, gab

Multiple Meaning Words

From LETRS Manual

It is essential to teach multiple meaning words with intention from the earliest grades as it speeds up word retrieval and word recognition. It contributes to both vocabulary development and reading fluency. Teachers began to add the organizer used above to intentionally teach multiple meaning words within their Word Study time and across the curriculum. As teachers began to incorporate intentional practice for transfer within their word study time, we could see gains. This was an important interim step as we came to the conclusion that we would adopt Fundations in the 2021-2021 school year.

Dr. Nancy Akhavan

While we engaged in internally led professional learning, we also began working with Dr. Nancy Akhavan, co author of the book This is Balanced Literacy. She led several virtual sessions with us over the course of the year. With her help and guidance, we worked to add word study and guided writing to our guided reading sessions. We acknowledged that while we are a workshop school, our most at risk readers were not making the progress we wanted. They needed more targeted guided reading instruction. Dr. Akhavan’s input and the scaffolds provided by Jan Richardson in her book The Next Step on Guided reading greatly influenced our work with our developing readers.

Throughout the year, in our work with Dr. Akhavan to better understand the aspects of a Balanced Literacy Program and through our deepening understanding of the pedagogy and practice required to teach guided by the science of reading, we identified that we needed to rethink how we spend our literacy minutes. The Literacy Team revised our guidelines for the time structure of the literacy block. We increased the time spent on explicit, direct phonics instruction, as well as guided reading and writing.


In addition to our internally led PD and our work with Dr. Akhavan, another cohort of teachers began the LETRS Part 1 course. At least one teacher per grade participated in a year long cohort to discuss what they were learning in the LETRS self-paced course. In grade 1, the entire team decided to do it together as a part of their year long goal. The experience of some of the teachers could almost be called a conversion. Many teachers were shocked that they had not learned about the science of reading in their teacher training courses and were saddened that they had not been teaching with this in mind for the last years. They felt almost bad for their prior students. They started to demand action and resources.

The year long focus on improving teacher understanding and confidence has led to a culture shift around reading instruction in our school. We chose to adopt Fundations as our Tier 1 phonics curriculum because of all the excellent possibilities, it aligns nicely with our desire to refine our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. Thanks to the work we did with teachers in the science of reading, the enthusiasm is high for the start of the Fundations Program. It has been an excellent start, but I will discuss that in a future post.

At the same time that we were addressing goal 1, we were also addressing goal number 2 – All elementary teachers consistently and regularly use literacy assessment data in a constructive manner in order to address the needs of their students. In my next post I will share the Universal Screeners that we used, how teams analyzed them to inform instruction and intervention, and how it connects to the refined referral systems that the Learning Support Team was working on. Stay Tuned!

3 thoughts on “Our Journey to Rebalance Literacy Instruction and Refine our MTSS – Part 3: Setting Our Path to increase teacher confidence and skill in literacy instruction

  1. Strategic training of all teachers involved is so powerful. Looking forward to hearing more, particularly about monitoring and assessment. Nice work!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s