SEATTLE — Students across the United States have been struggling to read for some time, and new studies show the pandemic has only made things worse for some children.
But new state policies, educator training programs and classroom practices are showing signs of success in helping some kids catch up.
This month, more than a dozen reporters and editors across the U.S. teamed up to cover these new challenges and solutions in K-12 literacy. This partnership includes The Christian Science Monitor, The Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee, and The Seattle Times.
On Tuesday, The Times’ Education Lab hosted a live, virtual panel discussion on implementing science-based strategies and data-driven policies to address reading rates with experts and educators across the country. Engagement reporter Emily Donaldson of The Dallas Morning News Education Lab moderated the program.
“There’s no doubt that the pandemic had an impact on our students,” said panelist Paul Gordon, superintendent of the Wenatchee School District in Central Washington. “But for me, it’s about going forward.”
He said now’s the time to be equipping educators with the tools, training and administrative support they need to “deliver the best instruction possible.”
Over the course of the hourlong discussion, the experts emphasized that making gains in literacy and reading comprehension depends on legislative, administrative, classroom and family support just as much as it does on students learning foundational skills like phonemic awareness — how to identify and manipulate sounds in speaking words — and expanding vocabulary.
“The one thing I have learned about what it takes to help students read is that teachers must have the knowledge of structured literacy instruction and must have data to guide them on how to address students’ reading challenge areas,” said Kymyona Burk, a senior policy fellow at ExcelinEd and former executive director for the Jackson Public School District’s Office of Teaching and Learning in Mississippi.
She described the lag in reading skills not as “a deficit of the children” but a matter of “opportunity gaps.”
“A lot of our children don’t have the same access to the same opportunity, if that’s a highly trained teacher, if that’s a high-quality curriculum, if that’s support with interventions. A lot of our students are missing out on those opportunities,” Burk said.
States including North Carolina, Tennessee and Delaware are among those adopting new laws that address early literacy and include teacher training in the science of reading.
“So, when states adopt laws, that’s to ensure that all children, all teachers, all parents and families have access to the same opportunity. We have to hold them accountable for doing those things within our districts,” Burk said.
Here are some other key takeaways from the panel discussion:
Literacy is a systemic issue
“It does take a whole system to do this work,” Gordon said. Funding and state laws help make training and classroom materials a reality. Training staff, from administrators to paraeducators, helps create districtwide buy-in to using and upholding the best practices available.
“The successful improvements in all three [of our] districts are directly tied to creating and sustaining systemic instructional approaches that meet the needs of students,” he said.
Gordon said it’s critical that district staff visit school buildings and classrooms to support teachers and see the work that’s happening. He also urged families to ask questions about a district’s curriculum and training to gauge whether their children are getting the best opportunities to learn to read.
Becki Krsnak, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Midlothian Independent School District in Ellis County, Texas, entered her district six years ago. There, she found high-performing students with stagnant reading scores. Her approach started with training interventionists and special education teachers with strategies linked to the science of reading approach. The training was supported through a pilot program of the Children’s Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center.
“The teachers were just so excited to start learning more, and then it just started spreading,” she said.
Family engagement matters
Danielle Moore, a first grade teacher at Midlothian’s Baxter Elementary School, said conversations around a child’s reading level start at the beginning of the school year during family conferences.
“One thing I always tell parents is just read with your kids,” she said.
As a working mom with a 4-year-old and 5-year-old at home, Moore said she knows it can sometimes feel tricky to schedule reading into a bedtime routine, but said it can help families better understand if a child is making gains and where they might be struggling.
“The biggest impact you can have on your kids is to show your love for reading,” said Moore.
Burk agreed, and said schools and districts should also clearly explain to families what literacy screening reports and the language used in reading instruction means.
“We have to be able to recognize how we can support our parents in learning the language but also how we can support them in understanding what it means when we send these reports home and what they can do about it,” she said.