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Back to basics: Local schools embrace the science of reading

In Caitlin Natale’s second-grade class at Clark Elementary, students kicked off a reading lesson Monday by learning a set of vowel patterns — oo, o, ou, u, ew, u_e, ue — and the different sounds they make in words.

“This one makes two sounds, ‘oo’ like in moose or ‘o’ like in cook,” Natale said, pointing to “oo.”

Monday was the first day her class looked at those vowel patterns and kicked off a new reading unit about plants. Natale asked students to circle the patterns in a list of words on the smartboard.

“You might not be spelling these words, but everybody is reading these words,” Natale told her class. “And these patterns are going to help you figure out how to read words you don’t know.”

Natale’s lesson was pulled from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Into Reading, a new reading curriculum Charlottesville City Schools purchased in December. Clark, Jackson-Via Elementary and Walker Upper Elementary are piloting the program this school year.

Into Reading includes much more explicit phonics instruction for students, among other changes, Natale said.

Phonics instruction — teaching the relationship between letters and sounds — is critical to teaching students how to read because it helps students identify and decode words they don’t know, many studies have found. This school year, the Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions decided to take a systematic and explicit approach to phonics and reading lessons in elementary schools. Without these skills, students will continue to struggle to read, according to multiple studies.

The divisions’ changes follow years of flat test scores and a change in state standards for reading. The school systems are purchasing new, division-wide reading curricula and planning to give teachers explicit training about how to teach reading.

Gertrude Ivory, a consultant for the city schools, said at a recent budget work session that the Charlottesville division have historically put a lot of emphasis on third, fourth and fifth grade — elementary grades in which there is a reading Standards of Learning test — but not seen a payoff.

“Part of the reason is that we have not focused on the foundational skills,” said Ivory, who served as the city’s associate superintendent for 11 years. “When kids are in fourth and fifth grade, we’re trying to play catch up. It’s really difficult to catch up a student who is already behind.”

Charlottesville bought Into Reading for kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers, and it will be used in all six elementary schools this fall. Albemarle County purchased Being a Reader, a K-2 program from the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, for all first-grade teachers and plans to expand it to either kindergarten or second grade next school year.

The curriculum purchases are a key step in the divisions’ plan to improve its baseline support and instruction for all students, so that fewer students struggle to read later on.

Experts say a high-quality reading program should address oral language development, phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary — components that build on one another.

Historically, Charlottesville and Albemarle have bought programs that address only some of those areas and left it up to teachers to fill in the gaps.

This shift in reading instruction comes amid a state push for better reading scores and a national conversation about how students are learning to read.

Officials in both school systems say these new resources, paired with teacher training, will help ensure more children are learning to read and close achievement gaps. No data is publicly available on how the initial implementation is helping students, but teachers say they are seeing progress.

The resources also will force divisions to be more explicit about which methods of reading instruction they endorse — requiring them to step into a debate that has raged in academic circles for decades, even though the science is settled.

Reading, unlike speaking, is not a natural process for the brain to learn. So, children need to be explicitly taught the fundamentals of reading — including phonics, phonological awareness and oral language, said Emily Solari, a professor of reading education at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development.

Students need to have these skills by the end of first grade, she said.

“If they are struggling to read [by the end of first grade], then they will continue to struggle to read,” said Solari, who researches students who are at risk of reading failure.

For students to acquire these skills, their teachers need to know how to teach them. Yet, teacher colleges do not all follow the best practices when teaching future educators, according to recent reports that found many prep programs ascribe to the balanced literacy philosophy and omit phonemic awareness.

How to best prepare teachers for the classroom keeps Solari up at night. She took over the reading department at the Curry School nearly two years ago and has led an effort to change courses and curriculum to reflect the science of reading.

Curry School Dean Robert Pianta said the research in support of the science of reading has accumulated to the point “where we are more confident in making moves that are evidence-based.”

Starting in the fall, students in Curry’s elementary and special-education teacher programs will learn about the science of reading, as well as practical strategies to apply it in the classroom. Solari added that changing the teacher prep programs is one of many levers, including state policy, that need to be pulled to improve students’ reading skills.

Awareness about the science of reading and the gaps between research and classroom practices has grown in recent years, especially after an audio documentary from American Public Media that looked at why children aren’t being taught how to read.

For decades, experts have argued whether the whole-language approach or phonics instruction is best. Whole-language proponents have argued that that young children who are immersed a literacy-rich environment pick up reading naturally, in the same way that they learn how to speak.

But cognitive scientists have found that phonics is the best way for the brain to learn to read. The research also was backed up by the 2000 National Reading Report Panel.

After experts called the whole-language approach into question, literacy specialists added some phonics and other strategies back in — creating an approach called "balanced literacy."

[INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: How American educators have taught reading.]

Last school year, about 70% of county and city third-graders passed the reading SOL exam. Division-wide in both school systems, reading proficiency among black and Hispanic students, as well those from low-income families, has significantly lagged behind that of white and more affluent peers.

Statewide, pass rates have ticked down over the last several years. Overall, 78% of students passed the reading SOL in the 2018-19 school year. Among state third-graders, 71% of students passed the exam.

On national assessments, average reading scores for Virginia fourth- and eighth-grade students fell by 4 and 6 points, respectively, which followed a national trend.

After the release of the 2018-19 test scores and national results, state schools Superintendent James Lane said the downward trend in reading scores necessitated a focus on the area. The state since has pushed out resources to divisions and is hosting a literacy summit Monday in Charlottesville.

Charlottesville’s approach

Into Reading provides much more explicit and systematic phonics instruction compared with Benchmark Literacy, the division’s previous program, which was purchased six years ago. Charlottesville schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said in December that Benchmark didn’t work for teachers.

With Into Reading, all elementary teachers will have the same teaching materials that are strong in foundational skills and literature that reflects the diversity of the student body. The units also align to lessons in other subjects, such as science.

“We haven’t had that as a division, and I don’t think Charlottesville is unique in that,” said Stephanie Tatel, literacy coordinator for the city schools. “We all have to have agreement on what we’re teaching.”

Phonics is an approach that researchers have found works for most students.

“The reality is that when there is a reading problem, it’s a fluency problem, which means under the fluency program, it’s really a phonics and a phonological awareness problem,” Tatel said.

Tatel started as the literacy coordinator in January. She previously was an instructional coach at Venable Elementary and a reading specialist and said she used some strategies that are now not considered best practice. That’s why it’s important for educators to pay attention to research, she said.

“That’s our vaccination against ideology,” she said. “It’s really hard. If you are a teacher and you see something work for your particular group of kids, that’s the best evidence as a teacher. But when we scale things up, it may look different.”

Tatel said she thinks teachers are ready for a different approach.

“I think teachers are hungry for consistency and clarity,” she said. “Teachers want to see results. Teachers want the best for their kids. And I think that our teachers are hungry for being on the same page.”

Before, Tatel said, local teachers were trying to create the curriculum themselves, scouring websites to find lessons or resources to help in their classroom. However, resources online or in textbooks aren’t all based on the science of reading.

“It’s hard as a teacher if you pick up a book that’s from a reputable publisher and you think this must be best practice,” Tatel said. “It isn’t always the case.”

While Into Reading has all the pieces for a successful reading program, Tatel said the division still needs to give teachers the skills to put the pieces together the right way. Not every aspect of the program follows best practices, a team of teachers reviewing the resource has found, and Tatel said they’ll "take a Sharpie" to remove those parts.

“We really need to be careful that what we put in front of teachers reflects the science of reading,” Tatel said. “I don’t know of any one program that is perfect. I think this is a really strong one, and I think at the division level, it’s up to us to figure out how to make it work.”

The fundamentals

When Cheyenne, a first grader at Greer Elementary, got to a word she didn’t know — “sitting” — she sounded it out, broke the seven-letter word down into smaller parts, had a breakthrough and then continued with the book in the Llama Llama series.

In Claire LaPlante’s class, Cheyenne and her classmates have not only learned their ABCs but also their phonemes — the 44 sounds of the alphabet that distinguish one word or meaning from another.

While Cheyenne read, LaPlante worked with another group on spelling words such as “bedtime” and “never.” When one girl wrote “nevre,” LaPlante worked to make sure she knew the different ways that the sound can be written.

“You were very close,” LaPlante said. “We know that with ‘er,’ we have three choices: ‘ur,’‘ir,’ ‘er.’ Sometimes it’s hard because ur, ir and er have the same sound.”

LaPlante said the new county curriculum, Being a Reader, gives the teachers more support with phonics instruction. She’s noticed that students are making faster progress this year, especially those who are English Language Learners.

“I’ve seen tremendous progress very quickly this year,” she said. “In the past, we’ve been struggling with letter recognition and letter sounds at this point, and I already have my ESOL kids reading.”

Debbie Collins, the county’s assistant superintendent for student learning, said that with Being a Reader, the division opted for a system-wide approach to ensure phonics and other decoding strategies are being consistently taught.

“We scoured the landscape for a resource that we felt like fit our philosophy, which is we want a classroom teacher to be able to differentiate — not all children come in at the same level — teachers having resources helps them do that.”

First grade was chosen because reading scores weren’t as strong for that grade level compared with second grade or kindergarten, Collins said. In K-2, teachers use the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening to measure students’ reading skills.

Catrina Sims, the county’s literacy lead coach, said the curriculum’s consistent approach to phonics helps students become fluent with their letters and sounds, so remembering what letter combinations sound like becomes automatic.

“Those letter sounds are building blocks,” Sims said.

Data about the new curricula isn’t available yet, officials said, adding that they are waiting for the end-of-the-year assessments and looking to see if students are reading on grade level.

But early indications from teachers are positive.

Collins said she’ll be looking at the assessments and whether more first graders are meeting the PALS benchmarks compared with when they were kindergartners.

“If these kids are hitting these more strenuous benchmarks, then they are going into second grade stronger than the previous cohort,” she said.

Tatel said that Charlottesville teachers who piloted Into Reading have seen students make progress much quicker than in previous years and are giving children access to grade-level and challenging texts, which is key to equitable outcomes for students.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we would be seeing results,” Tatel told School Board members earlier this month.

Teacher training

School systems can purchase whatever materials they want, but that means nothing if districts don’t support teachers, officials have said.

“We cannot hand teachers a program and expect improvement,” Tatel said.

With Being a Reader, first-grade teachers went through mandated professional development and have met monthly for training and to discuss the new curriculum.

Collins said teachers’ approach to reading often depends on how they learned how to read.

“How comfortable you feel with understanding phonics might be how much time you spent on it,” she said. “But things like this help us even the playing field in our classrooms. Even if you learned to read by sight and not by phonics, now you have an approach that you can help kids learn the decoding pieces.”

Charlottesville City Schools budgeted $324,437 for fiscal 2021 to hire three literacy coaches who would work with elementary teachers. In addition to the coaches, 30 teachers volunteered to pilot an online course this spring on teaching reading. The course eventually would be required for elementary teachers. For math, the division offers a similar course.

When Charlottesville rolls out Into Reading in all elementaries this fall, Tatel said the division will provide guidance to teachers on which parts of the curriculum are non-negotiable and help figure out which current practices can be continued with Into Reading.

"It’s not like they are starting from zero,” Tatel said.

Good readers ask and answer questions, Natale told her second graders Monday at Clark.

“It helps them remember,” she said.

Before diving into a book about tomatoes, she asked them to share tomato facts they already knew. Despite really wanting to have a tomato fight, the students started reading the book and asked questions along the way.

With Into Reading, students are mastering skills such as finding the theme and main idea and engaging with the books they read, Natale said.

“Building that love of reading is huge,” she said. “We want them to enjoy reading.”

Natale is 100% certain that her students will head to third grade much stronger readers after a year with the Into Reading program.

“The level of conversations I’m having with students is the deepest and strongest I’ve ever had as a teacher,” she said.


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