How do you move the needle on literacy? This Eastside city is retraining teachers

Editor’s note: This story is the second in a two-part series examining the use of the structured literacy approach to reading instruction. Read the first story at st.news/wenatcheereads.

MERCER ISLAND — On a cloudy afternoon in late fall, a group of teachers filed into a church basement to learn something they thought they already knew: how to teach reading.

America has a literacy problem, and Washington state is no exception. On a national reading test last administered in 2019, students in fourth grade — a formative time for learning how to read — scored, on average, 240 out of 500. In Washington, that number was 241.

Mercer Island is one of a handful of Washington districts trying to address that problem. In this small, mostly white and wealthy district, teachers have been learning new practices that rely on research on how brains learn to read, a practice known as structured literacy. This research suggests we’ve been teaching in a way that does not work for everyone.

But not every district has the resources Mercer Island does, or the luxury of its small size — although some less wealthy districts, such as Wenatchee, are finding a way to address the reading problem head-on.

Momentum around changes to reading instruction peaked at the start of the pandemic. Most education schools haven’t adapted their curricula to reflect this research. That puts the onus on districts to continue educating their teachers.

This year, a new Washington law requires school districts to screen young kids for signs of dyslexia. Advocates hope that the law forces all Washington districts down Mercer Island’s path of retraining nearly every K-5 teacher in reading instruction.

The law is a soft lever, a backdoor that could herald sweeping changes — but only if districts want to make them. It requires schools to test their students once a year, which by itself would give teachers limited insight about where kids are struggling during the school year.

The state is hoping for more. In January 2021, Superintendent Chris Reykdal listed changes to early reading instructions as one of his top 10 priorities, calling on the state to “completely overhaul early literacy and teach students using proven strategies that are grounded in the science of reading.”

But if the state doesn’t provide more help or additional requirements, some say, it’s hard to see that happening.

And even in districts that do have resources, change isn’t easy.

Retraining the teachers

Since ninth grade, Nova Williams knew she wanted to become a teacher. Growing up in Syracuse, New York, Williams loved reading and learning, although she has “no recollection of ever being taught the rules of phonics and spelling.”

In 2008, she moved to Washington and first encountered “structured literacy,” the science-based approach that Mercer Island is using now.

Williams saw its effect on students, and so did district leaders. Because of that, and to help satisfy the new law, Mercer Island school officials decided that every elementary school educator needed the training.

Elementary school teachers often don’t get this kind of instruction in college, unless they take linguistic or speech language pathology classes. “It will always fall a little bit on the district to determine if a teacher knows this information,” Williams said. “I don’t see an end to that.”

This year, the teachers trained in a structured literacy approach called LETRS worked with coaches, facilitators and each other to find strategies to help students learn how to read. Teachers meet with students in small groups to teach reading, and to give them extra help. There’s then another round of screening, and educators monitor their progress over time.

So far, there are signs of success: Early this year, fewer students were identified as potentially having dyslexia, an indicator that modified instruction is helping.

Reading’s building blocks

At Mercer Island’s training, the teachers stepped into the shoes of beginning readers, to learn what it feels like to be taught reading incorrectly.

They learned how the brain turns signals into sounds and sounds into meaning. They discovered Scarborough’s reading rope, a diagram that shows the many different factors that add up to form literacy, and the ways in which they need to work together. They saw how small pieces need to build up to form language comprehension and word recognition; as those two bigger pieces become more tightly woven, the act of reading becomes more fluid.

“Think about the student that you wrote about on your Post-it this morning,” Williams told the group. “Where on the rope does your student struggle?” Their eyes lit up over their masks.

“I’m just thinking about the implications for math,” a teacher said, nods and affirmations echoing around the room. “It’s just amazing.”

“Say more, and louder,” said Aimee Batliner-Gillette, an elementary school principal who helped lead the training.

The teacher cleared her throat. “The complication of language in math becomes overwhelming for many fifth graders, and it gets increasingly complex,” she said. “I’m thinking of so many different content areas that are so dependent on literacy.”

Reading, in other words, is necessary for so much more than enjoying books.

But for all districts to train K-5 teachers the way Mercer Island is, they’re likely going to need some help, and advocates say it should be coming from the state.

“We are hoping to see bigger, more powerful people doing what Reykdal said — but sticking to it,” said Jan Hasbrouck, a consultant and author who helped form the reading nonprofit Read Washington (ReadWA) to help train more teachers.

Representatives of the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction say they are invested in changing literacy instruction, but they’ve also been preoccupied by the pandemic.

“Our priority on literacy hasn’t changed,” Michaela Miller, deputy superintendent, said in an interview in January. “Schools are struggling with day-to-day operations, and maintaining stability for students is key to all learning.”

Miller called the dyslexia bill “important as a screening tool,” but conceded that it’s still “not the only component to a full literacy plan.”

OSPI is thinking about the way in which reading is integrated into all content areas. “A lot of our focus will be building capacity of early grade teachers to think not just about literacy structure, but to pull in other content areas … and not just talk about ELA [English Language Arts] instruction and vocabulary,” she said.

When asked about the equity of resources around literacy, Miller pointed to the dyslexia work group Williams was part of. She said OSPI is lobbying to get more overall funding. Federal stimulus funding could help, too — though it comes with an expiration date.

To drive change, she said, the state would need to tie its goals to its learning standards, the list of things that every district is accountable for teaching students by a certain point.

OSPI, she said, is trying to balance incentives, like resources, with compliance, as mandated by the law. “We have a bully pulpit to point folks in what their community needs are,” she said.

But advocates like Hasbrouck say they’re not using it nearly enough. Julie Bedell, a longtime Seattle teacher and the president of ReadWA, agrees. “I don’t know how serious anybody in Olympia is about how well our kids score in reading,” she said. “If they were, we would have more support.”

Understanding why students struggle

As a college student, Mercer Island teacher Michele Frisch didn’t get much instruction in teaching reading. “You were just supposed to teach reading and provide wonderfully written books and have lots of writing and experience with language,” she said. By the time she started teaching in 1988, California had embraced the whole language approach, but her district kept phonics.

Even within that realm, she’s seen an evolution. Early on, phonics meant a focus on things like the letter of the week. Every week, students would learn a letter and find things that start with it, like a food or animal. “It took a really long time to get to the end of the alphabet,” she said.

About eight years ago, Mercer Island brought in a new reading program; for fresh, everything clicked into place, because it was more specific. She felt she could understand and address the different ways in which students struggled.

She’s now gone through LETRS twice, and the program brought even more tangible tools. She was shocked to see her students responding so quickly, and the breakdown of words gave her a crisper picture of the specific letters and sounds the kids were missing. Now, in addition to lessons that demonstrate the manipulation of sounds, or phonemic awareness, she teaches “sight words,” or words that appear so frequently that kids are encouraged to memorize the sight of them.

Of this year’s 227 second graders, about 29 were identified by the dyslexia screening; of the 242 first graders — who were taught by kindergarten teachers last year — just 19 were. By April, Williams said, the district was able to closely monitor the growth of every single student in grades two through five, in accordance with the new law.

But change isn’t easy.

Toward the end of the Mercer Island session, a more experienced teacher bristled at the programming, saying it was different from what she’d learned years ago. “I’m going to push back on this,” the teacher said. “Kids should be able to delete and manipulate sounds when there’s three or four sounds.”

She then said, glibly, “I suppose I need more advanced phonemic awareness.”

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