My literacy instruction journey began a few years ago when my son was in preschool and I noticed others mentioning reading as the next big developmental milestone. I started to look for ways to support my son in this next stage of his development, and learned about the evidence-based practices referred to as the science of reading. The method was familiar to me because it is how I remember being taught to read in elementary school. I also learned that it is, unfortunately, common for children in the United States to be taught how to read using a less effective method called “whole language” or “balanced literacy.”
The summer before my son started kindergarten, we introduced him to the BOB books, and the connection between letters in words and sounds. He quickly made the connection, and was able to start reading the simple, decodable books. He felt proud of his accomplishment, and was excited to start school and improve his reading skills. But we soon realized he was being taught to read in school using some form of balanced literacy. Where he had started out sounding out unfamiliar words, he was now looking at pictures and guessing. It was really disappointing because our neighbors had raved about how wonderful the school was. But as I talked to more parents, with kids the same grade as my son and parents with older children, I realized that many kids were struggling to learn to read. Several parents had paid for expensive reading tutors and summer camps after first or second grade to try to catch their kids up to grade level in reading. These tutors, which cost thousands of dollars, were using methods based on the science of reading, in particular systemic, explicit phonics. It wasn’t that these kids all had a learning disability, like dyslexia. But, rather, the theme was more that the kids just needed a different method of teaching to learn to read.
I had been following the MPS school board meetings since my son was in preschool, and had seen the huge disparities between demographic groups in reading proficiency in MPS. But my neighbors are wealthy and white. Their kids are at one of the well-regarded elementary schools in the Southwest corner of the city. Their kids were supposed to be the one succeeding, not struggling.
As I talked to more parents, especially those who had kids in kindergarten like my son, I learned that across the six kindergarten classrooms in his school, each teacher seemed to be teaching reading in a slightly different way. They were all administering assessments, and grouping students into leveled groups for literacy (and math), which is characteristic of balanced literacy “readers workshop” style of instruction often associated with Lucy Caulkins and Teachers College at Columbia University. But some classrooms, like my son’s, were still focused on teaching the letter of the alphabet- a skill he had learned in both 3 and 4 year old preschool.
Some of the kindergarten teachers were assigning long lists of sight words for students to memorize. Other parents had been told that they “just need to read more” to their child- as if teaching reading was primarily the responsibility of parents and not schools and teachers. My son’s teacher seemed to rely heavily on an app, Lexia, for literacy. We were told we should have my son using the app at least 15 minutes every day outside of school. Again, the message was that parents had some responsibility for teaching their kids to read. What I didn’t hear in any of my conversations was students learning how to read using a systematic phonics curriculum, consistent with the science of reading.
My son spent the end of kindergarten in distance “learning’ because of the pandemic. Unsure what would happen in the fall, I began learning all I could about teaching him how to read. The silver lining of distance learning was that I was able to observe exactly what he was (and mostly wasn’t) being taught. I was very concerned during the summer before first grade, and began researching ways to teach him to read since he had not been getting any useful literacy instruction. I found the Tennessee Foundational Skills Curriculum, which the Tennessee Department of Education has shared for free online. It was wonderful to finally see a curriculum based on the science of reading. It was organized by phonemes, with a systematic progression through the sounds in English. It included worksheets, lesson plans, decodable readers (hundred of pages!). But most importantly, it includes easy to administer and score assessments. I was able to give these assessments to my son, and using the guides, determine exactly which phoneme-grapheme combinations, plus sight words, that he needed help learning.
When he started back in distance learning for first grade, I contacted his teacher to let her know what I had learned from the assessments. Initially, she dismissed this information, and told me she would determine what he needed to know. But, at his fall conference, six weeks later, she acknowledged that the information I had provided her at the beginning of the year was an accurate description of where my son was in his literacy development. Unfortunately, the things he was ready to know would not be covered until April and May, so in the meantime, he had to muddle through repeating content he already knew.
He spent most of first grade in distance learning. While this was extremely challenging for him and us, the silver lining is we were able to observe his literacy instruction every day. During first grade, he had 3 different teachers, who all approached literacy in a different way. He was fortunate that the primary teacher he had did place some emphasis on phonics. Each week, the students had one or two graphemes and corresponding list of words, plus a set of sight words, to memorize for spelling tests. In their small groups, the students were still divided into leveled groups modeled after the “readers workshop” approach. The focus of these groups was “comprehension skills” and the books they would read aloud were not decodable, and not connected to the graphemes they were being taught in their spelling assignments. But it was an improvement over the previous year.
After talking to several parents, I learned that the instruction he was getting from this teacher was significantly better than what other students were receiving. As he remained in distance learning, he was switched to a different class. The new teacher provided no instruction in phonics. The weekly spelling words were still assigned, but there was no live or recorded instruction to teach the phoneme and grapheme combinations in the spelling words. The small group literacy instruction was focused entirely on “comprehension skills” like “find the main idea” or reproducing a list of items from the text in a complete sentence. And the teacher repeatedly made derogatory comments about how English words can’t really be sounded out because there are so many irregular spelling patterns. It was shocking how different it was from the first teacher. When he went back to school in person, he was with a third teacher who seemed to approach literacy more like the first, but with more emphasis on using the reading app, Lexia, and leveled readers in the classroom.
We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had the time to work with my son to help him make the connection between letters and sounds as he has been learning to read. He’s made tremendous progress, and reads well for a student his age. But a system that requires so much parental involvement in learning to read is bound to reproduce the same patterns of inequality evident in many other dimensions of life in Minneapolis.
My overall impression is that there is not a consistent approach to literacy instruction in Minneapolis Public Schools. Instruction seems to depend a lot on the individual teacher or school where a student is assigned. Ineffective, balanced literacy approaches seem to be common, which is not surprising because it is the predominant method of reading instruction taught to those studying elementary education in Minnesota colleges and universities. And, there seems to be a pervasive message that parents are responsible for teaching their kids how to read. Given this, it’s not surprising to see so many children in MPS schools not be proficient readers by the end of third grade.
My hope is that with the influx of ESSER money, and the new state requirements for a birth to adult literacy plan, Minneapolis Public Schools will take this opportunity to overhaul its literacy instruction in the coming years. I would like to see the district do the following:
Form a committee, including experts in the science of reading and parents, to select a reading curriculum that is rated green across all dimensions, including usability, by Ed Reports, for elementary literacy.
Invest in mandatory professional development for all principals and teachers in K-5 elementary schools for the new curriculum.
Require schools and teachers to fully implement the new curriculum.
Provide parents with an easy to understand guide on how to recognize whether their students are receiving literacy instruction in the elementary grades consistent with the science of reading, along with the key skills students are expected to learn in each grade level. For example, this might include a list of phonemes and their corresponding graphemes, in the order they will be typically taught, or a sample of reading passages that students should be able to read if they were progressing on average for their grade level.
Provide parents with a full report of their student’s FAST assessments in literacy, three times per year, so that parents can see whether students are making progress in literacy, and where students may need extra help. (This should be done for math, too. But I’ll save that for another email.)
Post online, in an easily accessible format, for each school, by grade level and demographic groups, the results of the FAST assessments, three times per year, so that parents and the public can track the progress the district is making towards teaching all of its students to read proficiently by the end of third grade.
The district has known for years that it has a problem with literacy instruction. It has tinkered around the edges of this problem, with no improvement in students outcomes. The board and administration talk about their commitment to equity, but, so far, none of their well-intentioned changes have had an impact. I hope they will take this opportunity to be bold, and try something new that is backed by decades of research on how children learn to read. Our kids can’t wait.
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