Special Report
Reading & Literacy

A Look Inside One Classroom’s Reading Overhaul

Wary teachers say they’re now seeing gains with structured programs
By Catherine Gewertz — December 03, 2019 9 min read
Braydan Finnerty, 2nd grade, chooses letter magnets off the board while doing a spelling exercise in front of the rest of the class at Beverly Gardens Elementary in Dayton, Ohio.
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Dayton, Ohio

Kim Kohlrus’ 2nd grade classroom is alive with wiggling, chanting children. They’re on their feet, swaying and twisting as their teacher leads them in a call-and-response of letter combinations.

“I-n-k, pink, ink,” they chime in a bouncy rhythm, “o-n-g, song, ong.” It’s a phonics warmup, to help them remember vowel-consonant groupings. Then they dive into a lesson on multisyllabic words, tackling the new challenge in various ways.

Kohlrus writes words like “kindness” and “fantastic” on the board, and the children tell her where to draw curved lines underneath to divide them, using the rules they’ve learned about open and closed syllables. In their notebooks, they make sentences with those words and draw more curved lines to divide the sentences into phrases. For “trick words” that are hard to sound out, like “often,” the children trace the letters on their classmates’ backs while saying the letters and words out loud.

These scenes play out in a typical American classroom, trimmed in cheerful shades of green and purple. But what’s happening here at Beverly Gardens Elementary reflects something less than typical: Kohlrus’ district, the Mad River Local Schools, has purposefully reshaped its early literacy instruction to reflect the science of reading.

With a clear research base to back them up, Mad River’s leaders have paired carefully structured phonics lessons in K-2 with related practices that are known to support good reading skills: helping students build content knowledge and strong vocabularies.

As the project enters its fourth year, Mad River’s leaders are hopeful. State test scores in English/language arts have risen sharply in the buildings where children have had the most exposure to the new approach, and principals notice that more students—even the struggling ones—are better at tackling tough reading passages.

“The difference between now and five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said Cory Miller, the principal of Virginia Stevenson Elementary, which dove into phonics in 2013-14, four years before Mad River adopted its new phonics curriculum, Fundations.

"[Students’] fluency is much better, and they’re attacking words in systematic ways,” he said. “They’re not getting stuck on words.”

Teachers and administrators in this Ohio district, which serves a working-class population near Wright-Patterson Air Force base, long knew something was missing from their literacy instruction. Most years, barely half of its 3rd graders scored proficient on state reading tests.

There was no districtwide curriculum; each teacher in its four elementary schools “did their own thing,” drawing on old Scott-Foresman textbooks or cobbling together their own materials, said Amy Holbrook, one of Mad River’s instructional coaches.

Ohio’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010 made it painfully clear: Mad River’s teachers did not have the materials they needed to meet these new standards. They tried different things without much satisfaction, Holbrook said.

Kara, 2nd grade, identifies syllables and letter sounds while doing a letter exercise.

A Coordinated Approach

During those years, though, the instructional coaches kept poking around. They saw the pileup of studies on the importance of systematic phonics instruction. They took an online course in foundational skills created by Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit created by the common core’s main writers, and later taught a version of it to all their K-2 teachers. It was becoming apparent to the coaches that the district needed a coordinated approach to reading, and teachers were increasingly asking for one, Holbrook said.

They found two curricula that covered the foundational skills that research calls for, and tried them out. In 2016-17 they used Wit & Wisdom, designed by Great Minds to build content knowledge, comprehension, and vocabulary, schoolwide in one elementary building, and in scattered grades and classrooms in other buildings. The following year, the district expanded Wit & Wisdom to all K-8 classrooms and added Fundations, a program that includes phonics by Wilson Language Training, in all K-2 classrooms. (Fundations met most, but not all, of the requirements for a good-quality phonics program in a recent review by the curriculum reviewer EdReports.)

A couple of fall mornings in Kohlrus’ classroom offered a glimpse of what the combination looks like. After reading aloud to her 17 students from a picture book, she gave them free-reading time, letting them choose books from the themed baskets in her classroom library (“family,” “biographies,” “animal babies”).

While the children read, Kohlrus worked on reading fluency with three boys at a small table. They read aloud from a Wit & Wisdom handout in the curriculum’s current module, which is organized around the theme of change. “In the fall, many things are changing,” Channing Wray read aloud. As he read, Kohlrus helped him sound out tricky words.

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As a whole group, the class then focused again on phonics. At their desks, the children divided words into syllables, or sentences into phrases, and said them aloud together. They stood up to chant letter sounds or move around the room in an exercise about prefixes and suffixes. Each child had a word written on a strip of paper (“connect”) and had to find a companion whose paper showed a prefix or suffix that changes its meaning (“dis-").

Moving into the comprehension piece of the lesson, Kohlrus used themed sets of books to explore ideas and language. In a book about why fall leaves change color, the children learned about chlorophyll and pigments, and they discussed vocabulary words, using their bodies to act out words like “curl” and “uncurl.” They explored the text structure, too, identifying topic sentences, bits of evidence, and conclusions.

Kohlrus is a convert to the new literacy approach, but she hated it at first. She was teaching kindergarten then, and thought the new curricula expected too much too soon from 5-year-olds. She also didn’t like the carefully scripted nature of Fundations. “I like to add my own flair, and it felt limiting to me,” she said.

Like many teachers, Kohlrus didn’t hear much about phonics in her teacher-prep program nearly 20 years ago, or in her master’s program in literacy. Those courses were infused with the ideas that shaped the “whole language” approach to literacy that’s now out of favor but many critics say persists in U.S. classrooms under the guise of balanced literacy.

Kohlrus used those ideas—including the “cueing systems” that encourage children to use pictures and other clues to guess what words say—to shape her reading instruction over 17 years of teaching kindergarten and 1st grade. Here and there, she wove in bits of phonics instruction she felt were appropriate for 5- and 6-year-olds.

Being asked to embrace a structured, systematic phonics program “meant unlearning everything I’d learned,” Kohlrus said. Instructional coaches provided training, but even still, the challenges of the phonics shift, combined with learning two new, demanding curricula “made us all want to get in the fetal position and cry,” she said.

As she began teaching 2nd grade last year, Kohlrus felt her mind shifting, she said. She began to see the sense in the new approach.

“I have finally bought into it,” she said. “I can see the skills the children are bringing into 2nd grade. It’s making a difference. Now these kids have solid phonics skills. They can go past sounding out letters to sounding out multisyllabic words like nobody’s business.”

Kohlrus doesn’t spend much time lamenting the way she taught reading in the past, but sometimes it bothers her. “I used what I had,” she said. “And that was all I had.”

Changing a System

Many teachers resist abandoning what they learned about teaching reading, since they trusted their preparation programs to provide the best advice, Mad River’s coaches said. Ann Pearce, who travels nationwide to train teachers in Fundations, sees this all the time.

“You run into, ‘We didn’t learn this, so is this the right thing to do?’ They didn’t learn systematic phonics, and then to be expected to teach this way, it’s hard,” Pearce said. “I tell teachers, I got my master’s in reading, and I never learned any of this. But when I did learn, it was an eye-opener.”

One of the toughest pieces of the transition to a phonics-based literacy approach is that teachers often wrestle with beliefs about themselves, said Mad River instructional coach Rebecca Parker. She was teaching 3rd grade when the district started its new literacy approach, and she thought it was too hard for her students. That resistance sparked a difficult internal journey.

“I started to ask myself, do I believe that ‘kids can’? I finally realized it was about me, that what I really wondered about was if I could help them, if I was good enough,” she said. “But now there’s evidence in front of me. The kids showed me they could do it.

“Teaching is very personal and emotional. This [change] pushes you to reflect on yourself. It was scary, and it brought me to my knees. But I learned to focus on the students, and not on myself.”

Lylian Burdick and Jonathan Bland, 2nd graders in Kim Kohlrus’ class at Beverly Gardens Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio, practice reading out loud early in the day’s lesson.

Struggling to Maintain Focus

A big challenge in moving to a comprehensive literacy approach, Holbrook says, has been watching the district’s attention to it ebb and flow.

Dubbed a “focus district” by the state, Mad River redeployed its instructional coaches from the literacy project to broader duties; only one now is devoted to that project, instead of three. The district has ongoing struggles with absenteeism, had to grapple with a technology crisis, and has had to siphon attention to training staff to handle trauma from opioid use in its students’ families.

Krista Wagner, the assistant superintendent who oversees curriculum and instruction, as well as student services, said she “feels horrible” about the uneven focus on the literacy initiative.

“We’re right there where things are starting to take a turn,” she said. “I know it feels as if sometimes more attention is on it and sometimes less is on it. But we’re fully committed to it.”

There are signs that the literacy work is paying off: Scores on state tests in English/language arts have risen districtwide since the two new curricula arrived, particularly in two schools using the approach the longest. In the elementary school that has had both curricula the longest, 3rd grade test scores went from the worst in the district—44 percent proficient in 2016—to the best, 71 percent in 2019. Third grade reading proficiency districtwide moved from 53 percent in 2016 to 64 percent in 2019.

But it’s hard to know what really drove those improvements. Was it the phonics program or the knowledge-building curriculum that made the difference? Or did other dynamics produce the score improvements? Wagner and the instructional coaches can’t tell. The district switched interim-assessment providers, making it hard to track the impact of the new curricula. Fundations and Wit & Wisdom also include interim tests, but teachers are still learning to use them in uniform ways, so consistent data across school buildings aren’t available yet, Holbrook said.

Even without those data, though, Mad River’s leaders feel they’re onto something important. And as they move forward, they’re keenly aware of the stakes riding on their work.

“If kids aren’t hitting 3rd or 4th grade using all these foundational skills to access complex text, we’ll have kids guessing. We’ll have huge gaps,” Holbrook said. “And we won’t be overcoming that in high school.”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Look Inside One Classroom’s Reading Overhaul

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