As states and districts overhaul the way their schools teach reading, many are banking on one specific professional-learning program to propel this transformation: Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, commonly known as LETRS.
A critical part of making large-scale changes to reading instruction is introducing teachers to research and new methods. That’s where professional learning comes in.
LETRS instructs teachers in what literacy skills need to be taught, why, and how to plan to teach them. And it delves into the research base behind these recommendations.
The program is long, intensive, and expensive. It can take upwards of 160 hours to complete over the course of two years. But it’s also become one of the most frequently used options for reading professional development.
Twenty-three states have contracted with Lexia, the company that houses LETRS, to provide some level of statewide training. About 200,000 teachers total are enrolled in the training this year, an 8-fold increase from 2019, the company says. “We call it wild, explosive growth,” said Cassandra Wheeler, a senior manager of LETRS state success at Lexia.
How did this one training become so ubiquitous? Is it really that different from the other PD options? And most importantly: Does it work?
What is LETRS?
LETRS is a training course developed by Louisa Moats and Carol Tolman, both literacy experts and consultants. It’s for teachers who work with beginning readers, though there are also companion trainings available for administrators and early childhood educators.
The first part of the course explains why learning to read can be difficult and how the “reading brain” works. It also introduces the “simple view of reading,” a research-tested model that holds that skilled reading is the product of two factors: word recognition—decoding the letters on the page—and language comprehension, which allows students to make meaning from the words they read.
LETRS is divided into two volumes, aligned to this framework.
The first covers how to teach and assess students’ knowledge of the sounds in the English language (phonemic awareness), how those sounds represent letters that can create words (phonics), and how and why to teach word parts (morphology). It also covers spelling and fluency instruction.
The second explains how to develop students’ spoken language abilities, including vocabulary knowledge; how to create a “language-rich” classroom; comprehension instruction; and how teachers can build connections between reading and writing. The course also gives teachers information about how to diagnose reading problems and differentiate instruction.
LETRS is not a curriculum or a set of activities—that’s not its goal. The goal is to “give people a knowledge base for doing the job,” Moats said. “I want the teacher in front of a group of kids to feel like she or he understands what is going on in the minds of the kids as they are trying to learn.”
Why is LETRS so popular?
The answer to that starts with what many in the reading field are calling the “Mississippi model.”
In 2014, Mississippi started LETRS training with its K-3 teachers, part of a broader effort to align reading instruction in the state to evidence-based practices.
In the years since, about two dozen state departments of education have embraced similar changes, instating mandates that require schools to use materials, assessments, and methods aligned to the evidence base behind how children learn to read. Many have cited Mississippi as an example.
An evaluation of Mississippi’s LETRS implementation from the Southeast Regional Education Laboratory, a federally funded implementation network, found that it increased teacher knowledge and improved teacher practice. Then, in 2019, Mississippi students made big gains in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
It’s almost impossible to know exactly what moved the needle on student achievement—the state simultaneously made sweeping changes to coaching, curriculum, and intervention. But, LETRS soon became a core component of literacy plans in states that were looking to replicate Mississippi’s success. Interest in LETRS exploded after the 2019 NAEP data were released, and North Carolina lawmakers were among those influenced by Mississippi’s gains.
Education officials thought that replicating Mississippi’s LETRS training would lead to similar results, said Beth Anderson, the executive director of the Hill Center in Durham, N.C., which houses an independent school for students with reading difficulties and provides reading professional development. “As often happens in education, everyone jumped on the bandwagon of what looked like the silver bullet solution, and LETRS is what looked like that,” she said.
Wheeler, the Lexia manager, also attributes some growth to the pandemic, as states and districts are now looking for ways to support students after massive disruptions to education. COVID-relief funds have given school systems an influx of money for one-time purchases.
“The focus on science of reading has driven a lot of the momentum that we’re seeing,” said Nick Gaehde, the president of Lexia and Voyager Sopris Learning. But also: “The funding environment has certainly been a factor.”
Is LETRS aligned to the methods used in the science of reading?
Yes—and it differs from other kinds of reading professional learning.
Much of teacher professional development goes like this: Teachers will sit in a few days of sessions about a couple of new tools or approaches, apply the ones they think might be useful to their practice, and discard the rest. LETRS isn’t like this.
“We have instead mapped out a course of study where one thing builds upon another in a sequence,” Moats said.
The LETRS sequence takes a “speech to print” approach to teaching foundational skills, Moats said. “We’re convinced from research that, for kids, the underpinning of being able to learn the alphabetic code for reading and spelling is phoneme awareness”—the ability to hear and manipulate the sounds within words. Once kids have that skill, they can connect those sounds to letters, and they can begin to read words.
This idea—that explicitly and systematically teaching young children how sounds represent letters is the most effective way to teach them how to read words—is based on decades of research evidence. It’s a core tenet of the approach now being called the “science of reading.”
But LETRS, like the science of reading, isn’t just about word reading. The second year of LETRS is all about language comprehension, and its method differs from typical approaches.
Much reading comprehension instruction in schools today is focused on teaching comprehension skills—finding the main idea, comparing and contrasting—which students are supposed to learn how to do and then apply to other texts.
But studies show that practicing these skills doesn’t actually lead to better comprehension, in part because understanding a text is heavily dependent on background knowledge. Understanding a passage about baseball means knowing a bit about the sport, its rules, and its equipment beforehand, as one famous study found.
It’s also because there are more effective approaches to teaching reading strategies. Teaching students how to activate prior knowledge and consolidating new knowledge—strategies like summarizing as they read, asking questions of the text, or visualizing what’s happening—has been shown to be more effective than teaching isolated comprehension skills.
LETRS teaches how and when to apply these evidence-based strategies. But it also takes what Moats calls a “text-based” approach to reading comprehension.
The program instructs teachers to develop their lessons and questions for students purposefully, based on the specific text they’re reading: What knowledge should they take away? What new vocabulary can they learn? Teachers need to have read the text themselves to be able to facilitate this process—something that isn’t always the case in classrooms where students are asked to practice comprehension skills in books of their choice.
“Instead of using any random passage to teach main idea, we want the teacher to first think about what the main idea is and what they want kids to learn,” Moats said.
A lot of teachers didn’t learn these approaches to teaching reading in preservice programs or in professional development, so they can feel “very foreign,” she said.
Why wouldn’t most of this information have been covered in teacher preparation?
Most teacher preparation programs do not take the “speech to print” approach that LETRS does, especially when it comes to teaching foundational skills, and not all instructors in teacher preparation programs believe that students need a full understanding of these skills to read text.
In a 2019 EdWeek Research Center survey, 56 percent of instructors agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “It is possible for students to understand written texts with unfamiliar words even if they don’t have a good grasp of phonics.” One in 3 said that students should use context clues to make a guess when they come to a word they don’t know.
These ideas are one hallmark of a balanced literacy approach to reading instruction, a philosophy that 68 percent of teacher educators in this survey said they adhere to.
A popular instructional technique in balanced literacy classrooms is guided reading, in which a teacher coaches a student through reading a book matched to their level. The goal is to facilitate students’ comprehension of the text, prompting them when needed with suggestions and support. If a student struggles to read a word, a teacher might suggest looking at the letters, but the teacher might also suggest checking the picture or thinking about what word would make sense.
To understand how this is different than the approach that LETRS presents, imagine learning how to read is like learning how to play basketball. The LETRS system is to teach kids the rules, practice their skills through drills, and scrimmage a few times before they play their first game.
By contrast, a balanced literacy approach often puts kids on the court right away. Some kids are naturally gifted ballplayers, and they quickly get the hang of dribbling and shooting. But others will continue to struggle for the whole season, because they never learned the foundations of the sport.
Does LETRS lead to higher student achievement?
That’s a complicated question.
The evaluation of LETRS in Mississippi found that teacher knowledge and quality of instruction increased in Mississippi schools after the training.
But teachers in Mississippi didn’t just get the training. They also had a system of coaching to support them in applying it—figuring out how what they were learning should translate into practice.
And the Southeast Regional Education Laboratory evaluation only measured changes to teachers’ knowledge and how teachers taught. The researchers note that the study can’t say whether LETRS, specifically, improved student scores.
Mississippi also made changes to curriculum materials and intervention protocols. Was it teacher knowledge that made a difference for student achievement? Was it one of the other supports? Some combination of several factors? It’s hard to know for sure.
Experimental studies of LETRS have shown similar results: The training increases teacher knowledge and can change practice given the right conditions—but these shifts don’t always translate into higher student achievement.
One 2008 study from the American Institutes of Research found that teachers who had taken a LETRS-based PD knew more about literacy development at the end of the training and used more explicit instruction in their teaching than teachers in a control group. But their students didn’t have significantly higher reading achievement than students of teachers in the control group.
This study didn’t test the full LETRS course as written, though—it tested a shortened, modified version of the training, which Moats noted in a response letter to the study’s characterization in the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.
Other studies validate the idea that strong coaching can help teachers translate LETRS into practice.
A 2011 study, for example, found that how much teacher practice changed after LETRS depended on the support systems around the training. Teachers who received coaching in addition to the LETRS seminars made greater shifts to their instruction than teachers who just took the seminars or teachers who received other, non-coaching supports.
If LETRS doesn’t always lead to increases in student scores, is it worth the investment?
Lexia declined to share per-participant costs for LETRS training. But the PD is a big-ticket item for several states.
North Carolina is spending $54 million on training and related supports. Alabama has spent $28 million. South Carolina has spent $24 million; Kansas, $15 million; Oklahoma, $13 million; Utah, almost $12 million.
LETRS advocates—including many teachers who have gone through the training—say that the comprehensive, sequenced knowledge base it provides is an essential springboard for delivering evidence-based instruction.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s like another college course. But it’s so valuable,” said Lisa Tidwell, a kindergarten teacher in Ogden, Utah, who started LETRS this past school year.
It’s also helpful for teachers to all go through the same training, so they have a common language, said Kelly Butler, the CEO of the Barksdale Reading Institute, a Mississippi group that helped lead the state’s reading overhaul.
But does that training have to be LETRS?
“This is a hard question, and it’s something I think about a lot,” said Emily Solari, a professor in the department of curriculum, instruction, and special education at the University of Virginia.
It’s reasonable to expect that there’s some threshold of knowledge that teachers need to reach in order to apply evidence-based practices in their classroom, said Solari, who is also a member of a council that advises Lexia on best practices. But it’s not a given, she said, that teachers would need to go through a program as intensive as LETRS to reach it.
Given the large research base on the effectiveness of coaching, it’s likely that a shorter, simpler, cheaper PD program paired with coaching could give districts strong outcomes, she said.
“Every district has a certain amount of resources,” Solari said. “Where do we put those resources to get the biggest bang for your buck?”