Like many primary teachers, Coral Walker has worked closely with students who struggle to learn how to read.
“I love reading. Reading is really the reason I became a teacher,” Walker said. “But … I learned how to read fairly quickly and easily and I never understood how to teach it to kids, and I felt really frustrated knowing that I had some kids that consistently struggled.”
According to the most recent data from the Oregon Department of Education, only 46.5% of third-graders were proficient in reading in the 2018-19 school year. That proficiency rate is even lower for students from low-income households.
As the state has received an influx of federal pandemic relief funding, literacy advocates are pushing for change. At the same time, there’s a growing consensus that students could benefit significantly if more teachers in the state went through a training program focused on the science of reading.
That’s what Coral Walker is doing. She is completing the second half of a two-year training called LETRS — language essential for teachers of reading and spelling. It’s primarily online, with videos, activities and teaching guides.
She said LETRS has helped her understand the logic behind language as well as different strategies to teach students. The training uses phonics to help children decode words, rather than just exposing them to books and texts to pick up reading on their own, which Walker said was the way she was initially taught to teach reading.
Walker said she started seeing major differences when using those new techniques in 2020 when she was still teaching online.
“It clicked. They’re like, ‘Oh, that’s why you do that.’ Or, ‘Oh, that’s what that means,’” Walker said, “which means that we had a big gap, and it wasn’t because we didn’t have amazing teachers; it was because we weren’t teaching them what they needed.”
Walker has now returned to the classroom, teaching English and Spanish to first graders at Lent Elementary in Southeast Portland.
LETRS has gained popularity across the country, with some states pushing to have as many early elementary educators take the training as possible.
Although some Oregon districts have funded the training on their own, state leaders have not invested in LETRS more broadly even though educators, advocates and a state lawmaker have pushed for it — especially as Oregon has received more than $1 billion in federal COVID-19 aid funding specifically aimed at K-12 schools. Most of that money, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, has been allocated to individual school districts, and much of it has not been spent yet.
The state department of education says it has not allocated any of its ESSER funds toward a single literacy training program for teachers, like LETRS, but that individual districts can invest their ESSER funds in those types of programs if they so choose.
And some districts have.
Portland Public Schools, where Walker teaches, has said it is planning to use some of the one-time federal funds for LETRS. It has already offered the training to its educators in a partnership with Eastern Oregon University where teachers can get credit through the university toward a reading certificate.
Other districts in the Portland area, like Reynolds, are doing the same.
Oregon Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said she has advocated in recent legislative sessions for LETRS to be offered throughout Oregon — specifically at schools that serve students from lower-income families.
“If you have this program that literally, fundamentally is more effective at teaching kids how to read, and that is the key thing, why would you not give every teacher in every school for every kid the opportunity to do that?” Smith Warner said.
The statewide push
Smith Warner asked Oregon lawmakers this past legislative session to dedicate more than $20 million to train teachers on the science of reading. She proposed the money for the teacher training effort could come from the federal ESSER funds — and some of it could go to Eastern Oregon University to expand its partnerships offering college credit to teachers who do the LETRS training.
Smith Warner’s ask was backed by advocacy groups like Oregon Kids Read, but ultimately it was not included in the budget.
“People are nervous about change,” she said, and she says she understands that hesitation but argued, “this is an opportunity to make a really foundational shift in our ability to teach our kids to read.”
Smith Warner had hoped the state would cover the costs of LETRS training for Oregon’s highest-need schools and districts.
“Teacher training is one of the most ideal uses of one-time funding because once you train that teacher they’re always going to have that,” Smith Warner said.
She said that Oregon school districts could take this into their own hands and fund training for LETRS but that’s probably just not a priority right now, with school still in what she calls “survival mode.”
So, Smith Warner says it makes sense for the state to step up.
“It is something that the state can and should do because it is our job to kind of take that burden off of [school districts] and look a little further,” she said.
But the Oregon Department of Education is not ready to leap into LETRS. In an email to OPB, ODE pointed to a 2009 study that showed LETRS increased teacher knowledge but did not increase the reading test scores of students.
The department noted that Massachusetts, the state with the highest reading scores according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, does not use LETRS statewide.
Even though ODE has not allocated ESSER funds toward LETRS, it says it is dedicating $4 million in ESSER funds to a “K-5 literacy investment” which includes revision of Oregon’s K-5 literacy framework, professional development for educators, and support for school libraries.
Other states such as Utah and Kansas have dedicated ESSER funds for LETRS training and those states have higher reading scores than Oregon does.
Eastern Oregon University spreads science of reading across the state
If Oregon were to make a bigger move toward a phonics-based approach to reading instruction, Eastern Oregon University would likely be a big part of that.
Just recently, EOU’s College of Education announced a new partnership with the nonprofit Ignite! Reading, which will offer training on the science of reading to EOU students and work with them to tutor K-5 students. Morrow County School District is partnering with that new program, according to EOU, to create a pipeline of teachers trained from EOU who can tutor young students.
Ronda Fritz is an EOU associate professor who runs the university’s Reading Clinic for both EOU students preparing to be teachers and those already in classrooms. The clinic is training teachers across four counties in eastern Oregon — Baker, Morrow, Umatilla and Union — on the science of reading.
“My first cohort of training teachers was four, and I just finished with them [a few months ago], and now my second cohort is 16 … For summer, I have 17 lined up, and I haven’t even started advertising,” Fritz said.
Each teacher who participates in the training receives a $2,000 stipend, funded by a grant from the state, to cover the time it takes outside of the classroom.
Due to funding limitations, Fritz said only 20 teachers can get trained at a time.
“I think in some ways we’ve underestimated how hungry teachers are for this information. They want to be able to make a difference with the kids,” Fritz said. “I think they also have that heightened sense of urgency because of the pandemic. Their kids have basically lost two years of instruction.”
But funding isn’t the only limitation to scaling up Fritz’s work — it has multiple facets including instruction over Zoom, and pairing up teachers with mentors — all of which she’s been doing herself.
What might be less onerous to expand is the online LETRS training that Eastern Oregon University offers to districts like Portland and more recently Reynolds, with teachers gaining college credit.
“The beauty of LETRS is that we can get that knowledge into teachers’ hands efficiently and scale up very quickly,” Fritz said, noting that from a content standpoint what she teaches in the reading clinic is basically “identical” to what LETRS provides.
Teachers take training into their own hands
Educators around the state are running into the same frustrations first-grade teacher Walker had — not knowing how exactly to address the needs of struggling readers. Many are taking actions into their own hands, seeking out training and research during their free time.
Diana Sohn and Suzie Kabeiseman are reading specialists at different elementary schools in different parts of Oregon who did something very similar: they found something missing in how they taught reading, and they sought their own solution.
Sohn and Kabeiseman both said they learned the “whole language” approach when they were in school to become teachers. They said that’s a technique to teach reading where there’s less focus on phonics and decoding words, and more on exposing children to reading material to somewhat pick it up on their own.
“It was just assumed that if you gave children enough books, they were going to learn how to read,” Kabeiseman said, but that doesn’t work for a lot of children. “If you’re a struggling reader, it requires somebody who understands the brain and the science and the parts and components that it can take to learn how to read.”
Sohn said she realized something was wrong when she “kept year after year having these 4th and 5th graders who couldn’t read.”
Both Sohn and Kabeiseman went out of their way to learn about the science of reading — taking an Orton-Gillingham training. That’s a training that is specifically aimed at helping people with dyslexia learn how to read. Sohn said it’s a shorter training than LETRS, but it doesn’t include all of the subjects LETRS touches on, such as vocabulary, comprehension and fluency.
“I didn’t learn any of this when I was in college. I didn’t learn any of this in my Master’s degree. I’ve gained a lot just because I spent a lot of time on my own to learn it,” Sohn said. “Now I’m trying to spread it to the rest of the teachers.”
Sohn’s district is small. Her elementary school, Amity Elementary, consists of 16 teachers and is the only one in the district. She said there would need to be support for those teachers to take the two-year LETRS training, so she’s pushing for it in conversations with her district and state legislators.
“Our kids deserve to have teachers who know how to teach them to read,” Sohn said.
Kabeiseman said she’s near the end of her teaching career, so it wouldn’t make sense for her to take LETRS now, but she wants other educators, like her colleagues at Hogan Cedars Elementary in Gresham, to have the opportunity.
More than just LETRS
The Oregon Department of Education acknowledged that the LETRS program is shown to improve what teachers understand about the science of reading.
“Teachers report an increase in their own self-awareness and capacity around teaching reading,” the department said.
But, ODE said, LETRS is not the end-all, be-all for improving the state’s literacy rates.
“LETRS training should exist within a comprehensive literacy plan and framework that includes a focus on student belonging, high-quality and culturally responsive instructional materials, strong formative assessment practices, and family engagement,” ODE said.
Fritz agreed that LETRS training is just the beginning of what’s needed but says that approach should be taught at the start of a teacher’s career.
“College students need to come out of their teacher prep programs already running and on the ground and know how to teach reading, and not something that they have to come back and do the Reading Clinic with me later because they didn’t get it the first time around,” Fritz said.
ODE said it is interested in the potential difference training like LETRS could make throughout the state, and said the state plans to study the effectiveness of LETRS with results due in the fall of 2023.
Back at Lent Elementary in Portland, teacher Walker said LETRS is a big time commitment. Although she gets extended pay to complete the training, it’s on her own free time, outside of her days at school. She’s also working on her own to use some of the strategies LETRS has taught her in English to adapt techniques to teaching in Spanish.
But, she said it’s worth it, especially if there’s statewide support for teachers to take it.
“I really do believe it does need to happen on a state level, not just Portland public schools, not just certain cities, but rather it needs to happen statewide too, to support all of our students,” Walker said.
“We can’t just sit here and continue doing something that we know doesn’t work.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect reference to the grades enrolled at Southeast Portland’s Lent Elementary. It’s a K-5 school. OPB regrets the error.