There are almost 200 school districts in Oregon, and each one is responsible for selecting its own curriculum. Oregon has a list of approved curricula school districts can choose from, but each district can select others options without penalty. This means some schools are using discredited systems for teaching reading. Now, advocates, researchers and teachers are trying to incorporate new ways of teaching that focus on the science behind learning to read. Ronda Fritz is an associate professor in Eastern Oregon University’s College of Education and is the director of the Reading Clinic there. Amanda Francois is a fourth grade teacher at Gilbert Heights Elementary in the David Douglas School District and has recently brought what she’s learned from LETRS, a science of reading course, into her classroom. They join us to share what makes the science of reading work and the challenges some teachers are now seeing.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end today with the science of reading. That’s the name for newer evidence-based ways of teaching reading, ways that have been shown to work but are often not used in Oregon schools. Ronda Fritz is trying to change that. She is an associate professor in Eastern Oregon University’s College of Education and is the director of the Reading Clinic there. Amanda Francois is a 4th grade teacher at Gilbert Heights Elementary School in Portland’s David Douglas School District. She’s currently taking a professional development course called LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling), which is based on the science of reading. We spoke last week. I started with some dismal statistics.
So Ronda Fritz, 61% of 3rd graders in Oregon are not fully proficient at reading and the numbers are not much better in middle school where more than half of 7th graders aren’t fully proficient. In fact, almost a third of 7th graders are substantially below grade level in terms of reading. How do you explain these numbers?
Ronda Fritz: I think that’s a loaded question in a lot of ways because I think there are multiple avenues that have brought us to this location. Insufficient teacher preparation didn’t teach our teachers how to teach a child how to read. And I know that from experience, because I was one of those teachers that was taught whole language methods way back in the late 80′s, early 90′s. I went into the classroom and was very frustrated by the fact that I didn’t know how to teach the children sitting in front of me. So that’s a piece of it.
I also think that we’ve gotten used to thinking that maybe some children just weren’t going to learn to read. And the science is telling us that that is not accurate, that almost every child can be taught to read. And I think we’ve become complacent in a lot of ways and that has really impacted some of our most vulnerable children. The extreme lack of reading proficiency this year, those scores, we can blame a little bit on missed instructional time during the pandemic, for sure. That had an impact but I think all of those other historical things that have been allowed to go on for so many years explains most of it.
Miller: The first thing you talked about was the lack of adequate teaching of teachers and the phrase you used is whole language curricula or a whole language style. Can you describe the philosophy that was prevalent when you were doing your training and, if I’m not mistaken, is still relatively common in Oregon. What does it mean to say something is ‘whole language?’
Fritz: So the basic premise is that if we just expose kids to great literature and lots of it that they will figure out how to read. And balanced literacy came into play at one point after the National Reading Panel, so they sprinkled in a little bit of phonics but it was not systematic in any way and that approach left a lot of children not able to read because they needed that explicit and systematic approach. Most children do. Whole language is a beautiful idea and it was something that I really glommed onto when I was in my teacher prep program. It sounded so wonderful to have this beautiful classroom where books were just the center of our world and cozy little nooks where we could read together. So it all sounded great.
Miller: But if I understand correctly, when you were starting out as a teacher, the idea of teaching reading, it doesn’t even sound like you’re talking about teaching reading at all. It sounds more like osmosis?
Fritz: Yeah, that’s really accurate. I walked out not having a clue about how I would actually start teaching someone to read because really I was just taught, let’s just enjoy books together. That will bring them to that love of reading and then they will read.
Miller: So then what were you doing? It’s funny, before this conversation, I was talking to some producers and reporters in the newsroom. None of us could actually remember how we learned to read. Some of us remembered Sesame Street or Reading Rainbow or being able to read and the excitement that came from that, but not the time before? And I think that it’s probably true of many adults that it’s hard to remember the act of learning. But I’m still struggling now to piece together how the old paradigm was supposed to work?
Fritz: Well, I think you kind of hit the nail on the head. I think that the researchers and the theorists who came up with this idea also didn’t remember that process of learning to read. And that was true for me too. And so the idea really was that just the way speaking is natural and we learn speech by just listening to lots of speech and being part of conversation. They were equating that to the same process for reading. And we know very much now that that is not the case, that it isn’t natural that our brains were not wired for reading from the beginning, but that’s what those researchers theorized and that’s what they sold to all of us as we were being trained to teach.
Miller: So the broad phrase, if I understand this correctly, for more science-based curricula in terms of teaching reading or learning reading is the science of reading. I know that people do dissertations on this and write many books about this pedagogy. But if you can just break it down to the most basics for the purpose of a general audience, what are the components now that are evidence-based in terms of teaching reading?
Fritz: So back in 2000, when the National Reading Panel did their big literature review and reviewed all of the evidence up until that point, they recommended the five pillars or the five big ideas of reading, which include phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary fluency and comprehension. And their message was that those things needed to be explicitly taught to children, that we weren’t just supposed to expose them to those things and hope they picked up on them, that those all needed to be taught.
So that means the phonetic awareness piece is where we are explicitly teaching children how to hear the sounds and words. Then we’re showing them how the sounds and the graph themes or the letters connect. And all of that is laid out in a sequential way from easier skills to harder skills. But what I do want to make sure we walk away from this, the science of reading is not just phonics because that is a big misconception, particularly from those still trying to hold onto whole-language and balanced literacy ideas. They think those of us in the science of reading camp just want phonics taught and that is absolutely not the case.
We know we need a comprehensive literacy program that includes a lot of exposure to wonderful literature and all of those things that were the excellent things that came out of whole-language and balanced literacy. But we do need to explicitly teach those five pillars to make sure we have proficient readers.
Miller: Amanda Francois is with us as well and you’ve been taking what’s known as a LETRS course, which is a professional development course for teachers to teach them this newer approach to teaching reading. Why did you want to take this course?
Amanda Francois: Yeah, I mean my background is in upper elementary, so we’re talking 5th graders and 4th graders. And before the pandemic, I basically had this thinking that while I don’t know how to teach kids to read, thank goodness I teach 5th and 4th grade because then we’re really more doing reading to learn and practicing some of those comprehension skills. But more recently, I’ve been seeing the number of students that still are, what we call, ‘striving readers’ - still not making those reading connections. I don’t actually know how I can best serve them. And when it’s a majority of students in my class, I need some tools right now so I can start giving them what they need. So that’s what drew me to LETRS and I immediately signed up when I had the chance to.
Miller: It’s a two-year professional development course, right? How far along are you right now?
Francois: So I am into the third unit. There’s eight units. The first unit really focuses in on the brain, the second unit focuses on sounds in the English language, what we call ‘phonemes.’ And then I’m starting to get more into the practice piece.
Miller: So you have a lot left of this course. Has it already, though, impacted the way you’re talking to and teaching your students?
Francois: I would say it’s definitely getting me thinking more about what to prioritize with the resources that I have. My district just adopted a new curriculum this year that has foundational phonics pieces built in, so knowing now with LETRS how important that is as well as vocabulary and comprehension skills. That’s where more, in my planning and preparation, I’ve been thinking how I can use those because I know the importance of the explicit teaching of phonics and foundational skills. Then, also, I am able to truly get a picture of where my students are, what strengths they have and what gaps they’re missing in their reading skills.
Miller: Where were they in terms of reading level at the beginning of this year?
Francois: Yeah, so starting this year, out of my group, 18 students were, what we’d consider, striving readers, meaning they were below or well below grade level in reading
Miller: At the beginning of this year, and we still have three or four months left in this school year. How are they doing now?
Francois: So one big thing, looking at our data, we just had our middle of the year reading fluency accuracy check-in. 59% of my students are making what we’d call typical or above and well above typical progress towards their goal for the year. The goal is to get everybody into that above typical track, because that’s what’s going to help them get closer to grade level.
Miller: Right, because if a lot of them are well below grade level, then simply moving up one grade level a year, they’ll never be where they need to be. They need to make a lot of progress to get where they need to be.
Miller: Have there been challenges for you so far in making this switch to a more science based approach?
Francois: Yeah, I would say there’s the piece of me learning at the same time that I’m teaching my students. Sometimes, I feel like I’m pulling out of the air a little bit and trying to figure out ‘which foundational skill do I focus in on today or this week?’ And then how do I know when we’ve mastered it and move on, because it’s so new to me. But then there’s the added layer of having more than half of my students be multilingual. So trying to connect their home language with the English language and all of the sounds and recognizing letter patterns is another layer of challenge.
Miller: Is there an added challenge on top of all the others that some students are already reading at or above grade level and some are well below? I’m wondering how you manage that? If part of this curriculum is to go back to real basics and to make sure that your students have an understanding of the building blocks of written language, but some are already fluent readers. The classroom management seems really challenging.
Francois: That’s where we really had to focus in on our small group instruction and utilize that, but then plan independent activities for some of our students who are at grade level or above grade level, so that they continue to get challenged and get access to what they need to continue growing.
Miller: Ronda Fritz, it’s hard to think of a single skill that’s more fundamental to participating in school, in work, in social life than reading. What does the data show about the repercussions of not reading at grade level or not learning how to read well?
Fritz: That data is pretty dismal. We know that those students who aren’t proficient by the end of 3rd grade are much more likely to drop out of school. We know that they’re more likely to have social emotional issues related to that inability to read. We also know that they are more likely to end up in our justice system, which is especially frightening. A high percentage of inmates in the prison system have dyslexia or have some sort of struggle with reading. So we can’t oversell how important this is for the outcomes of, not just those individual children, but our society as a whole. It’s just imperative that we figure out how to fix this issue.
Miller: Last year, when there was still a lot of federal education money related to the pandemic that had been sent to states, there were questions about how that money should be spent. And a lot of people were saying it should go towards teacher training like LETRS, because literacy is so important, as you were just outlining.
Our education reporter, Liz Miller contacted the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) about this and they pointed to a 2009 study showing that LETRS, the teacher training that we’ve been talking about, increased teacher knowledge but didn’t increase the reading test scores of students. And ODE also noted that Massachusetts, a state with the highest reading scores in the nation, that they don’t use LETRS statewide.
I’m curious about your response. What do you see as the data, not about the science of reading, but the use of these kinds of teacher trainings to teach reading?
Fritz: I think LETRS is fantastic for teacher knowledge and I think that’s a key component. Teachers have to understand why we’re asking them to do these things in the classroom. And as Amanda said, she’s just now getting into the practical piece of it, but I think that what it’s missing, in terms of professional development for teachers, is that side by side coaching situation where someone is guiding them as they are trying to implement these methods in their classrooms. Because without that ongoing professional development and support, that knowledge may not be helpful for a lot of teachers. So we have to think of this more as a multi component of professional development rather than just dumping knowledge onto teachers, which is great and it’s important but it’s not the whole picture.
Miller: Although, when I hear everything you just said, what strikes me, among other things, is that you’re saying that more resources are needed. Because it seems a lot easier and cheaper to provide kind of a one-time professional development course to teachers or to have that be a requirement for teachers in training, than ongoing, one-on-one coaching or mentorship or teaching assistants, say, inside classrooms?
Fritz: Oh for sure. Yeah, we are talking about more money. But the evidence is pretty clear in professional development that one-and-done sorts of things like you’re talking about are not effective. And that’s not just in changing reading outcomes, that’s in professional development in general. So it really cannot be that if we think that band-aid is going to change our outcomes, then we are sadly mistaken. We have to look at it more [holistically].
Miller: Do you think, Ronda Fritz, that science of reading based curricula should be required for all Oregon school districts right now. It’s my understanding that the Oregon Department of Education recommends them, but there are ways for districts to get around using them and plenty of them in the Portland Metro area and statewide are still using the kinds of balanced or whole language curricula that you’ve said, science says, is just not as good?
Fritz: Right? They’re not as effective. Do I think we need to mandate that?
Miller: Yeah, from Salem?
Fritz: That’s (chuckles) oh gosh, that’s a big can of worms. But I guess my answer would be ‘yes,’ because if we don’t put the right tools in the hands of teachers, then providing them this knowledge will just be frustrating. Because if we require them to do LETRS or whatever professional development and then we go into the classroom and they have these materials that don’t match, that’s going to be a huge roadblock to any change in terms of student outcomes. So yeah, I guess I would say it needs to be mandated.
Miller: Amanda Francois, what goes through your mind now when you think about the way that you used to teach reading? Or not teach reading? I almost feel like it’s maybe even the more accurate way to put it.
Francois: I just think back to my very first class, which wasn’t that long ago, six years ago teaching 5th grade. The few students who were striving readers, I so badly wish I could go back and just rework with them because now they’re in high school and I feel like now with what I know, I could have had more of an impact. But moving forward,
I am excited for seeing the data of how this impacts our students overall as a state and specifically, focusing in on our area, the Portland metro area, with the increased diversity of languages. How this can support our students who are multilingual as well.
Miller: Amanda Francois and Ronda Fritz, thanks very much.
Francois: Thank you.
Fritz: Thanks for having me.
Miller: Amanda Francois is a 4th grade teacher at Gilbert Heights Elementary School in the David Douglas School District. Ronda Fritz is an associate professor in Eastern Oregon University’s College of Education where she is the director of the Reading Clinic.
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