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HomeScience of ReadingA Road to Reading

A Road to Reading

Jo Welter describes how one school district made dramatic, systemic change by integrating the science of reading with a practical approach for instruction

We have learned the past 20 years, through cognitive science research, that over 90% of students can learn to read at grade level by third grade; however, the Nation’s Report Card in 2019 reported only 37% of America’s twelfth graders were proficient or advanced in reading and a mere 35% were proficient or advanced in fourth grade. This is evidence to consider the importance of those critical early years and teaching with appropriate and successful literacy strategies. We also know that learning to read must occur in the primary levels so that by fourth grade students can read to learn. When this does not happen, schools and children are impacted in dramatic ways: intervention strategies must be put in place, children become discouraged, attendance issues arise, disciplinary problems become more prominent, and drop-out rates increase. With proper and ongoing assessment linked to instructional strategies that focus on prescribed skills, we can tackle this problem, help students succeed, and make the world a better place.

Three years ago, as the superintendent of a district just outside of Pittsburgh, I was contacted by our local Intermediate Unit, a state-supported organization that provides services to public schools. Because I was in a district with an underrepresented population (minority students, low-income status, at-risk), an administrator at the Intermediate Unit recommended our schools and thought that I might be interested in participating in a literacy research study.

We began communicating with the researchers and educators through virtual meetings. We learned that we would be a part of the Education Innovation Research Program (U.S. Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health) with United2Read* to scale 13 years of research and results from seven previous randomized control studies. Not only were we partnering with top researchers in the country, but we were also supported by ESSA Strong evidence-based practices to scale the accessibility of the proven outcomes from Dr. Carol Connor’s research, which had demonstrated that 94% of students could read at or above grade level by third grade.

Our principals and teachers were willing to take part in the study, and thus began our three-year journey. Our partners on this project proved to be truly that: mentors, educators, thought partners, and helpers who built strong and purposeful relationships with our teachers and schools. This was key in making and maintaining the change for student success.

Cognitive science research, we learned, has made significant progress in helping us to understand how the brain functions and how children learn to read. Much like learning to walk, the ability to acquire language is an innate skill that has been a part of human growth and development for thousands of years. Until only a few hundred years ago, printed language had not been developed. Therefore, the ability to decode the written word is a skill that must be acquired; it does not come naturally like spoken language. For many children, this learned decoding begins much later than language learning, usually not until pre-K or kindergarten. A more technical explanation of the phenomenon in the brain is summarized by numerous cognitive researchers in this way, “The phonological processor, toward the front of the brain on the left side, is the part of the brain that handles spoken language… The orthographic processor, toward the back of the brain on the left side, is the part of the brain that deals with visual images… But no one is born with the neural system connecting vision and speech, the phonological assembly region of the brain, and this is the system that enables reading. This system must be built through successful instructional experiences…” (Hruby et al., 2011; Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2004; Shaywitz and Shaywitz, 2008).

This information has been around for 20 years and yet is not consistently taught at the collegiate level. In a 2019 Education Week survey, 75% of K–2 teachers said they taught the three-cueing method, and 57% of education professors said their philosophy of teaching early reading was balanced literacy, while 65% taught the three-cueing system. All of this is counter to the research. This highlights the difficulty for schools to make any significant or lasting change. What becomes more challenging for teachers is that even when they do understand the science, there have been no practical solutions for moving this research into the classroom in any consistent systematic way. Our work throughout this study did just that.

Not only did our students grow in both age equivalency (innate), a measure of students’ ability on “meaning-focused” work, they also grew in grade equivalency (acquired), “code-focused” activity (Connor et al., 2007). Using a brief online assessment, an algorithm placed students into similar leveled groups. Prescriptive, customized skills and tasks were recommended, and teachers learned to create centers for students to accomplish this differentiated work (Connor et al., 2007). The recommended activities were derived from our district-adopted ELA materials and curriculum. Other open-source materials were also retrievable from the online resource. This was especially helpful, as most purchased curricula have skill gaps here and there (Kelly, 2018). The software assured that materials were available for every literacy competency children needed to acquire.

This new understanding of the interplay, involving two major components of learning to read successfully, helped teachers understand the need for laser focus on both aspects and for providing appropriate skill-level work for each child. When initially tested, some of our students’ vocabularies were measuring at a three-year-old age equivalency. This was an astonishing discovery for teachers as they began to understand why they couldn’t teach all children using the first-grade ELA materials.

They had to go back to fill in language gaps and deficiencies. Once language skills are increased and children are able to decode words, they can unlock the written code, connect their understanding of words, and thus begin the path toward reading fluency and comprehension.

Another powerful component was the daily small-group direct instruction with the teacher and similar-leveled students. Small-group direct instruction is much more effective than whole-group instruction. Teachers can require a high level of attentiveness in a small-group setting. This was possible because students learned to move independently from center to center, working in small groups with little adult supervision and accomplishing tasks that were prescribed for their success. Teachers were exhilarated as they watched their students grow dramatically. One teacher told me that in 18 years of teaching, she had never been challenged to think so critically about the day-to-day implementation of teaching reading. A first-grade teacher reflected that this was the first time in 20 years “every child had a book AND WAS READING during sustained silent reading time!”

Teachers learned to move away from workbooks and worksheets. Centers were extremely interactive and dependent upon teacher decisions. Our centers model was organized and managed by providing each student group the appropriate meaning-focused and code-focused activities with the teacher and then completing student-managed learning with additional code- and meaning-focused work. Our thought partners provided ideas, suggestions, and worktime to collaborate with each other. In classrooms, children were reading to each other, working together with flashcards, “fishing” for words in the sand, then saying the words and writing the words on a whiteboard. All classrooms utilized iPads, with one center acting as a technology game or activity. Teachers established tech helpers in the classroom (even in kindergarten), and other students interacted with their tech helper if they needed assistance—not the teacher. It was a joy to see children moving about a classroom, freely, confidently, and proud of being successful with their work. This program truly transformed our schools.

There are many reasons why this proved to be so successful; the research, software assessment, and prescribed lessons, along with new teaching strategies and classroom protocols, were certainly the heart of the program. However, and on reflection, the unique aspect of this experience was the relationship building and professional development that manifested to be the sustaining factor of implementation. The approach taken was not only research-based, it was systematic, collaborative, and supportive, providing all the necessary components of a successful implementation process (something that schools and administrators rarely have time or resources to do properly).

The professional development portion of the project began by conducting a literacy scan with a literacy outcomes specialist to identify strengths and weaknesses in our program and to really listen to what teachers needed and wanted as they moved through this process. The literacy outcomes specialist provided professional development on the science of reading, helped teachers learn to effectively use the software and data, and provided ideas for centers and new teaching strategies that were specific to each teacher. She visited the classrooms and provided third-party feedback that was neither critical nor evaluative. This customized, supportive approach made an enormous impact on truly changing teacher and student classroom behaviors and protocols.

This was not one or two professional development sessions; this PD occurred on a monthly basis, with the literacy outcomes specialist available for emails, phone calls, and anything else requested by teachers. The implementation was a three-year commitment. This type of sustained, long-term professional development and implementation with the type of support provided to teachers is not something that is normally seen or provided for in school systems. However, considering the dramatic outcomes, it must certainly be strongly considered as a huge element to successful and sustainable change. There is no time to waste. We are dealing with the lives and futures of our youngest and most vulnerable students.

The joy of this three-year effort was not only in how classroom culture shifted. We were also able to celebrate the growth in our students as we reviewed the data. The age equivalency and grade equivalency scores in every classroom exceeded the expectations of our United2Read partners. Last year, despite the COVID-19 situation that forced our schools to close in March, our students were on track and showing growth. For example, in our school with the most needy children, the average of three kindergarten classrooms’ age-equivalency growth was one full year, exceeding the anticipated seven months of growth. In another elementary school, grade equivalency during that same period soared to 1.1 years in kindergarten, 1.4 years in first grade, and .75 years in second grade. In our third elementary school, the average of four kindergarten classrooms boasted 1.5 years in age-equivalency growth and .75 in grade-equivalency growth. Results in all classrooms fluctuated but were similar. Clearly, instruction driven by assessment, prescriptive differentiated instruction, and small-group direct instruction has an impact on student literacy growth. Systemic change is the result of ongoing, consistent, and meaningful professional development and support. It also requires researched strategies that have been proven effective.

Dr. Laura Burns, principal, shared this: “A2i (Assessment to Instruction) is not a curriculum but a philosophy for teaching students literacy skills. The professional development that staff receives is the most crucial element of the program. Veteran teachers felt reinvigorated as they stopped feeling tied to the day-by-day curriculum guides of our textbook series and responded to the needs of students. What teachers felt they always knew about students was now backed up with specific data gathered in small-group sessions and the A2i assessments. Students love, and ask for, the centers and they are forced to take a more active ownership role in their learning.”

Through this process of integrating the science of reading with a practical approach for instruction, the teacher was not taken out of the equation; rather, the teacher was placed at the heart of instruction in the classroom. By not having to spend so much time reviewing data to determine how to plan instruction for every student, teachers were able to focus on what they do best— teaching.

Connor, C. M., Morrison, F. J., Fishman, B. J., Schatschneider, C., and Underwood, P. (2007). “Algorithm-Guided Individualized Reading Instruction.” Science, 315, 464–465.

Hruby, G. G., Goswami, U., Frederiksen, C. H., and Perfetti, C. A. (Eds.). (2011). “Neuroscience and Reading: A review for reading education researchers.” Reading Research Quarterly, 46(2), 156–172.

Kelly, C. (2018). “Literacy Programs Evaluation Guide.” Reading Rockets.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (2019). “National Assessment of Educational Progress: The Nation’s Report Card.”

Shaywitz, S. E., and Shaywitz, B. A. (2004). “Reading Disability and the Brain.” Educational Leadership, 61(6), 6–11.

Shaywitz, S. E., and Shaywitz, B. A. (2008). “Paying Attention to Reading: The neurobiology of reading and dyslexia.” Developmental Psychopathology, 20(4), 1329–1349. doi:10.1017/S0954579408000631

EdWeek Research Center (2020). Early Reading Instruction: Results of a National Survey of K–2 and Elementary Special Education Teachers and Postsecondary Instructors.

*United2Read was created as a partnership with Learning Ovations, MDRC, Digital Promise, and the University of California Irvine. Utilizing millions of federal dollars, they have studied classrooms and connected those findings to cognitive science. Seven randomized, controlled studies have proven that the process achieves 94% of students reading at or above grade level by third grade utilizing the techniques and technology expanded by Learning Ovations. For additional information, go to

Dr. Jo Welter was the superintendent in Pennsylvania’s Ambridge Area School District, retiring in June 2020. She served as an assistant middle school principal, elementary principal, and high school principal, all in large districts in Allegheny County near Pittsburgh. Finally, as an assistant superintendent at Hampton Township School District, Dr. Welter was responsible for curriculum and assessment, supervision, and evaluation of teachers, along with supervision of principals. She has enjoyed her professional career tremendously and could not be happier leaving education with such a successful final literacy project—a reminder that we are lifelong learners.

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