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At Wayne County Schools, we serve approximately 3,000 students, about 80% of whom qualify for a free or reduced lunch. Ours is a rural district with about 20% minority enrollment. Seven years ago, we hired a new superintendent, Wayne Roberts, who was very concerned about where the district was in terms of student reading. It’s been a long journey since, but by unifying our district around the goal of improved literacy and making some changes to ensure consistency, we’ve seen steady improvement along the way. Here’s how we did it.
Offering explicit phonics instruction
When we first began to work on improving our reading instruction, we leaned heavily on the Report of the National Reading Panel to help guide our thinking about how we might make those improvements. We covered a lot of ground with that in those early days. But approximately three years ago, we realized we had a big hole: We didn’t have any explicit, systematic phonics instruction. We had what I would call “incidental phonics” scattered throughout, but no direct, step-by-step instruction in phonics.
We selected the Reading Horizons platform in part for its Orton Gillingham-based approach, which is very important for students who are struggling to acquire their phonics foundation.
As reading interventionist and school Principal Angela Ballinger put it, “I love that it’s kinesthetic. We have a lot of kids living in poverty. We have a lot of kids who just have not been exposed to reading in their homes. So this really fit well with what we were trying to accomplish as far as making sure that it is systematic, explicit and it fits what we need for our kids.”
Consistency in language and scheduling
Another reason we decided to adopt a new literacy curriculum was to ensure consistency. Our district has three elementary schools, and each was using a different program to teach reading. Now they are all on the same page and using the same language to teach and talk about literacy concepts. From one class to the next, students understand what teachers are asking of them, and teachers are better able to talk to each other about their instruction and share ideas about what’s working and what’s not.
We also keep a consistent schedule for reading instruction, with a half-hour each day devoted to Reading Horizon’s Daily Core 4. That is immediately followed by another hour of Literacy Stations that are individualized or designed for small-group instruction. The teacher assigns these to ensure they are re-emphasizing the appropriate concepts or skills for each student.
Of course, during the pandemic, ensuring consistency has been impossible, but we’ve worked hard to come as close as we could. To ensure students had internet access in our rural district, for example, we put hot spots around the community in places like shopping centers and the library. Our teachers would record videos of themselves going through each lesson, performing the kinesthetic cues and everything else they would normally do in a classroom. Students would watch the videos, and later in the day they would have a small-group Zoom session with the teacher following up to monitor how students were performing.
Continuous professional development
The teacher is the most effective learning resource in any classroom, and helping them perform better will always be the most effective way to improve student performance. That, in turn, means that professional development is critical. We now have a dozen teachers who are certified Reading Horizons district trainers, ensuring that our teachers understand the curriculum they are using and how it works.
Those teachers are responsible for training new staff as they come on board — and they are our instructional coaches for literacy, helping teachers in the classroom deliver instruction with fidelity to the program.
They’ve been creating unique action plans for each school this year based on a coaching sweep they did in the fall. Those plans detail things like what should be covered in professional learning communities, what kinds of individual coaching or other support teachers may need, and whether a model video lesson would be particularly helpful for specific units.
It’s taken some time, a lot of hard work and more than a little seat-of-our-pants innovation to improve our literacy programming. But, these days, the whole district is on the same page when it comes to learning to read.
Brian Dishman is the chief academic officer at Wayne County Schools, where teachers use Reading Horizons and the program’s Literacy Stations. You can reach out to Dishman via email.
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