Curriculum Case Study: How Grade Level Literacy Doubled in Just 2 Months in a Rural Tennessee District


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This is the first in a series of three articles from a Knowledge Matters Campaign tour of Tennessee school districts highlighting the impact of the state’s investment in training all teachers in the science of reading. The rural district of Elizabethton City Schools has been designated a “Model Reading 360 District” following the implementation of the Tennessee Core Skills Program Supplement halfway through the 2021-22 school year. In this article, educational coaches Rachel Darnell, Shannon Barnett and Jennifer Rickert share how they made the transition from balanced literacy high quality fundamental skills training in less than a year. Follow the rest of our series and previous curriculum case studies here.

“I can really read that!” Kindergartener Easton Malone exclaimed while reading a book during Dr. Seuss Week this spring.

Every elementary school teacher longs to hear these words from their students. If you walk into any of the K-2 classrooms at Elizabethton City Schools, you’ll experience a palpable buzz of excitement and purpose as our youngest readers take a new approach to reading. . This enthusiasm has not always been there: getting to this point has been a journey.

Elizabethton City Schools is a small, rural district nestled in the hills of East Tennessee where we have spent years building a literacy model rooted in balanced literacy. Unfortunately, while we were meeting the needs of some of our students, we were not doing what was best for all. students. Learning to read is one of the most empowering gifts we can give students in early childhood, but how do we empower educators to teach reading confidently and effectively?

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In the summer of 2021, every K-5 teacher and administrator participated in a two-week training Early reading training provided by the Tennessee Department of Education. During two weeks of professional learning, both virtual and in-person, our teachers were challenged to envision new practices based on the science of reading. The content was rigorous, rich in knowledge and gave rise to excellent discussions. Our teachers and leaders intentionally put students at the heart of every conversation. The training was met with curiosity, a bit of skepticism and a lot of questions. Armed with new knowledge, but without a concrete plan for change, our school year began.

First graders in Ms. Hannah Bowers’ class at East Side Elementary independently read decodable texts that match their foundational skills lesson. District Implementation Coach Rachel Darnell and East Side Elementary Instructional Coach Shannon Barnett (courtesy of Knowledge Matters Campaign)

Behind the scenes, administrators and coaches were working on a concrete plan: a plan that included both long-term and short-term goals. We knew it wouldn’t be easy to effectively combine new, high-quality foundational skills educational materials with the district’s current curriculum. To be successful, it would take teamwork. Our teachers needed to feel safe and supported as they took risks with their literacy teaching practice. As a team of administrators, educational coaches, and teachers, we would work together to move toward reading proficiency for all students.

Because of the major change this represented for teachers, we agreed on a ‘grace year’. Teachers would not be required to fully implement the new foundational skills material with fidelity until the 2022-23 school year. The teachers received a clear message from the coaches: “Not only are the resources available for you to use at your own pace, but we will meet you where you are and give you what you need. You’re not alone.”

The district started with small changes, starting with the adoptive practice of teaching”ring firstusing the Tennessee Core Skills Program Supplement. By implementing this daily and systematic program of phonemic awareness, teachers have initiated the transition from traditional balanced literacy to teaching grounded in the science of reading.

It wasn’t long before teachers began to feel the impact that ‘sounds first’ had on their students. This 10-minute advanced phonological awareness block was the spark that ignited change. Students were engaged and teachers saw immediate results from all students. This step opened the door to further collaboration. Teachers started asking, “With such a huge impact on our students in just 10 minutes, how could students start to grow when we use all the elements of TNFSCS?”

We knew we had started a fire when a teacher grabbed their principal in the hallway and exclaimed, “You have to come see what my kids can do!” »

Curiosity was piqued. As the coaches worked closely with the teachers, an atmosphere of trust, respect and grace was established like never before. The teachers felt comfortable being open, honest and vulnerable. While teachers asked questions and communicated their needs, coaches and administrators were responsive. After a few weeks of implementing Sounds First, we were shocked and thrilled to learn that more than half of K-2 teachers wanted to fully implement the systematic teaching of foundational skills in middle school. ‘year. As one second-grade teacher put it, “If it’s better for our kids, what have we got to lose? »

First graders in Mrs. Hannah Bowers’ class at East Side Elementary learn about the /OR/ digraph during their daily foundational skills lesson. (Courtesy of Knowledge Matters Campaign)

Implementing a new mid-year curriculum is no easy task. Even with the support of the coaches, our teachers had to put in a lot of effort. They had to study the content, collaborate with each other, and intentionally reflect on their practice. Just like in summer training, our teachers kept what was best for the students at the center of every decision.

“We were amazed at how well the kids did,” said Whitney Birchfield, a kindergarten teacher who implemented the full program mid-year. “For us, it was so different from the way we teach children to read. We expected them to struggle the same way we did, but they figured things out so quickly and easily. It came so naturally to them.

For our teachers who were hesitant, providing a way to meet colleagues was so valuable. The proof of success was very powerful coming from the educators doing the work and reporting it to others. The process was slow but meaningful as teachers cared for and were supported by each other. Membership continued to grow as teachers began to sell to other, more concerned teachers. They couldn’t contain their excitement as they continued to see unprecedented reading growth rates with their students.

As of the fall, only seven of Hannah Bowers’ freshmen were in grade level, according to an analysis by the district’s Universal Investigator. Just two months into the new program, that number has more than doubled to 15, and Bowers believes that number will continue to rise as students continue to receive high-quality instruction with high-quality materials. .

Parents have also seen the impact of this program change. A first-year parent, who asked to remain anonymous for her child’s privacy, says her daughter has gone from being ‘really behind’ in the intervention at the start of the year to now writing her own stories and books . They even read chapters together.

“Over the past few months, I’ve seen a complete about-face,” the parent said. “I saw her completely change – she likes to read now. I’m amazed because I sat down at my kitchen table and saw her change.

Using these high-quality teaching materials and evidence-based approaches to reading science has been a great equalizer for teachers and students. The size of the intervention groups decreased as explicit and systematic reading instruction was made available to all students. By the end of the 2021-22 school year, all K-2 teachers will fully implement the materials, well ahead of the planned August 2022 start date.

” Authorized. This is how a first grade teacher described how she feels after implementing instruction supported by the science of reading. Empowered teachers empower readers. We can’t wait to hear the sequel to the sweet chorus of “I can actually read that!” in the years to come.

Rachel Darnell, Shannon Barnett, and Jennifer Rickert are instructional coaches for the City of Elizabethton Schools in Tennessee.


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