How Minnesota teaches – and doesn’t teach – children to read
When Rachel Berger’s son was diagnosed with dyslexia in kindergarten, she thought she had found the “golden key” to getting him the right support at school.
Instead, the school district said it had no services for his son. Berger, who is also dyslexic, was furious.
Over the next 10 years, Berger launched Decoding Dyslexia MN and successfully advocated for a list of laws to improve services and outcomes for children with dyslexia, whose brains process language differently than non-dyslexic brains.
Now Berger is spearheading an effort to train more teachers in the science of reading – a controversial effort as so-called “reading wars” rage over how best to teach children. children to read.
State lawmakers, frustrated with some districts’ lack of literacy progress, are taking a more aggressive approach, intervening directly in efforts to improve literacy.
The GOP-controlled state Senate education budget bill would spend $30 million to provide training called LETRS, which aims to give teachers an understanding of language structure, language development, brain and how to teach literacy. The House DFL bill includes $4.75 million for LETRS and literacy efforts.
The effort comes as educators nationwide say the pandemic has created a host of challenges for young readers, with literacy rates among the youngest pupils fall to worrying levels.
Proponents say a strong push on literacy would help ensure that all children – including those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities – develop strong reading skills, which are essential for keeping up with school work and linked to lifelong benefits such as increased chances of graduating from high school, higher earnings, and less chance of interaction with the criminal justice system.
Here are your questions about teaching reading in Minnesota, answered.
How many Minnesota college students are proficient readers?
About 48% of third-graders in Minnesota scored “proficient” on standardized reading tests last year, up from 57% five years ago.
Wide racial gaps in reading skills have persisted for years. In 2021, less than 30 percent of Black, Indigenous, and Latino third-graders were fluent in reading, nearly half the statewide rate.
The picture isn’t much better in 10th grade. Last year, 58% of high school sophomores scored “competent” on statewide standardized tests.
What’s the best way to teach children to read?
The teaching of reading is an emotionally charged subject in the world of education. You may have heard of the “reading wars,” a battle that resurfaces every decade or so when academics fight over the best way to teach children to read. (That debate is already settled, though, but we’ll get to that.)
We are now in the midst of a reading war, sparked by a 2018 podcast called “Hard Words” about why American students aren’t learning to read.
The war is between two camps:
- Phonics, which focuses on teaching how letters and syllables connect to sounds.
- Balanced literacy, which is kind of a hybrid between phonetics and another philosophy called whole language.
- All the language says that children will naturally learn to read if they are surrounded by lots of books. An early series of reading wars in the 1990s featured whole language versus phonetics.
Here’s what the extremely extensive and complicated research on teaching literacy boils down to: Phonics is the most effective and reliable way to teach children to read, according to decades of scientific study; whole language and balanced literacy are not.
Our brain is not wired to understand written language, unlike spoken language, which we are naturally equipped for. This means that young children learn to talk by hearing others talk, but they won’t learn to read just by being surrounded by books.
Learning to read is an important task for our brain. It requires networks of activity in multiple areas of the brain, in a process that actually changes our brains. Most people need explicit, systematic instructions to become skilled readers — and that’s not easy to teach.
Nancy Young, a reading researcher, breaks down the types of readers and their instructional needs in what she calls the “reading scale.” It goes like this:
- 5% of students seem to read effortlessly and will likely become proficient readers regardless of the type of instruction they receive.
- 35% will become proficient readers, even with poor quality instruction.
- 40-50% need systematic and explicit instructions to become proficient readers.
- 10% to 15% have learning disabilities and require systematic and explicit instruction with more repetition or additional support.
This means that approximately 60% of students are at risk of falling behind or never becoming proficient readers without high quality instruction.
How is reading taught in Minnesota?
It depends on where you live.
State law prohibits the Minnesota Department of Education from mandating specific curriculum or teaching styles, so lesson plans and teaching methods are left to school districts and teachers. The law, however, requires that schools use “comprehensive and scientifically based reading instruction.”
But this is often not the case. Kim Gibbons, a researcher at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Minnesota, said balanced literacy — which she describes as “a whole, reconditioned language” — seems to be the norm in most schools in Minnesota.
To understand how a child can receive a very different education depending on where they live, consider two metropolitan school districts:
Minneapolis Public Schools, the third-largest school district in the state, is one of many school systems that still use balanced literacy. The district’s third-grade reading proficiency rates have hovered between about 41% and 45% over the past decade.
In response to criticism, administrators defended the choice to stick with balanced literacy by saying it includes a phonetics curriculum. Kindergarten through second grade teachers are supposed to incorporate 20 minutes of phonics instruction each day, according to the district’s website.
However, this is not happening consistently across the district. In an MPS survey of more than 340 primary school teachers in 2019-20, almost one in five teachers responded “disagree” or “strongly disagree” to statements, “I built in time to phonetics” and “I built in time for phonological awareness. Nearly one in three said they implement phonics, word study or vocabulary teaching no more than two days a week.
Parents frustrated with the MPS’s lack of support for their own struggling readers have formed a group advocating for the district to improve its literacy instruction. They are pushing for a radical overhaul of how the district approaches everything from reading fundamentals, like phonics, to lesson plans in other subjects, because basic vocabulary and knowledge are essential for good comprehension. reading.
“There are a lot of kids who not only struggle, but fail. The result for them is that they won’t get the opportunities they deserve. And we’re just passing those kids on,” said David Weingarten, one of the parents of the MPS Academics Advocacy Group. “We ignore the data. We ignore the testimonies and experiences of these families.
A Minneapolis Public Schools spokesperson said district officials were unavailable for comment.
Public schools in Anoka-Hennepin, Minnesota’s largest school district, transitioned from balanced literacy to teaching science literacy six years ago. The move involved a new elementary curriculum, teacher training and a revamped approach to literacy coaching, said Ann Sangster, district elementary program director.
Between 2016 and 2019 — before COVID-19 disrupted education — the percentage of third-grade students who scored “competent” at MCAs rose from 59% to 65%. In 2021, that rate fell to 55% as schools across the country struggled to recover from the pandemic.
This year, Anoka-Hennepin is expanding its efforts with LETRS for all K-2 teachers, as well as select third-grade teachers, principals, and district administrators — 560 educators in total.
The 144-hour virtual training also requires teachers to complete three case studies of how students respond to LETRS practices and attend face-to-face training, Sangster said.
The whole process takes about two and a half years, but the district is also already seeing results, Sangster said. Student scores on several kindergarten and first grade phonics assessments had rebounded or exceeded pre-pandemic levels this winter, she said.
Why don’t we use best practices at all levels?
Education schools play a big role. Minnesota recently began requiring teacher preparation programs to include information on the science of reading, and the majority do so. according to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Yet about a quarter were not providing adequate instruction in 2020, according to the report.
Teachers who haven’t learned about teaching literacy in college may walk into the classroom unfamiliar with reading science. And, if their school district doesn’t offer training, a teacher may unknowingly be using faulty methods for years. To make matters worse, many popular reading programs aren’t fully aligned with best practices, Gibbons said.
Even training isn’t a panacea, Gibbons said. Many popular reading programs are not aligned with best practices – and the multi-million dollar price tag means replacement is often not a viable option. Teachers need ongoing coaching to implement what they learn in training, as well as support to identify gaps in their curriculum and how to supplement it, Gibbons said.
“If (teachers) come back into a system that has a (misaligned) curriculum in place, it will be really difficult for those individual teachers to make changes,” Gibbons said.