Dodge Literacy Magnet Elementary kindergarten teacher Amy Stanislowski uses phonics to help students decode words. (Courtesy Wichita Public Schools)

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Andi Giesen remembers sitting in first grade with a book in front of her and crying because she didn’t know how to read it.

“Now, my teacher was probably saying, ‘Andi, you can do this,’ but what I remember is that I was crying about it,” said Giesen, now an assistant superintendent at Wichita Public Schools.

Most people probably won’t remember how they learned to read. For them, “regular” literacy instruction simply worked, and learning how to read was just the first step toward their lifetimes of learning.

For former students like Giesen, though, and especially students from at-risk and high-poverty backgrounds, they remember learning to read as a painful, even scary process — one that embarrassed them and stripped them of any sense of classroom confidence.

It’s a process that still takes place in some classrooms with teachers who never learned a better way to teach reading.

A group of Wichita Public Schools teachers participated in a full-day of literacy training in May. (Courtesy of Wichita Public Schools)

“We’ve been under the assumption that we can just show kids words, and they’ll memorize words and be able to read, but that’s not what the body of research actually shows is happening inside our brains when we’re learning to read,” said Renee Hopper, an instructional coach at Wichita Public Schools.

But with a $15 million Kansas State Department of Education investment in literacy training, Kansas teachers and instructional coaches like Hopper see a chance to not only address pandemic learning loss but to change the narrative for the urban school district’s struggling readers.

Developing the science of reading

In the past few decades, literacy researchers began using MRI machines to track young students’ brain waves as they learned to read and found evidence of the “phonological loop,” the brain’s process of observing written letters and recording them as spoken information.

That research spurred “the science of reading” — the concept that teaching literacy skills involves psychological components in connecting letters and sounds that come more naturally to some students but can be a struggle for others. 

Specifically, the science of reading will give teachers deeper understandings in five essential areas of reading — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension, said state Education Commissioner Randy Watson.

With the funding for the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling program, teachers will gain new understandings of why a student might not be learning to read as easily as their peers and adapt existing lesson plans accordingly, Watson said. An example would be alphabet arcs, in which students connect their senses of touch, sight and sound as they move their fingers around an arc of letters while sounding out a word.

Teaching the teachers about the science of reading

LETRS training is not new to Kansas. In Wichita, a few hundred teachers are already proficient, with Hopper being one of the first in the district to learn how to train others in LETRS back in 2010. 

Other districts also have LETRS-trained teachers, although many smaller districts only have one or two teachers specifically for classrooms of children needing additional support.
What’s different now is the scale of the $15 million in federal pandemic funding, which will offer the training to any teacher or school professional involved in teaching reading at the early grade levels over the next few years. The funding, spurred by efforts to address COVID-19 learning loss, will also train professors at the state’s teacher colleges so they can then train future educators.

“It isn’t rocket science, but it is reading science, and there are some things teachers will be able to connect with our families. It’s, ‘Help me help you help me help your child.’”

Andi Giesen, Wichita Public schools assistant superintendent

“We know that when we’re focused on the right things, growth can happen,” Hopper said. “This $15 million proposal — it should have happened 10 years ago.”

And eventually, LETRS training will likely filter through teachers to parents as they discuss how to help struggling readers at home.

Why the science of reading helps Wichita students

Wichita, the state’s largest school district, serves mostly urban students, who tend to come from high-poverty and at-risk backgrounds and are more likely to struggle with reading.

When those students show up to kindergarten, they’re less likely to have the same early learning and reading skills as some of their peers.

While academic differences might be small early on, without those foundational literacy skills, gaps tend to widen as students progress through school, especially when teachers aren’t equipped to address literacy deficits, Hopper said. 

Once those kids grow older, gaps become extremely difficult, although not impossible, to overcome.

“It’s tied to equity,” Hopper said. “We want to make sure every child is given the best opportunities to succeed, whether that’s in school or literacy, we want to make sure every child is given the best teachers in order to grow.”

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Garcia is an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon. He is a Report for America corps member.