By Suzanne Perez – Kansas News Service
WICHITA, Kansas — Heather Mock loves watching children’s faces as they turn letters into words, then words into sentences.
She sees furrowed brows turn to wide eyes and smiles. She tells them to kiss their brains, and the students giggle as they kiss their hands and tap their foreheads.
They’re learning to read. Scientifically.
“The difference I’ve seen over the past couple of years … has been amazing,” said Mock, who teaches first grade at Washington Elementary School in Wichita. “These new strategies work, and not just for my lowest-performing or struggling readers. It’s benefitted all of them.”
School districts across Kansas are embracing a movement known as “the science of reading.” And now state lawmakers want it to speed up.
Research shows that most children need systematic, sound-it-out instruction — commonly called phonics — rather than older approaches that focus on context clues from pictures and stories.
Two years ago, the Kansas Department of Education earmarked $15 million in federal COVID-relief funds to train teachers in the science of reading. This year, the Kansas Legislature passed a law requiring schools to provide extra help to children with dyslexia.
And as part of a school funding bill, state lawmakers demanded a list of districts that still use reading approaches that have been debunked by cognitive science.
“This (older) training material is counterproductive for our kids,” said Kansas Sen. Molly Baumgartner.
Over the past decade, more than half of U.S. states have encouraged or ordered schools to build reading programs around methods that teach kids how to sound out letters and words. Just this month, lawmakers in Wisconsin proposed reading-reform legislation along with extra funding to help schools train teachers, hire reading coaches and buy curriculum materials.
That’s a challenge in Kansas. The State Board of Education sets standards for what students should learn, but more than 200 separate districts decide how. Depending on when materials are adopted, they can be used for a decade or more, and they’re expensive to replace.
So changing course with reading instruction takes years — and students can fall behind in the meantime.
Sarah Collins of Wichita said her son, Austin, looked forward to starting school. But just weeks into his kindergarten year, he was not keeping up with his peers, shutting down in class, and faking sick to avoid school.
“Looking back, I realized I was asking him to do something he absolutely could not do,” Collins said.
She took Austin to the Fundamental Learning Center in Wichita, where he was diagnosed with dyslexia. He started attending Rolph Literacy Academy, a private school for children with reading disabilities, where teachers use a program called Alphabetic Phonics to connect sounds and letters.
Austin learned to read — he’ll start eighth grade soon and is testing well above grade level — and his mother became an evangelist for the science of reading.
“What if his (kindergarten) teacher would have been able to teach him how to read by learning the letter sounds and combinations, and not just guessing at words?” she said. “We know what works. It’s just going to take that systemic change to make a difference for all these kids.”
Laurie Curtis, the director of early literacy and dyslexia programs for the Kansas Department of Education, said embracing the science of reading will require changes at every level of education, from preschool through college.
The $15 million state-funded effort focuses on pre-K through third-grade teachers, training them through a program called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS. It’s also open to reading specialists, special education teachers and those who teach English as a second language.
But the most crucial piece may be at colleges, Curtis said, where the people who teach teachers need to learn the brain research behind the shift toward phonics-based approaches.
“It takes a lot of gut-wrenching work when you’ve taught a certain way, and then someone tells you maybe what you thought was best wasn’t,” she said. “It takes a while for you to do the research and look and understand why you need to make that change.”
In Mock’s first-grade class in Wichita, changes include “Vowel Valley,” a bulletin board covered with close-up photos of children’s mouths forming vowel sounds. During a lesson about a diphthong that forms the sound in “mouse” and “howl,” Mock gives each student a mirror to watch their own mouth move.
“I used to have them watch me and mimic what I did, and I thought they had it,” she said. “Some of them did, but not all of them.”
At the Rolph Literacy Academy, teacher Tammi Hope gathers a handful of students in a small room to reduce distractions. She writes in cursive because research shows that cursive integrates hand-eye coordination and helps with the decoding process.
The students break words into individual sounds and play around with them, changing “wager” to “waiter” and “numbing” to “nothing.” They review the rules for when a word starts with a “c” or a “k,” and the children quickly identify the first letters in “kindergarten,” “catastrophe” and “claustrophobic.”
“It’s a superpower, but this one is learned,” Hope said. “Children who are dyslexic or neurotypical can have this superpower with the right instruction.”
Reading scores for Kansas third-graders have been slipping for years. Last year, more than 33% scored below grade level. In low-income urban districts such as Wichita and Kansas City, Kansas, more than half of third-graders scored below grade level.
Research shows students who don’t read proficiently by the end of the third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school or not finish high school on time. That worries lawmakers and educators.
“We are failing our children on a massive level. There’s just no way to argue against that,” said David Hurford, director of the Center for READing at Pittsburg State University. “A third of our kids are not reading at the basic level. That’s a major problem.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
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