In the past school year, our district decided to make a major shift in the way we teach children to read. This came in response to an abundant amount of research, including the 2000 National Reading Panel report, that supports guided oral reading with the teacher as the method overwhelmingly proven to help children become better readers.
Research also shows that students who have been taught decoding skills respond and grow as readers when exposed to higher-level texts. Ultimately, we wanted to grow strong readers by expanding their reading opportunities.
Fortunately, the district had recently made some inroads with adopting structured phonics and decoding instruction in grades K–2; however, we lacked a knowledge-building reading program, which is the critical second half of Scarborough’s Reading Rope, a visual representation of the skills that are required for reading.
This was a massive shift in mindset requiring strategic planning and collective input from all stakeholders: administration, teachers, and school board. The following outlines how we tackled this challenge to put our school district on the path to structured literacy.
5 Steps to Making a Significant Policy Change
1. Ask what we know. The first step on this journey was to determine where the teachers’ and principals’ mindset was with our current reading program. A survey was distributed to K–6 educators asking them where they rated our benchmark literacy program. On a four-point Likert scale, 78 percent rated it at a one or two!
Follow-up discussions with principals and teacher groups identified that they had been concerned about the way we taught reading for a number of years. Teachers and reading specialists voiced concern that our approach to teaching literacy was lacking. From a leadership perspective, this was integral information because people wanted change.
2. Assemble a team. A core literacy team, the Canon-McMillan Literacy Task Force, was established, consisting of a K–4 principal, a grades 5–6 principal, our two reading specialist co-department heads, K–4 teachers, and the assistant to the superintendent for K–6.
The job for this task force was to research knowledge-building reading programs, help provide education on structured literacy to the K–6 level as well as the board of education, and recommend a program to be piloted by a larger group of K–6 teachers.
3. Inform the community and seek board approval. The task force gave a thorough presentation to our school board’s curriculum committee members in a public meeting explaining our current status and the need to move to a research-supported structured literacy approach. The curriculum committee was in full support of the move after the presentation.
It’s important to establish a relationship of transparency and trust with the board, as the board represents the community at large. An educated board is an informed board.
4. Put the new program to a test. After visiting neighboring school districts and researching materials, we decided to hold a pilot of two programs from Amplify’s Core Knowledge Language Arts, one for grades 3–5 and another for sixth graders. The pilot group consisted of teachers from each of our five elementary and two intermediate school buildings. The pilot teachers received a full day of training and continued support in structured literacy prior to the pilot.
After teaching one extensive unit, the pilot teachers came together to share experiences. The meeting was emotional and inspiring, with one successful story after another about how students who were once struggling were now seeing success with the new program.
There were several common themes:
- Increased levels of student confidence
- Increased levels of participation
- Increased interest and finding connections outside of school
- “Struggling” readers participating and doing well in class
All the teachers shared how they had been apprehensive about the complex text topics, believing these topics would be over their students’ heads. The reality was that the students were engaged and fascinated with making connections by diving deep into the content-themed units. This clearly supports the notion that students’ listening and comprehension skills are higher than their reading ability until around age 13.
Two sixth-grade teachers shared how they were going to recommend a pupil focus meeting to discuss poor academic performance for a student who was struggling in his English language arts classes. However, they saw a complete turnaround in his performance during the pilot.
5. Fully implement the new program. The input from the pilot teachers clearly indicated that a knowledge reading program was what we have been lacking. We are excited to fully adopt this program with all our teachers starting in the 2023–24 school year.
If you are in a leadership position, take the steps necessary to assess your stakeholders’ situation, collect input, and involve your people. Educational leadership is all about how you can lead people. There is no better way of doing that than including and valuing their input, no matter how challenging the task ahead.