Can Minnesota schools do better at teaching kids to read?  

“Teaching kids how to decode is teaching them how to read.”

Hard Words: Why aren't kids being taught to read?
One in three fourth graders in the United States and in Minnesota cannot read at grade level. We talk about why this is.
Illustration by Rachel Sender for APM Reports

Being able to read well is the foundation for so many things.  

If you can’t read well, you can’t do well in school, read a medical prescription or even manage a Google search.  

But one in three fourth graders in the United States and in Minnesota cannot read at grade level.  

A new investigative podcast from American Public Media explores how a common way of teaching reading fails students.

Earlier this month, MPR News with Angela Davis talked with Emily Hanford, lead producer of “Sold a Story: How Teaching Kids to Read Went So Wrong.”  

Listen to our follow-up conversation with Minnesota educators.  

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Guests:  

  • Katie Pekel is executive director of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota where she heads up the Minnesota Principals Academy and other programs to train and inform school system leaders. She’s a former teacher and elementary and middle school principal.  

  • Athena Goff is a WINN literacy teacher at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School in St. Paul Public Schools where she teaches reading to small groups of kindergarten through third grade students.  

  • Katharine Campbell is a former special education teacher and director of literacy partnerships with Groves Learning Organization. The literacy partnership program offers literacy training and reading curriculum to elementary schools in the Twin Cities.

Here are four key moments from the conversation.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

From your experience, describe the way that reading has been taught in Minnesota:

Athena Goff: I listened to the entire Sold a Story podcast. I was shocked and disappointed. In St. Paul, for the past 15 years, we have had an explicit phonics curriculum, so teaching phonics is not new. The podcast references the cueing method and my experience with that method was when teaching kids to use the visual of a word, looking all the way through the words letter by letter and seeing the sound blending. I knew in my heart that teaching kids how to decode is really teaching them how to read. I never had kids look at the first letter, check the picture, and just make a guess. For 15 years we have had a new curriculum that aligns more closely with the ‘science of reading’ books. It has followed a scope and sequence.

Katie Pekel: Unlike what Athena just shared, where St. Paul has had a solid phonics curriculum for 15 years, that is not the case in most districts across the state of Minnesota. As a matter of fact, when I was an elementary school principal, we had a balanced literacy approach in the building that I led. That approach meant that kids would just get reading if they were surrounded by good books and comfortable places to read as Emily described in the podcast. There was a little bit of phonics, but not what Athena described. In fact, we know from the National Reading Panel research dating back to 2000, that phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension, all have to be present in literacy instruction.

Tell us more about the ‘Science of Reading’ program:

Katharine Campbell: We have been basing our reading instruction at Groves Academy for years on what we currently call the ‘science of reading’. It is explicit instruction in phonics, but also some other of the five components of reading that Katie mentioned. What we did when we went into grubs, literacy partnerships, is we changed what we were doing to meet the needs of typical learners. But it's still based on the same methodology that we follow when we talk about structured literacy or the science of reading.

We started in 2016 and when we partner with a school, we bring teacher professional learning and a curriculum that is based on the science of reading. We ask them to collect data three times a year using a quick standardized test but also look at the performance of each student as they are doing a unit. Our focus is on kindergarten through third-grade readers right now, although our program is expanding, and we are publishing curriculum for those older students that need intervention.

What can you tell us about racial disparities in education?

Athena Goff: It is an alarming issue. For the last 14 years, I have taught at schools that had one hundred percent kids of color, and nearly one hundred percent poverty. I have been shocked over the years, and yet I have not given up on doing what is right in my heart. And now, since last year, with our new training in the science of reading, my students are reading decodable books and I am really seeing a difference and progress in how they are reading. I am hopeful and I believe in my students.

Katie Pekel: Literacy is a social justice issue. And the approaches that Athena just described in the classroom are what we need to see but on a much broader scale. At the University of Minnesota, we have the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and we help school districts across the state of Minnesota to understand how the science of reading intersects with and is part of what's called an MTSS model (multi-tiered systems of support). A second component is the school curriculum that we are going to use, that ultimately needs to reach all kids.

What could help more kids learn how to read at their grade level?

Athena Goff: A real focus on both phonemic awareness and letter sound instruction with phonics is the key. Teachers need decodable texts, they need decodable passages. I am hoping that classroom teachers will be getting those soon. For way too long, we have used level readers and we need to get away from that.

Katie Pekel: We need a significant scale-up in the training of teachers. We already had a $3 million investment last legislative session, and as we sit on over $17 billion going into this session, I think we're going to see that investment. We need to support teachers and make sure they have the skills to use those decodable texts and resources.

Your stories

Parents and teachers called into the show and shared their stories. Here are some of them.

Laurie from Roseville

I'm a kindergarten teacher. I have been teaching for over 20 years and was trained in the balanced literacy approach. It was almost like you taught kids how to look like a reader but you were not teaching them the explicit phonics that makes them decode words.

My oldest daughter is dyslexic and as a mom, it really hit me hard. I wish so badly I would have known then what I know now, so she would not have gotten through the struggles that she did. Nowadays, I'm in letters training which is based on the science of reading. Minnesota has made a big push for this. It is just December and all my kids are starting to decode.

Daisy from Minneapolis

My son is in third grade at Minneapolis Public Schools. I assumed things were fine and then one day, he told me he does not know how to read. I listened to the podcast and emailed the teacher. I got a paragraph response telling me he was at a benchmark level, which is where he should be at the end of third grade. So I got these mixed messages and I think where he is struggling is in writing.

I think my son has a good teacher, he is at a school with people that really care about education. But I do not know what to do.

Carlin from Minneapolis

I was a middle school teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools for six years, and I taught predominantly Black, Latino, and Indigenous students, many of whom spoke languages other than English at home. I really believe that many programs were not properly audited in Minneapolis, because of educator bias, be that racial bias, class bias, or linguistic bias.

We're all leveled against students and families to say: “well, maybe the reason they're not able to read is because they are still learning English, or because of their home lives, or because of poverty”. And so it really put students and families in this deficit lens, to the educators and to the school institutions.

Susan from St. Paul

I am a high school teacher, and I have students who do not know how to read, who phonetically cannot decode words, and I think it comes down to race and class. Those students have been passed through techniques of memorization and techniques of deep listening to the teacher as they go through books. As a high school teacher, to know what that is going to mean for a student who is graduating high school in two years, is a terrible feeling.

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