Science helps Minneapolis school turn the page on reading skills

Children sit on the floor in front of a teacher.
Teacher Blaire White instructs first grade students at Jenny Lind Elementary in Minneapolis on Dec. 11, 2019. The elementary school has changed the way it teaches reading, and staff members say they're getting exciting results.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Learning how to read is not easy — especially in English. But Blaire White, a first-grade teacher at Jenny Lind Elementary, makes it look not just easy, but fun.

During a recent lesson, she encouraged students to “tap out” words by focusing on the sound each individual letter makes. She's spent a long time teaching them the relationship between sounds and letters. Now they're taking the next step: decoding those letter patterns to correctly pronounce words.

White started working with this group of children last year when they were in kindergarten. First, she helped them learn how to listen and build phonemic awareness or recognition of the smallest units of sounds in English. Then, she worked with them on letter recognition, letter sounds, and writing and building words.

It's a systematic and explicit approach to teaching reading, with a heavy emphasis on phonics. White says it’s working better than anything she's ever tried.

"They are light years ahead of my first group that was in my first first-grade class,” White said. “Having this phonics program, I have seen students just be encouraged."

This way of teaching reading is part of a science-based approach to literacy that White’s school has been working on for a year and a half.

Children raise their hands as they sit on the floor in front of a teacher.
Teacher Jaena Washington instructs kindergarteners at Jenny Lind Elementary.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Before, White said, her reading instruction was more haphazard. It's not that her lessons ignored phonics. It's more that she wasn't teaching phonics in a structured way. She would introduce letter sounds as they came up in texts she was reading to her class. And she was giving her struggling students unhelpful strategies: things like guessing words in books based on pictures, instead of decoding them.

She'd gleaned these techniques from her teacher prep course and curriculum materials she’d been given. Like many Minnesota teachers, she’d never been introduced to the science of reading in a meaningful way.

The result of this haphazard approach?

"My students, they weren't learning … it was definitely a mixed ability level. I had students that were at or exceeding the grade-level expectations. And I had students that are at a kindergarten level of reading that are about to enter second grade,” White said. “For me as an educator and also working with students of color, it was not OK with me. And I'm just very thankful that we finally have a program that has a systematic approach."

White's experience is not unusual. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, the majority of the nation's teacher prep programs had not actually acknowledged the science of reading until a few years ago. And according to a survey by Education Week, the five most popular reading programs used in American schools aren't backed by science.

A child writes in a notebook while sitting at a table with an adult.
A first grade student works on writing at Jenny Lind Elementary.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

Jenny Lind Elementary is working to change that.

Two years ago, the school started working with the Institute for Professional Learning at Groves Academy.

The school introduced a new reading curriculum, gave teachers training in the science of reading and began a three-year process of intensive one-on-one literacy coaching for instructors.

Teachers constantly assess their students to see how well they're doing. And they don’t move on to a new area of reading instruction until 80 percent of their students have mastered the material.

This approach is getting results. White said she's eliminating gaps in her classroom.

"When we started seeing the success of our students we were like, 'OK. This works. We're going to stick to this,'" White said.

It's not just at Jenny Lind. Katharine Campbell is the director of the Groves Institute for Professional Learning. In addition to Jenny Lind, her organization is currently partnering with 29 other Minnesota schools in three-year programs to completely change the way they teach reading.

"What we're seeing in the data that we're collecting ... is that we are closing the achievement gap in the buildings that we're going into,” Campbell said.

According to Campbell, the high risk first through third grade students in the programs her institute oversees have advanced at better than twice the national average rate.

That's really good news for schools in a state like Minnesota, where only about one-third of eighth graders are proficient in reading, according to national standards. And where socioeconomic and racial disparities in education are worse than almost anywhere else in the country.

A child's drawing of a person in a rocket.
Artwork from a first grade student at Jenny Lind Elementary reads "My dream is to read."
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

"The students are fine and they're learning and I think that we need to respect the way students learn, and having this foundational phonics approach is working," White said.

According to White, there's nothing wrong with Minnesota students. And there's nothing wrong with Minnesota teachers.

But getting the right tools into the hands of those teachers and students is going to make all the difference when it comes to making sure future Minnesotans can read.

Correction (Jan. 30, 2020): Blaire White’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story

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