Falcon Heights Elementary teacher Laurie Schlossmacher stands at the front of her classroom and points at an oversized flashcard of the letter “A.”
The kindergarten students repeat “A, A, Apple,” after her.
Schlossmacher has been teaching preschool and kindergarten for decades. But in the last few years, she’s completely transformed the way she teaches reading.
Literacy is Schlossmacher’s passion. Her daughter has dyslexia and struggled to learn to read, even with a tutor’s help. Schlossmacher blames balanced literacy — an approach to teaching reading that combines minimal phonics instruction with getting kids to memorize words and use pictures, guessing and word placement.
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It works for some kids, Schlossmacher said, but it leaves many children behind.
“This balanced literacy prevailed really for most of my career and it never really sat right with me,” Schlossmacher said.
It was only a few years ago, while on her district’s curriculum committee that Schlossmacher started looking into research behind the so-called ‘science of reading,’ which emphasizes rigorous phonics instruction that leads learners into sounding words out.
The approach Schlossmacher is taking in her classroom is one that Minnesota legislators recently voted to mandate in elementary schools throughout the state.
The recently passed education omnibus bill includes something DFL lawmakers have called the Read Act. It includes requirements that kindergarteners through third graders be taught phonics and decoding, and it requires districts to purchase curriculum in line with these methods and train their teachers in what’s known as ‘structured literacy.’
What is in the Read Act?
“The Read Act is a comprehensive look at how we transform and pivot and meet what we know about science today on how people learn to read,” said Rep. Heather Edelson, DFL-Edina, who sponsored the bill.
It appropriates more than $70 million and includes mandated changes at colleges and universities to train future teachers, specifications that the education department partner with applied research specialists at the University of Minnesota, and funding for literacy specialists to run teacher training and help districts identify appropriate reading curriculum.
Mueller is a strong supporter of the methods kindergarten teacher Schlossmacher is using, but she wanted to see the Read Act go further than it did by using the phrase ‘the science of reading’ and by appropriating more money to help schools make changes in the classroom.
“The bill is designed to push our districts from removing the failed balanced literacy, whole literacy curriculum that we have and push us towards ‘the science of reading.’ The problem is, the bill goes out of its way to not ever use the word ‘science of reading,’” Mueller said, adding she would have liked less ambiguous language used in the legislation.
The state teacher union has thrown its support behind the bill, but voiced concerns about the testing measures included.
“Screenings are less onerous than formal standardized testing, but our union remains highly concerned about the amount of instructional time lost to assessments,” Education Minnesota said in a statement.
Historic investment in literacy
Katie Pekel, who is executive director of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota, said the bill is the largest investment she’s seen the state make in literacy.
When it comes to how the bill aligns with what the body of research says on how kids learn to read, Pekel had only praise:
“It’s really clear in laying out that we’re first going to identify what research and experts actually say work … that has not happened in my time as an educator in Minnesota,” Pekel said. “This is how to teach kids to read, not what to teach kids.”
The key, Pekel said, will be for lawmakers to continue investing money in the initiative in two years when she thinks more districts will want to transition their classrooms and their text books to look more like what Schlossmacher is doing at Falcon Heights Elementary School.
What Schlossmacher is doing — emphasizing phonics and sounding words out — appears to be paying off with students.
“When you teach a five year old the sounds and then you teach them that you put the M and the A and the T together and they sound out ‘mat’, they’re actually learning that that word is ‘mat’ instead of them looking for a picture of a mat on a page,” Schlossmacher said.
Schlossmacher reflects on the struggles her daughter with dyslexia had trying to learn to read under the ‘balanced literacy’ method. And it brings tears to her eyes.
“Because my daughter — if we knew then what we know now, in my opinion she would’ve been reading much, much younger.”