Inside one Rochester classroom, a peek into the future of reading instruction

A woman reads a book to a class
First Grade Teacher Jillian Albee teaches reading in her classroom in Rochester. Her methods offer a peek at the future of reading instruction in Minnesota.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

First grade teacher Jillian Albee settled into a chair in front of her students at Elton Hills Elementary one day this fall, and readied a stack of flashcards in her lap.

Letters from the alphabet were printed in big block letters on each card along with pictures of objects. 

“I say the whole word, you say the whole word,” Albee told her class. “Say the first sound and the rest of the word. Say ‘sun.’”

The students replied in unison, "Sun. Suh-un."

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This call-and-response approach, where kids are asked to sound out letters, split apart sounds and put them back together is a peek into the future of how all Minnesota kids will learn to read.

It’s called phonemic awareness and it’s one strategy that teachers in Rochester are using to help kids decode words. 

The method replaces an intense focus on memorizing sight words and using pictures as clues to the story among other historically popular teaching tools — a problematic approach researchers say has failed to teach some kids to read

Earlier this year the Legislature passed the Read Act. The new law seeks to undo the legacy of Minnesota’s vast reading gap by requiring schools to teach reading in new ways. The act gives $70 million to schools to pay for training and curriculum from a menu of approved options. In a state that has traditionally left curriculum choices to individual districts, the law is unprecedented. 

“I think it is one of the best things that Minnesota has done in education in decades,” said Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Kent Pekel, where teachers started training in the new curricula a few years ago. “The wars among researchers about reading have been settled, but the battle is going to be in the implementation of it.”

Conclusive research

When Pekel arrived in Rochester a few years ago, he said that teachers were already learning new teaching methods rooted in the science of reading — a vast and growing body of research that examines how kids best learn the skill. 

The methods center on a collection of teaching ideas, including phonics, phonemic awareness and vocabulary. 

“But it was mostly theoretical. It was bringing teachers in to sort of talk about the need to bring back phonics and things like that, but it really wasn’t getting into the how to (do it),” said Pekel. 

A man listens during a meeting.
Superintendent Kent Pekel listens during a Rochester Public Schools board meeting in Rochester.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

Under his tenure, Pekel has made it a priority to bring that curriculum to classes. The Read Act pushes those efforts forward, faster.

“We’re all moving in this direction, because the science is conclusive,” he said. 

Teachers also get more conclusive information on how their kids are doing because the law requires more frequent testing. 

“Not those ‘Did the patient live or die?’ tests that you give in the spring, but short, rapid-cycle tests that tell you if this kid in front of you is understanding what you are teaching,” said Pekel.

That’s important because it allows schools to use reading resources more efficiently by targeting certain ways of teaching to certain kids based on how they're progressing. 

Not just guessing words

This collection of changes has been a game-changer for Albee’s students because they’re not just learning how to sound out words, they're also learning how letters and sounds behave. 

Phonics in a vacuum isn’t effective, she said. 

“If the word is ‘chin,’ and the kid looks at it and says ‘kuh-in,’ they have no idea we’re teaching them that ‘c’ and ‘h’ go together,” she said. “And so that’s what decoding is: It’s knowing all the different sounds that the letters can make.”

She said that timed readings and weekly assessments of how many words each student has learned are new, too — and motivating.

“Sometimes they kind of get stuck for a little bit,” said Albee. “We're doing the good work, we’re putting in that hard work. And then all of a sudden, they just take off and their face lights up, and then your heart feels full. It is just, it’s really an exciting moment.”

The new approach will help kids get more out of reading in later grades, where educators in Rochester hope to see the reading gap close as the new curriculum is fully implemented, said Elton Hills reading coach Natalie Stoffel. 

“The kids aren’t just guessing words. Now they’re able to look at those words and figure out how to sound it out,” she said. “Once they get to the older books, where there’s no pictures in there, that’s where we were seeing the discrepancy of not being able to read because they couldn't blend those words together.”

At Elton Hills, Stoffel said they’re already seeing literacy improvements because of more frequent testing. 

“We just really know it’s working because we’re seeing results and it’s super exciting and powerful,” she said. “Another thing I think is exciting is that the students want to see their data. They want to see how they increase and they want to see how they did.”

Uncertain implementation

But with an unprecedented law comes uncertainty. 

There’s widespread support for the Read Act among school administrators and teachers because it focuses on literacy and because it came with $70 million in funding to help schools buy new curriculum and training, said Minnesota Association of School Administrators Executive Director Deb Henton.

“They’re concerned about the level of funding, however, because there is a concern that what the legislature provided is not enough to pay for their professional development of all the teachers that are identified in the Read Act that need to be trained,” Henton said.

Getting teachers trained quickly is a concern, too — especially given widespread substitute teacher shortages that make it difficult for teachers to take time off to do professional development. 

And smaller districts that rely on smaller tax bases to fund schools could struggle to keep up with the ongoing costs of transitioning to a new reading curriculum, said Katie Pekel, who is married to Kent Pekel and who directs educational leadership programs at the University of Minnesota. 

She used training costs as an example. 

“Smaller districts in greater Minnesota don’t have economies of scale. Maybe they only need to train two teachers. But how are they going to do that? Because you’re not bringing a trainer in for just two teachers. So now we have to send them somewhere, which is more expensive,” she said. “So there’s all of these financial implications that will have to be worked out at the local level.”

Staff morale is another concern, she said. Principals need to reassure teachers who feel defeated about being required to change how they teach reading.

“That’s a heavy lift as a principal, when you’re trying to lead a building full of educators that now feel bad about their craft, and that they haven’t been serving kids well,” she said. “The reality is, you have teachers that are really, really good instructors. They engage kids, they care about kids. And it’s not their fault they weren’t taught to teach kids according to the science of reading.”