It’s hard to tell who is more excited about the foundational literacy program at Regal Elementary School, the students or the teachers.
Recently, third-graders in Kristin Lentz’ class were breaking down words and sounds with the help of Sally Dueweke, the school’s English Language Development specialist.
At their desks and on a white board, they manipulated tiles – green for vowels, white for consonants – into the word “umbrella.”
That’s a tough task for many 8-year-olds, who tend to skim past more difficult words during reading; sometimes they never learn them.
But with Dueweke’s help, the students were able to understand yet another piece of the English language. The kids proudly showed their work as Dueweke beamed.
“Who’s happy that I’m here?” Dueweke asked the 15 kids. Everyone raised their hands.
The excitement centers on an approach to English known as structured literacy, a major change from the way reading is taught in most schools across the state and country.
Instead of expecting children to learn words through exposure to books – an approach sometimes called “whole language” – structured literacy takes a bottom-up approach centered on brain science and teaching the fundamental structures of English, including phonics.
The idea is that by learning one sound at a time, students will reach a point where they can identify patterns to deconstruct words.
Structured literacy has four main components: phonological awareness, the ability to notice and distinguish different sounds in a word; phonics, the ability to match sounds to letters; orthography, the ability to write sounds down and spell words; and morphology, the knowledge of word roots, prefixes and suffixes.
The new approach is dictated partly by the Washington Legislature, which in 2018 passed a law in requiring schools to screen children in kindergarten through second grade for signs of dyslexia and to provide reading support for those who need it.
The law took effect last fall. But while most districts – including Spokane Public Schools – are diligently screening kids for signs of dyslexia – Regal decided to anticipate the trend and introduce structured literacy this year.
“We decided to be proactive,” said Regal Principal Tricia Kannberg, who has implemented the program in grades K-3. “The district was waiting for the guidance, but when we went remote in 2020, we had a better chance to collaborate on this.”
And while there’s no data to share, Regal staff are seeing progress among readers.
“It’s building their confidence,” Lentz said. “It’s made me a better teacher, and I wish I had this as a kid.”
Moreover, as Regal instructional coach Heather Miciak pointed out, “the screener will identify higher-needs kids, but we hope all our kids are getting that foundation.”
Others have noticed. Regal’s efforts will be recognized on May 19 during a gathering of regional superintendents and other school leaders.
The rest of Spokane Public Schools isn’t far behind, said Karin Thompson, the district’s director of early learning.
According to district documents, a primary goal is to “establish a long-range plan for equitable access and student development of elementary foundational literacy skills.”
Last summer the district held training sessions for elementary school teachers, and has spent the current year examining how to adapt curriculum.
“I would say that Regal is just one step ahead,” Thompson said.
The move to structure literacy was the product of not only of the dyslexia law, but a desire of some of Regal’s staff.
“The screener needed to be done this year,” said Jaki Shrauger, an English language coach at Regal whose own children were diagnosed with dyslexia.
“We knew it was coming, we were in a different place, having conversations last year,” Shrauger said.
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