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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Longview schools ditch past reading model for science-backed approach. So far, teachers say attention spans are up.

By Minka Atkinson The Daily News (Longview, Wash.)

This is Longview School District’s second year of using a new reading curriculum, which draws from scientific research on how the brain processes written language to teach kids.

Like many school districts around the country, Longview is shifting toward this science-based approach and away from a longstanding method called balanced literacy, which relies more on context clues and independent practice to teach reading.

Teachers are seeing improvements in reading scores as well as more enthusiasm among students for both reading and writing, Robert Gray Elementary School Principal Kristie Wall said.

“My greatest gain I’ve seen is that students are writing more,” Wall said. “They’re writing their ideas down, they’re writing longer sentences. They’re putting their own ideas, connected to the learning topic, on paper.”

A new curriculum

The district is using two sets of materials in its elementary school classes: one that focuses on basic skills like letter recognition and phonics, and another that uses themed units to allow children to practice reading and writing while also learning other subjects, like science.

As a whole, the curriculum emphasizes giving students explicit instruction on how English works, beginning with learning what letters look like and what sounds they make before moving on to things like sentence structure and figurative language that will help them understand more complex texts.

“Unlike speaking, which you learn without anyone having to teach you — you just learn language from listening to your parents or whoever’s talking to you — reading doesn’t come naturally,” said Ann Valanzuolo, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. “Reading has to be taught.”

Learning to read each letter is blended with learning how to write it, because the physical movement of writing helps students retain information better, Valanzuolo said. Students also engage in other multisensory activities, such as using magnets to build the words they’re learning.

Students then move on to reading decodable texts, which help them practice sounding out words featuring letter patterns that they’ve already learned. These texts come as part of a larger unit teaching students about various subjects, such as space or the heart. The goal is to get students interested in what they’re learning while also introducing background knowledge they can use to understand more difficult texts in the future, Valanzuolo said.

“It’s one thing to be able to read the words, but it’s not going to do you any good if you don’t know what it means,” she said. “When you read something about a topic you don’t know anything about, it’s a lot more challenging than if you know something about it.”

What does science say?

The debate over how best to teach children to read, sometimes called the “reading wars,” is one that American educators have been engaged in for over 100 years. One longstanding method that can be traced back to 1690 involves using phonics, the specific sounds that letters or groups of letters make, to teach students to sound out words and build up to fluency from there. In the mid-1800s, however, Massachusetts Board of Education Secretary Horace Mann began to champion the idea that phonics were too boring and that children would learn better if they instead started by memorizing whole words, known as the whole language approach.

Whole language remained popular through the 1980s, although by the 1950s research was beginning to suggest that it was not an effective strategy. In the 1990s, a new method known as balanced literacy became popular. Definitions of what exactly balanced literacy actually consists of vary wildly, but the general idea is that it blends together phonics with other methods of instruction depending on student needs.

It also often relies on less-than-proven strategies, such as a three-cueing method for puzzling out unknown words that asks students to look at the first letter of the word and any accompanying pictures, then use context clues to guess what word might fit in that sentence. While this might work well in figuring out simple picture books, it doesn’t actually prepare students to read more complex texts.

“In real life, most of the text we read doesn’t have pictures, so if you don’t learn how to read the word, you’re going to be in trouble when you get to third grade,” Valanzuolo said.

Around 2018, balanced literacy began to draw more debate as critics pointed to research confirming that teaching children to read works best when schools use a systematic approach building off of phonics as a foundation, rather than leaving it up to teacher discretion or teaching children to memorize whole words. Longview is joining a number of school districts nationwide who are moving away from relying on balanced literacy.

Importance of literacy

English and language arts might be only one part of the school curriculum, but strong literacy skills are essential in every subject, Robert Gray Elementary School Literacy Coach Jodie Wygant said.

“In all areas, you are needing to read in order to understand,” she said. “We grow by reading. We learn by reading. We have to fill out job applications.”

Reading and writing plays a part in all aspects of school including math, which in Longview schools is becoming more based in word problems and context, Wall said.

It’s also necessary for life outside of school. Most jobs, especially higher-paying ones, require at least some level of literacy. An inability to get well-paying work is one reason studies connect low literacy skills with likelihood of incarceration, although there isn’t a one-to-one correlation between the two.

“We want our kiddos to leave our system in high school, graduate and be ready to contribute to our society in Longview,” Wall said. “We want them to be able to read and engage and get jobs, be work-ready.”

Student reception

Now that the district has had some experience with the new curriculum, it’s easier to see how students and teachers are responding to it, Wall said.

“The biggest challenge when you adopt a new curriculum is that it’s new,” Wall said. “It’s not possible as a teacher to read the entire year curriculum from the beginning, so you’re learning as you’re going … and that’s why year two is where it really comes alive.”

The new curriculum is more difficult for students, but the district is seeing skill increases in a number of areas, including accuracy in pronunciation and spelling, producing written content and attention span during lessons.

“At first it’s all so hard and now it’s getting easier,” Wygant said. “And so now they’re willing to give it a little more.”

It’s still too early to tell what kind of effect the new curriculum is having on state test scores, but teachers are hopeful about the students’ new abilities, Wall said. They are also beginning to see how these skills transfer between grades and how the format encourages students to engage with lessons.

“Kids are asking questions about wanting to learn, and that’s a new fire of curiosity within them that has been really exciting for the teachers,” Wall said. “We all love teaching students who are excited to learn, and it’s also creating students who look forward to coming to school to see what they’re going to learn.”