Tennessee Trains Thousands of Secondary Teachers in Reading Science

Guest Author Barbara R. Davidson, President of StandardsWork, Inc. and Executive Director of the Knowledge Matters Campaign, looks at how to address and elevate the literacy needs of secondary students.

For all the welcome attention being paid to the Science of Reading, and literacy in general, there has been little focus in public policy on how to address the learning needs of secondary students who, for whatever combination of reasons, have failed to learn to read in elementary school.

Earlier this year, the “What Works Clearinghouse,” an arm of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences (IES), made steps to elevate the narrative about secondary literacy when it issued a practice guide entitled, Providing Reading Interventions for Students in Grades 4-9.

Few people know much about the IES Practice Guides, which is a real shame, for they codify much of the science about what works in K-12 education. The recently issued guide is the 29th in a series that was launched in September 2007 and includes such topics as Organizing Instruction and Study to Improve Learning or Teaching Math to Young Children. Together the IES Practice Guides constitute the closest thing the education sector has to the medical field’s clinical practice guides.

Authored by panels of academic researchers preeminent in their field, the strategies these practice guides identify are those that are distinguished by their effects in all types of educational settings.

And what does this new practice guide say about secondary literacy? The panelists identified four findings that are supported by moderate or strong evidence:

  1. Build students’ decoding skills so they can read complex multisyllabic words.
  2. Provide purposeful fluency-building activities to help students read effortlessly.
  3. Routinely use a set of comprehension-building practices to helps students make sense of text.
    1. Build students’ world and word knowledge so they can make sense of the text.
    2. Consistently provide students with opportunities to ask and answer questions to better understand the text they read.
    3. Teach students a routine for determining the gist of a short section of text.
    4. Teach students to monitor their comprehension as they read.
  4. Provide students with opportunities to practice making sense of stretch text (i.e., challenging text) that will expose them to complex ideas and information.

I was struck, as I read these recommendations, by the intersection of these findings with the content of a training program I recently had the good fortune to witness in Tennessee.

In a move that is unique in the country, this summer Tennessee’s Department of Education (TN DoE) provided training to thousands of secondary school teachers in the Science of Reading. Part of its Reading 360 Initiative, which has trained more than 20,000 elementary school teachers in “sounds first” instruction over the past two years (to rave reviews, I might add!), the current focus on secondary literacy supports Commissioner of Schools Penny Schwinn’s belief that “All teachers are reading teachers.”

The state put its money behind Commissioner Schwinn’s vision and commissioned TNTP, a nonprofit technical assistance organization, to develop a two-week course specifically geared for secondary literacy. "We absolutely knew about the studies and the research that supported the recommendations in the IES Practice Guide,” said Francisco Martinez Oronoz, a partner at TNTP who led the training project. “This course not only focuses on decoding but also on how to build reading fluency, the role of background knowledge, the importance of all students working with grade level text, and other findings highlighted by the IES panelists.”

The course is divided into two parts: 30 hours of asynchronous instruction on the foundational skills of reading and five full days of in-person, interactive instruction on research about such things as how to make complex text the center of every lesson, the vital role of domain knowledge in gaining meaning from text, how discussion and writing can impact reading acquisition, how essential writing is to mental processing and accessing knowledge, etc.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to detail the syllabus for this outstanding course, a couple of examples might be illustrative.

Day One of the training introduces teachers to text complexity and asks them to read and discuss the article, “Struggle is Not a Bad Word,” which identifies a number of misconceptions about adolescent reading (e.g., struggling students need easier texts) and provides alternative approaches. “Educators should adopt the mindset that when it comes to reading, struggle is not necessarily a bad thing. As we prepare students for college and careers, we ought to engage them in texts and tasks with which they will struggle but will learn to be successful with support,” writes authors Sarah Lupo and John Strong. This theme of struggle is one that is returned to throughout the week.

The role that vocabulary plays in reading comprehension, and how a student’s command of high frequency “Tier 2” words can be developed, understandably receives a good deal of attention in the module that focuses on the need to build background knowledge. The training includes extensive discussion of ways in which past adolescent reading “interventions” have failed and offers strategies, rooted in science, about more effective literacy practices.

A few weeks ago, I visited Washington County in East Tennessee, where one of the state’s 113 Secondary Literacy Trainings was taking place. I talked with some of the teachers about why (in addition to the $1,000 stipend they received) they were willing to give up a precious week+ of their summer to take part. For most, it was their interest in the research. “I like staying ahead of the curve,” said sixth grade teacher Cassie Kirk. “The training is giving us a refresher, making us go back and really think about what we’re doing,” high school teacher Sheila Clark shared.

While I was only with the folks in Washington County for two days, I asked the panel I met with if they were having any epiphanies. “Yes. It’s not about the quantity,” one of them said; “It’s about the quality.” “Sometimes you can get kind of panicky about not getting through everything – but [I now understand] it’s better to go deep,” another offered.

‘Going deep’ took on practical meaning in a conversation a few weeks later with social studies teachers in Kingsport City, where school had already started back. Training participant Joshua French described a lesson he’d just taught on the Gilded Age where he and the class took time – time that before the training he wouldn’t have taken – discussing words like ‘monopoly’ (it’s more than a board game) and ‘trust.’ “I think it was eye opening for a lot of us,” he said. “When you talk about literacy, you think it’s very simple, but when you get into the research, you realize how complicated it is.”

In conversations I had with leaders of other districts across the state that had hosted the Secondary Literacy Training, the most compelling message they shared was how eager their teachers were to take part. It seems better understanding the research was a near universal draw. “We didn’t have to push at all,” said Rhonda Stringham, Assistant Superintendent in Kingsport City Schools. “We just offered it, and they chose to attend.”

“I think it’s an old mindset that says reading doesn’t cross genres,” reflected Bo Griffin, Director of Schools in Millington Municipal School District. “When I was teaching history, I had a kid ask me if they had to spell the word right. When I said yes, the kid pushed back saying, ‘But this is history.’”

“We’re all about getting our kids college and career ready,” Director Griffin offered. “We understand that the manual they need to operate a forklift is at the same readability level as another kid’s college textbook. The buzz [I saw at this training] was so exciting. Everyone’s pulling the wagon in the same direction and sharing their ideas together.”

Tennessee Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons, whose office oversees all of the state’s literacy initiatives, echoed this sentiment. “The secondary literacy courses within our Reading 360 Initiative have really helped to pull our secondary teachers together around how literacy can and should be integrated into their instruction,” she said. “Because districts hosted their in-person sessions and invited all secondary teachers to attend, teachers across all content areas and grade levels now have a shared understanding – and vision – for the integral role literacy plays in improving student outcomes. I am incredibly proud of Tennessee educators across our state and their ongoing commitment to improving their instructional practice. They have clearly shown that literacy is an integral component of their work regardless of what subject they teach.”

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