by Jody Underwood
Student performance in reading all over the United States, including New Hampshire and Vermont, has been poor for decades, with over half of students reading below grade level.
In this article, we look at how the Killington Elementary School (KES) in Vermont handled the COVID shutdowns and how it teaches reading.
Mary Guggenberger has been KES principal for eight years. KES is a Pre-K-6 school that has 118 students, including 23 in Pre-K. Like many village schools, it has one class per grade and varying numbers of students in each class. Last year, there were eight students in 2nd grade and 21 students in 3rd grade.
According to Principal Guggenberger, student academic achievement at KES has gone up and down over the last eight years. She said that the pandemic was challenging, though student reading scores were pretty stable. In fact, the school’s overall performance on the state SBAC reading test in 2021 (64% were proficient) was much better than its 2017 scores (48% were proficient). The 2022 scores were not available on the VT Agency of Education website. The agency did not respond to our request for that data.
Despite rising test scores, Principal Guggenberger felt that the pandemic had a significant impact on individual student achievement. She said that students currently in grades 4-6 have gaps because grades K-3 are so essential to reading. She said that, according to the science of reading, after 3rd grade, it’s harder to master reading.
The “science of reading” is based on decades of research about how students become proficient in reading and writing and why some of them have difficulty. Using brain scans and eye-tracking technology, researchers found that good readers process virtually every letter in every word as they read. Some children catch on quickly. Some, however, need to be taught how to do it. Learning to read is not as natural as learning to talk.
To learn about the science of reading, Guggenberger, and KES’s teachers went through intensive LETRS training last year — Language Essentials for Teaching Reading and Spelling. LETRS helps teachers understand the science of reading in order to help them teach better. For example, a systematic reading program for kids every day is imperative to develop proficient readers, stated Guggenberger. She said that the LETRS training has been amazing and eye-opening.
Like many schools, KES has been using the Fountas & Pinnell “cueing” curriculum. KES started using it eight years ago. According to Guggenberger, the research KES did during their LETRS training showed them that F&P left too much room for guessing what words were, including making predictions based on pictures and not sounding them out.
The idea behind Cueing Theory is that it’s easier for children to learn to read if they start with whole stories and whole sentences instead of trying to read individual words. Teachers cover up words in a story and tell students to look at the picture, look at the first letter, and think of a word that makes sense. The theory says that by practicing this approach, children can figure out how to read on their own. Reading Recovery and Lucy Caulkins are some other programs that use Cueing Theory.
Research indicates that this isn’t how good readers learn to read but, rather, how poor readers try to compensate for not being able to read. The science of reading research is summarized in an engaging podcast series called “Sold a Story,” produced by Emily Hanford, an investigative education journalist at American Public Media.
KES piloted different programs last year and is now moving forward with a curriculum called EL Education. They also use FUNdations for grades K-3, which follows the science of reading. The school will use Hegarty’s Decodable Readers as an intervention to replace the F&P leveled readers.
For benchmark assessments, which KES uses three times a year, it will use DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) and Forefront (for math) to gauge skills in grades K-2, which can also be used for older students if warranted, and STAR for grades 3-6 for reading and math. They also use PAST (Phonological Awareness Screening Test) and PNOA (Primary Number and Operations Assessment) to delve deeper.
Principal Guggenberger says that after KES improves its reading instruction, they will look into changing its approach to math. They’ve been using Investigations for 20 years and have supplemented it with Bridges Interventions recently. But she said that maybe simply teaching reading well will make a difference.
KES is already seeing improvement in reading, and Guggenberger is hopeful that state test scores will go up this coming year. She said that they’re always looking at data to determine the best way they can meet student needs and figure out how to get all teachers on board to support each other. “The new curriculum is a big change for us, on top of coming off COVID. I’m excited,” she said.
Republished from Granite Grok, a New Hampshire news and commentary online media outlet. The author has written research papers about how New Hampshire uses tax dollars for private schools and on how town tuitioning works in New Hampshire and New England. She has delivered presentations about town tuitioning and school choice around the state. Recently retired from her profession as a learning scientist, Dr. Underwood conducted design, development, and research around the use of technology for learning and assessment.