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6 Steps to Begin a School-Wide Science of Reading Journey

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The Revolution has begun. There is no longer a real debate about the Reading Wars. Research has shown us how reading occurs in the brain, and the most effective ways to teach reading. Many states have passed legislation requiring these changes take place in schools. You can see your state’s legislation here. Many schools are beginning to dive into the concepts of Structured Literacy and the Science of Reading (SoR). If you are in education, you know. The wheels are finally turning. So many children will reap the rewards.

However, change is difficult. Shifting an entire school’s thinking and philosophy is challenging. This paradigm shift will take energy, dedication, and unified effort. We should take notes from schools who have been early adopters and have successfully transitioned from Balance Literacy to a Structured Literacy Approach. What resources were helpful? How did they get an entire staff on board? How long did it take to see a difference in student performance?

I have been researching and have had the privilage of being a part several schools who have made this shift. These 6 Steps can help you orchestrate school-wide change. Hopefully they will be a guiding light and will inspire your school to start this vital journey.

#1: If any real change is to occur school-wide, the administration must be on board.

The truth is, every knowledgeable teacher will make a difference, but to change the philosophy of an entire school (or district), the administrator(s) must be knowledgeable and ready to lead a revolution.

I am lucky enough to be at a school with a principal who was ready to listen, research, and act. My amazing teammate and I went to her four years ago with an idea. We wanted to change the backbone of our school’s reading instruction. We told her the why.

We gave her the research. And, she said, “Let’s do it.”  The first year, she gave us 6 staff meetings to introduce structured literacy and the science of reading. We did a mini-training on what SoR looks like within each of the 5 components of reading. We read articles, had honest conversations, and re-evaluated what practices we had that aligned and what we needed to replace. For the next several years, our principal dedicated funds to getting teachers materials and further professional development. She attended webinars, conferences, and trainings to learn more herself. And, she trusted us enough to allow us to become school leaders. Over four years, all of those small changes have accumulated to a success story.

Another inspiring story of an administrator creating change is Angie Hanlin, current Superintendent in Wisconsin. She led her former school from 13% to 100% reading proficiency. You can hear her inspiring story here.

Big Horn Elementary School in Wyoming has made significant strides shifting their school district toward the science of reading. Their parent newsletters have made national headlines. You can follow this team of trail-blazing administrators, teachers, and reading specialists on their journey here.

#2 Big Journeys Begin With Small Steps

Orchestrating this kind of change did not happen overnight. In fact, it didn’t happen in a year. Our school is still making small, conscious decisions every day to continue to refine and align our literacy instruction. Some teachers where ready to jump in and others were more resistant.

We found ways to implement small changes that would have big impact without changing everything at once.

The Reading League of Ohio, along with Kelli Johnson, created a webinar and corresponding infographic titled: DO THIS, NOT THAT: Decoding, Fluency, Vocabulary, Comprehension, & Assessment. These small changes are manageable and not overwhelming, but begin the shift away from the three cueing system to a more systematic approach.

#3 Knowledge is Power

The best piece of advice we received was to put resources (time and money) into quality professional development for teachers. The truth is, teachers are the most passionate, dedicated, hard-working, and committed people in the world. We are not intentionally doing harm to children. The fact is that the majority of teachers have simply not been taught the science of how reading takes place in the brain and how to use that knowledge to provide effective instruction. Most of us grew up learning Whole Language approaches and were instructed in Balanced Literacy in college preparation courses. We simply do not know better.

An incredible book to begin this journey is Know Better, Do Better So Every Child Can Read by Meredith Liben and David Liben. It is an easy-to-digest overview of why our previous approaches have failed and how to begin this journey. It also relieves teachers of the blame and guilt many educators feel when discovering our practices have been unknowingly ineffective and even harmful.

Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom by Jan Burkins and Kari Yates is also a great starting line read. Instead of changing everything, change these six things that will help you shift toward structured literacy and give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Having a staff read and participate in a book study would be an inexpensive and manageable place to begin. Most teachers will be ready to adapt if they truly understand why this paradigm shift needs to occur and are then given the opportunity to learn a more effective way.

The American Public Media (APM) put out several podcasts the detail America’s reading wars and the need for a shift in our thinking. These powerful podcasts could also be a springboard for school-wide discussions.

Hard Words: Why aren’t kids being taught to read?

At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers

Hard to Read: How American schools fail kids with dyslexia

A one-time professional development course or reading one book will not be enough for systemic, sustainable change. Instead, professional development needs to be given in small, manageable pieces over an extended period of time. Time to try new ideas and then reflect and debrief in a safe, non-judgemental way is key.

#4 Make it Personal

Because most teachers are caring and compassionate, seeing the harm that can be done to individual students is often enough to evoke change. Test scores and percentiles are not as powerful as real, human stories.

My daughter was a vivacious, bubbly five-year-old who could not wait to begin kindergarten. Fast forward 5 years and she was anxious, lonely, and defeated. Her story is so common. Every teacher has had students who are struggling to succeed with traditional instruction. Every teacher can think of a student who became defeated and hopeless.

The International Dyslexia Association has created a fact sheet detailing the social and emotional problems related to reading disabilities. Read about how struggling with reading can negatively impact a child’s well-being here.

One of the most powerful experiences you can have is to participate in a Dyslexia Simulation. After just an hour or two of battling to decode, encode, and concentrate, feelings of frustration and defeat are overwhelming. A dyslexia simulation mimics the struggles a dyslexic person experiences on a daily basis. It is the most eye-opening way to create empathy and compassion. Every parent, teacher, and administrator should experience this. Dyslexia for a Day Simulation Kit is reasonably priced and easy to administer.

#5 Model and Build Structures of Support

One of the most effective ways to inspire and evoke change is by showing teachers exactly what does work. If students need explicit instruction to acquire a new skill, then teachers do too! Knowledgeable teachers who are well verse in the science of reading should not hide out in the classrooms doing the good work with a single class of twenty-five students at a time. Those teachers should open their doors and let others observe what systematic instruction looks and feels like.  Having a model of excellence has been long-proven to be an effective learning agent. Building a school culture that is cooperative and not competitive is crucial. These teacher leaders should be available to coach, model, brainstorm, and problem solve.

One school in our disctrict sent several teachers to a structured literacy conference over the summer for extensive training. Then, the following fall, those teacher lead a phonics committee to teach their colleagues and create a plan to vertically align the phonics instruction in their school. Slowly, most of the teachers in the school became trained in the Orton Gillingham methodology. The school decided what was to be taught (the 5 components of reading) and how it was to be taught (in an explicit, systematic way, following an agreed upon scope and sequence). The goals and agreements were continually revisited. Implementation ideas and resources were shared. The school began to see monumental change by the end of the first year!

#6 Show Growth and Celebrate

The beautiful thing about beginning the Science of Reading journey is that it does not take long to begin to see results. The truth is, the three cueing system taught children all the bad habits that poor readers use to get by. It set early readers up for failure. By remediating that and teaching the foundational skills of reading to all children, those who otherwise would be flailing, can begin to crack the code of language fairly easily. Growth can be seen almost immediately.

Change is difficult. By showing growth and creating a culture of celebration, it makes the hard work of change easier. Once teachers begin seeing their students’ success in reading and spelling, they will be eager to learn more and keep going!

Celebrate the baby steps. Celebrate the effort. Just celebrate and keep the momentum going!

Conversation Starters and Questions to Ask:

How can I begin this conversation with administrators?

What evidence can I provide decision-makers to educated them about the benefits teaching in a way that is evidence-based and rooted in research?

How can I offer to be part of the solution and begin to elicit change?

What could be a first step to educate my staff about the science of reading without the overwhelm?

What small changes do we as a school prioritize for year one?

Who are the early adopters in my school who would be willing to take on leadership roles?

How can I share real stories of students who struggled and also success stories?

What opportunities could I provide that would encourage empathy and courage to change?

What steps can be taken to create school-wide common agreements?

What needs to be provided so teachers feel supported and have a model of success to follow?

How can we celebrate individual and school-wide growth?

How can we create a culture of cooperation and inspiration, not competition?

Thank you for joining me in this journey.

You can read more about my story and inspiration here. I would love to hear your success stories and what has been instrumental in your school for orchestrating change. Leave a comment!

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