Editor’s note: This story is the first in a two-part series examining the use of the structured literacy approach to reading instruction. Read the second story at st.news/mercerreads.
WENATCHEE — It was under the warehouse lights at Costco, about a year ago, when Aida Herrera first noticed something had shifted in her daughter, Sofia, who was lingering by the book table.
Neither she nor Sofia’s dad are big readers, Herrera said, and she’d never seen her youngest tackle a chapter book as large as “Charlotte’s Web,” the book Sofia insisted her mother buy that day. Two weeks later, Herrera quizzed her daughter on the plot of the 200-page classic and found that Sofia was following right along with the story of Wilbur the pig and his literate spider friend.
Until this year, Sofia was among the roughly 50% of students in Washington state who were reading below grade level. But under a model of instruction adopted by the Wenatchee School District in 2019, the third grader has now surpassed her age group in reading, according to the district’s assessments. She can rattle off the meaning of “morpheme” (the smallest meaningful part of a word) and spot prefixes and suffixes on the fly. Her teacher last year searched for words to stump her, she said. And when that happens, she knows what to do.
“I just break down the word,” Sofia said. “And clap out the syllables.”
WATCH: Wenatchee teachers improve student reading through structured literacy
Her teachers taught her to do this through an approach called structured literacy, a major divergence from the way reading is currently taught in most schools across the state and country. Instead of expecting children to learn how to read and write through exposure to books and context clues — an approach sometimes called “whole language” — structured literacy is centered on brain science and teaching the fundamental structures of English, including phonics. Students start out learning one sound at a time, eventually reaching a point where they can identify patterns to deconstruct words into their smallest parts.
The method hearkens back to older ways to teach reading, and is even regarded as a preventive measure for dyslexia, a difficulty interpreting sound components in language. One of the most common learning disorders, it affects around a fifth of the population, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.
In the Seattle area today, the method is mostly taught in private schools. But the model is now seeing a comeback in public school districts after more than a decade of plummeting reading scores nationwide. Mercer Island and Mount Vernon are among the other school systems in Washington state making the switch to structured literacy as their sole method of reading instruction.
Washington schools are rethinking how they teach reading in part because of a new state law that mandates all children in grades K-2 be screened for dyslexia beginning this year. Districts are required to help students flagged by the screening by teaching them the main components of structured literacy.
In Wenatchee, there are some signs that it could pay off. In the two-plus years since the district adopted structured literacy, some students’ scores on district reading assessments, given three times a year, are rising more quickly. Between fall and winter this year, the share of kindergartners meeting grade level standards grew from 20% in the fall to 55%.
But progress hasn’t been linear. Overall reading scores haven’t improved year over year at the district since the model rolled out, and in some cases have dropped, which leaders attribute to the pandemic. Just 23% of students started this year at grade level in reading, up to 41% this winter.
Jan Hasbrouck, a Seattle-based specialist in structured literacy and reading, said she would expect districts to make meaningful progress in three to five years based on existing research.
But the state of affairs was much bleaker before structured literacy, said Sofia’s teacher, Teresa Heinz. Students would make it to her third grade classroom still not knowing the alphabet. By year’s end, only half her students would be reading at grade level.
“And that is absolutely not OK,” said Heinz, one of the district’s leading structured literacy teachers. “It’s not fair for them when they reach middle school” and can’t figure out how to read more complicated words.
How structured literacy works
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.
An average reading lesson in Allison Hurt’s first grade classroom incorporates all four skills and has her “sweating by the end.”
Minutes before the morning bell on a recent school day, Hurt hurried through the E-shaped building to collect her students from the gym, passing windows with views of Cascade mountain foothills honeyed by the rising sun.
She greeted each student with a hug and led them back to the classroom. After a quick breakfast and chit chat at their desks, Hurt gave them the cue.
“Vowel team,” she called, invoking one of the spelling patterns the kids memorize. “Vowel team makes the long vowel sound,” they chimed back, leaving their desks to sit at the back of the room. “Vowel team” refers to the way vowels are exaggerated when they are next to each other in a word, such as “seed,” or “good.” Posters outlining other spelling patterns and how to break words into syllables lined the walls.
Phonology is first on the agenda. Hurt, seated above the students, glanced down at a notebook on her lap. She asked the students to say the word “rattle.”
“OK, now can you say ‘rattle’ without the rat?”
To those who didn’t learn to read using this approach, some of the activities may appear too complex for little kids. But as has been the case in many districts, the biggest lift to structured literacy is training the adults, not the kids.
“What is the medial sound in this word?” Sharon Osborn, a reading specialist, asked a first grader later that afternoon, pointing to the word “cat.” (She was looking for the student to answer with “AAA.”)
Many of us, including the teachers in Wenatchee, learned to read by hearing others read to us, and trying to read on our own. We internalized how words were pronounced and spelled without much explanation.
When students would question why some words seemingly defied logic, “I was always a person who would’ve said, ‘I don’t know, guys, English is tricky,’” said Hurt.
Some kids still thrive as readers in that ambiguity, especially if they have a lot of exposure to books and words in other parts of their lives, or access to tutors.
But that doesn’t represent the average student in Wenatchee, which bills itself as the “Apple Capital of the World.” Many students come from working class homes where English isn’t the primary language spoken. Their parents spend long days working in fruit packing sheds or at the local hospital system, said Lincoln Principal Tim Sheppard, who purchased additional literacy training for his staff out of his school’s budget.
The research consensus is that most children need a varying amount of structured literacy, especially kids with dyslexia or those new to English, said Hasbrouck.
To turn things around, Wenatchee teachers went through three days of mandatory training with a literacy expert starting in winter 2019, and continue to train on the model today. Outside of the district-provided training, Heinz and Hurt began doing their own research on the model, and created lesson plans for their colleagues.
Even during the periods where kids were mostly taught online, the teachers say, they saw significant improvement.
“Fewer students are at rock-bottom,” said Heinz.
By the end of last year, her first full school year teaching this method, Hurt said 80% of her first-grade class had aced a phonology test — nothing she’d seen before in previous years. She could ask her kids to read together from a passage out loud instead of reading to them.
Those improvements, teachers say, are in large part because the students now have a set of tools they can turn to when they encounter a difficult word. The old “whole language” or “balanced literacy” reading models encourage kids to skip over words they don’t understand or try to guess from context clues. A cartoon frog named Skippy hanging on classroom walls is a telltale sign of these models.
“If you see Skippy the Frog, start asking questions,” said Wenatchee Superintendent Paul Gordon, whose arrival in 2019 prompted the district’s transition to structured literacy. “It may work in a very low level picture book, but where does that strategy help you in a novel … a newspaper article or anything else?”
Phonics and phonemic awareness is important for all students, but especially for dyslexic kids and English learners, who have trouble distinguishing between all the sounds.
“In Spanish, there are five vowel sounds. They come to English and all of a sudden there’s 18 vowel sounds,” said Heinz. “We have to practice and actually form new pathways in their brain to hear all of those sounds.”
Sofia, whose family primarily speaks Spanish at home, began to “blossom” once she’d picked up the phonics and spelling pattern rules, Heinz said.
And Sofia recognizes this herself. “I really improved from first grade,” she said. “Now I like reading a bit too much,” explaining that she spends hours in hyper-focus on a book.
Not every student has taken to reading in the same way as Sofia, who does advanced work during the school’s “Walk to Read,” when students are separated by reading ability for more intensive support.
But because reading lessons are more sequenced and deliberate now, teachers say it’s much easier to spot and intervene in the specific area where the student is struggling.
“By teaching them structured literacy, we are offering them the very best,” said Hurt. “It’s thousands of dollars to seek that treatment for dyslexia — you’d have to go to Seattle,” where a number of private schools teach reading using some form of structured literacy.
Before the switch to structured literacy, Wenatchee officials saw year after year pass with lackluster reading outcomes. That’s true throughout Washington, where only about 35% of fourth-grade students were rated proficient at reading in 2019, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress — on par with the national average.
There were other efforts to reform instruction prior to structured literacy in Wenatchee. In 2015, the district purchased a $1 million reading curriculum to transition schools out of the “hodgepodge” of curricula they’d been using before, and provided training on important skills emphasized in the state standards, said Sarah Wall, the district’s director of curriculum, instruction and professional learning.
But those efforts didn’t prove helpful in “making the kinds of gains that we hoped for,” Wall said.
In fall 2019, Gordon, a new superintendent, realized the district needed an overhaul during his first few weeks on the job. During a tour of the district’s schools he stopped by a fourth grade classroom, where a girl confessed to him and the rest of her class that she was illiterate.
WATCH: Superintendent Paul Gordon shares the catalyst for structured literacy in Wenatchee
“You could hear a pin drop,” he said. The girl continued, “I feel like kids are laughing at me because they know I can’t read.”
Gordon first learned structured literacy early in his career, when he was assigned to teach English learners at a middle school and searched for ways to help students decode English words.
The model is challenging for adults to learn and requires extensive training; for that reason, teachers say it’s difficult to pass reading lesson plans off to substitutes.
“The reality is for most four-year undergraduate degrees in elementary education, most colleges and universities don’t teach this information,” said Gordon.
Gordon is upfront about how far the district needs to go. The goal is to get 95% of students reading at grade level in third grade, the age at which some research posits that reading ability can be predictive of whether a student will graduate from high school. The district still has a long way to go, but Heinz sees the progress.
In Sofia’s class, around a quarter of students met standards this winter, an increase of 14% since the fall. Sixty-one percent met standards in phonics, up from 33% in the fall.
“If we know what to do to help them and we aren’t doing it,” said Heinz, “then that’s absolutely not educational justice.”
WATCH: Teacher Teresa Heinz breaks down a word using the structured literacy approach