WILMINGTON, Del. — Weeks into the school year at the Bayard School, five wiggly first graders were working with reading specialist Jodi Forestieri on recognizing the starting sounds of words.

“Mmm, moon,” Forestieri said, prompting the children to point to the corresponding word on their worksheet. “Tuh, tape.”

Forestieri spends her days working with groups of students like these, whose reading skills are well below grade level.

“In the past couple of years, we were able to send our kindergartners on, knowing the letter sounds, letter names and 20 or so sight words,” said Forestieri, who normally would spend more time coaching teachers. “We have many more students not knowing those skills. I really do think that’s a pandemic impact,” she said.

Educators here are working hard to stop the slide. And this catch-up work is not just taking place at Bayard. A half decade of flat reading scores had already prompted Delaware to make improving early literacy a priority.

Now, the pandemic’s disruptions have increased the stakes here and everywhere. Nationwide, student reading scores on the widely used Measures of Academic Progress, or MAP, dipped three to six percentile points in 2021 compared to 2019. Delaware saw English and language arts scores decline on its own tests as well.

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“Reading Remedies” is a special reporting series examining the challenges and solutions in K-12 literacy across the U.S. The series was produced by The Seattle Times in partnership with  The Christian Science Monitor, The Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, and The Fresno Bee.

Reading Remedies: New policies and practices to boost literacy

Across the U.S., students are struggling to read at grade level. But new state policies and classroom practices are helping some kids catch up. The Seattle Times published this series of stories about new challenges and solutions in literacy in partnership with The Christian Science MonitorThe Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.comThe Dallas Morning News, and The Fresno Bee.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have said they’ll use federal COVID funds to train teachers or change the way they teach reading. Along with Connecticut, North Carolina and Tennessee, Delaware wrote the “science of reading” into state law this year. The term “science of reading” is used to describe five components of effective reading instruction: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

Delaware’s literacy plan, released in 2019 by the state department of education, included professional development for teachers and guided districts toward high-quality teaching materials. The plan also emphasized early literacy programs and improving new teacher preparation.

“We weren’t doing something in the pandemic that we weren’t focused on before the pandemic,” said Monica Gant, Delaware’s chief academic officer. “The actual work does not change. The way in which we do the work changes.”

For example, the state is paying for an expansion of a program to provide high-dosage tutoring for students who have the most academic needs. That fits into an existing priority to get high-quality instruction to more of the state’s children.

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Reading proficiency slips

Delaware may be the “every state” when it comes to reading instruction. On the 2019 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), Delaware scored in the middle of the pack in elementary reading achievement. In the past, like most states, Delaware didn’t specify parameters for reading instruction, beside requiring that teacher-preparation programs include research-based practices in their training.

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Both in Delaware and nationally, about two-thirds of fourth graders scored at or above “basic” on the 2019 assessment, a rate that remained flat from prior years. Mississippi was the only state that saw a statistically significant increase in elementary reading scores in 2019 compared to 2017. The test is administered every two years. Mississippi had launched its own reading-instruction overhaul in 2013.

But Delaware was aware of a worrying trend that was showing up in its own state test scores. The percentage of third graders reading proficiently had slipped by 3 percentage points between 2015 and 2019.

Third-grade reading levels are particularly important because children who can’t read well by that grade are four times more likely to drop out of school than their peers who can read proficiently.

The pandemic dragged achievement further down in Delaware, as it did elsewhere: The state’s own assessments found that for 2017, 2018 and 2019, the percent of students scoring below or well below “basic” had hovered between 46% and 48%. On the 2021 test, 58% of students scored below or well below “basic.”

While direct comparisons between 2021 and prior years are difficult because test participation rates were lower this year, there’s no question that more Delaware students are struggling.

Several schools in Wilmington that are served by the Christina School District have received special attention from the governor’s office because of their low test scores. Thirty miles southwest of Philadelphia, Wilmington is the most populous city in the state. The Christina district serves a portion of the city, in addition to Newark and its suburbs.

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Glenda Flowers, an instructional coach at Bayard, said that students still need to get reaccustomed to a typical classroom environment after learning remotely for part of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.

“Teachers are saying that you put the work in front of them and they’re in a daze,” Flowers said. “Kids have to learn to think again.”

The Christina School District recently adopted the Benchmark Advance reading curriculum. Students receive nearly two hours of instruction in literacy a day — plus additional time built in for at least 30 minutes of intensive interventions.

Although individual districts have control over their own English language arts curricula, the state is promoting programs that it says align to best practices in teaching reading. The state-created portal “Delaware Delivers” is intended to make it easier for district superintendents and other officials to see what works and why.

“This is a long-term solution, not a quick fix or a reaction to COVID,” said Kathy Kelly, the state director of curriculum, instruction and professional development.

But the many logistical hurdles — including retraining thousands of teachers in the science of reading — could make change slow. And schools and districts are still figuring out the best way to work with students who need help with basic skills.

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What’s essential, however, is to keep students moving forward, rather than holding them back for remediation, Kelly said. But that’s a challenging task.

“How do you still give them the fourth-grade-level texts, and build in the scaffold?” Kelly said, referring to the use of extra help for struggling readers so that all students can be given the same content. “I’m not sure all of our districts and schools have embraced that concept,” Kelly said.

State Sen. Laura Sturgeon, a Democrat and the chair of the Delaware Senate’s education committee, said that the next challenge for the state, after passing its science of reading bill, is developing policies to ensure that all teachers, even those who trained out of state, share the same knowledge of scientifically based reading instruction and providing professional development to teachers who are already practicing in classrooms.

“The same things that are going to help students get caught up are just good practices that should have been in place all along,” Sturgeon said.

Federal funds used for tutoring help

In addition to the literacy plan and the new law, Delaware poured some federal COVID funds into high-dosage tutoring. The Christina School District, like several others around the state, has connected with a volunteer program, Reading Assist, to provide this kind of research-backed intervention for children who score in the lowest 10% for reading proficiency.

The infusion of new funds allowed the program to run through the summer, expand to three new districts and triple its number of volunteers, to around 90 so far, said Caroline O’Neal, Reading Assist’s executive director. Tutors go through weeks of training and are given a set curriculum to follow before being placed in schools, where they work one-on-one with students.

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This school year, Chris Kettering, one member of the expanded team of reading tutors, is working with a group of eager children with sobering challenges at Oberle Elementary in Bear, Delaware.

He had to start at the very beginning with one kindergarten student — teaching her the parts of a book, including the front, back and title page. A third grader he worked with struggled to read consonant-vowel-consonant words like “mop” and “pot.” A first grader could sing the alphabet song with musical flair, Kettering said, but couldn’t identify all the individual letters that go with those sounds.

“I’m doing this for a lot of reasons, but at the end, I really wanted to do something that was worth doing. And what can be more worth doing than helping struggling readers?” said Kettering, who has a caseload of seven children. “I’d be hard pressed to think of something that’s a greater need.”

Oberle has two Reading Assist volunteers, including Kettering, and is hoping for a third, said Cheri Goetcheus, the acting principal. The 570-student school lags the district overall in reaching achievement: In 2019, 76% of its students were well below or below reading standards, compared to 61% for the district as a whole.

In addition to tutors, the school is using a variety of online programs, such as i-Ready, and building in more time for small-group instruction during the day. The district has provided resources to support before- and after-school enrichment programs for students as well.

One initiative Oberle administrators would like to see in their school is the addition of a reading coach to provide support to teachers directly. Instructional coaching as a form of professional development shows promise, according to research, but that same research notes that it is hard to scale up such programs and keep them effective.

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“We would love to have those additional supports,” said Ann Hlabangana-Clay, Oberle’s acting assistant principal. “We have a wealth of experience under our belts, but that doesn’t mean we know everything.”

O’Neal, the executive director of Reading Assist, said that the program has seen a big jump in the number of requests for help with older children.

“Looking at this school year, there is just a ton of demand,” O’Neal said. “We are still getting requests from schools for tutors.” And though the program is built around tutors being able to work face-to-face with students, schools are also willing to use virtual tutors, she said.

As chaotic as the pandemic has been, state leaders say the crisis has provided an urgent incentive to make reading a priority — and that federal dollars are helping supercharge their efforts.

“Maybe the good thing is that there are more resources, there are funds coming in to help close the learning loss,” said Sturgeon, the state senator. “What we’ve tried to do is funnel some of those resources to reading programs that we know work.”

Ed Lab Live: Register for a live webinar about “Reading Remedies”

Across the U.S., students are struggling to learn how to read. But new state policies and classroom practices are showing success in helping kids catch up.

Hear from a classroom teacher and curriculum specialist from Texas, a Washington state district superintendent, and a key architect of Mississippi’s statewide reading plan.

In this free webinar on Tuesday, Nov. 16, at 4 p.m. PDT, they’ll discuss how systemic obstacles might be removed so we can better reach and teach struggling readers. Click here to register and submit a question to the experts.

This story about reading instruction was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, as part of the project “Reading Remedies,” a collaboration with The Christian Science Monitor and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee, The Post and Courier and The Seattle Times. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.