Oregon teachers want to learn the right way to teach reading. They need funding to do it. – OregonLive

Hillsboro kindergarten teacher Kandi Hess is one of about 2,500 Oregon teachers who have participated in the science of reading training since 2019. The coursework has helped her understand how the human brain learns written language. Since starting the training, she has dedicated more instruction time to helping students build phonics and phonemic awareness. Sean Meagher/The Oregonian
After 13 years of teaching, Hillsboro kindergarten teacher Kandi Hess did not know the rule that determines when the letter g makes the hard “guh” sound versus the soft “juh,” until she started a year-long science of reading training her school district launched last summer.
In the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling program, short-handed as LETRS, Hess learned that g only makes the “juh” sound when followed by an e, i or y.
Hence the mnemonic, “Gentle Ginger goes to the gym.”
Hess learned that there are many other phonic and phonemic rules that give rhyme and reason to the English language and make it easier to learn to read.
“In my teaching program, no one ever taught me,” said Hess, who teaches at Eastwood Elementary School. “I’ve taken lots of other courses on teaching reading and addressing reading issues, but I’ve never gotten this explicit level of how to teach reading.”
The program teaches educators the science behind reading, which is largely based on an awareness of phonics – how sounds look in writing – and phonemics, the series of sounds that make up a word. When a child sounds out words and connects the pronunciation with their meaning, new words are mapped into memory.
Hess said it’s the best training she has received.
Given increasing national attention to brain-based research on how humans learn to read and the devastating learning setbacks most students experienced during the pandemic, a wave of Portland-area school districts are offering teachers voluntary 100-hour LETRS training. Rather than a curriculum, the course offers a set of research-based strategies to use in tandem with other learning materials.
School districts have to purchase licenses for each teacher who participates in the training. Since 2019, Lexia, the reading curriculum company that owns LETRS, has sold nearly 2,500 licenses to Oregon school districts for the first part of the training and about 1,100 licenses to the second part, according to company spokesperson Charlotte Andrist.
Due to funding constraints, most Oregon school districts only offer the training to a small percentage of teachers each year. Statewide, roughly 10,000 classroom teachers teach kindergarten through grade three, when most how-to-read instruction takes place, according to Oregon Department of Education spokesperson Marc Siegel.
“Oregon educators are hungry for this knowledge,” said Angela Uherbelau, founder of volunteer advocacy group Oregon Kids Read. “The barrier isn’t teacher uptake. The barrier is a lack of dedicated funding and a coordinated effort to support educators in their learning, both during and after the training.”
In recent years, an increasing number of Portland-area school districts have adopted curricula based on the science of reading, so teachers who have not participated in LETRS are still guided to provide research-based literacy instruction. The Hillsboro school district uses McGraw Hill’s Wonders curriculum and its Spanish language counterpart, Maravillas, which emphasize phonics and guided reading.
But LETRS empowers teachers to lead science-based learning, said Jaime Goldstein, the reading intervention specialist who runs Hillsboro’s LETRS training.
“These teachers understand the research at a higher level of complexity,” Goldstein said, “and are able to help the kids better versus just following the textbook.”
Legislative efforts in the new year to set aside state funds for the teacher training could expand access to it, Uherbelau said.
Oregon’s most recent test scores, recorded last spring, showed an overwhelming number of elementary students reading significantly below grade level. Nearly 40% of third graders in the state scored at Level 1, the lowest of four tiers. Mastering reading early in life is critical, as research shows reading proficiency in third grade highly correlates with both academic performance in later grades and graduating from high school.
While the lack of in-person instruction during the pandemic stunted learning, Oregon students struggled with reading long before COVID-19. In 2003, only 33% of the state’s fourth-graders registered as proficient readers on the highly regarded National Assessment of Educational Progress. And, as Oregon schools chief Colt Gill recently told lawmakers, that figure has essentially not budged in the two decades since.
One cause: Many Oregon children, like others across the country, have been taught to read using a faulty method. Teachers told them to guess at words using pictures, context and the first letter, rather than sounding out words with every letter. The “three-cueing” phenomenon, and its mismatch with brain science, was brought to wide attention among educators and parents by American Public Media education journalist Emily Hanford in her recent podcast series “Sold a Story.”
Guessing new words by looking at pictures or syntax is a key aspect of the so-called whole language approach to teaching reading. It’s based on the idea that children naturally learn to read when given a rich array of appealing books, and the primary job of teachers is to encourage a love for reading.
As science has largely debunked that method, parents and educators have sought alternatives, including new curriculum materials and high-dosage tutoring.
A critical mass of districts — Beaverton, Lake Oswego, Portland, Reynolds, Tigard-Tualatin, Multnomah Education Service District, Willamette Education Service District, Hillsboro — have also opted for LETRS training.
Hess and about 50 other Hillsboro teachers completed the first half of the training over the summer and will complete the second half by the end of the academic year. Hillsboro’s first cohort of 50 teachers finished during last school year.
In Portland Public Schools, a district with 900 elementary teachers, about 100 educators have completed the training. Nearly 250 others are working towards finishing the first or second half of the training, said spokesperson Sydney Kelly.
The Lake Oswego School District aims to have all of its roughly 110 primary school teachers complete the first half of training by 2025. Of the 51 who completed the first part last year, 34 chose to continue to the second half. A cohort of 66 teachers began the first half of the training this fall, said literacy specialist Kelly Troike.
LETRS instructs teachers to create a classroom display of images of children's mouths pronouncing various words accompanied by the images of the words. Hess created the display on the back wall of her classroom, which helps her kindergartners recognize the shapes their mouths should make when pronouncing different words. Sean Meagher/The Oregonian
Kindergartners sit cross-legged at the front of the classroom as Hess shows slides of letters in upper and lowercase next to accompanying images.
One shows P and p alongside a picture of a pig.
Following Hess’ lead, children put their little hands behind their ears, mimicking pigs, while making the “p” sound.
“Your lips are going to pop apart and make a puff of air when you make the sound,” Hess told the students. She then told them to put a hand in front of their mouth to feel the hot air that comes out when they pronounce “p.”
Since starting LETRS, Hess has shifted most of her instruction time to phonics and phonemic awareness. Those two skills provide the foundation to reading that Hess said she has learned children must establish early to be successful readers in later grades.
For each unit of their training, teachers watch online videos and complete textbook readings, then meet virtually to review the material and discuss how to apply it to the classroom.
In November, teachers focused on vocabulary. Goldstein, the Hillsboro literary specialist, led teachers in an exercise for introducing a new vocabulary word to a class, breaking down the word “interleave” — to insert pages between pages of a book — by syllables, definition and morphemes.
Teachers then discussed the Matthew Effect, which states that people who begin with advantage accumulate more advantage over time while those with less advantage accumulate less. In the context of literacy, that means children who start off good at reading will likely read more and become better readers, while children who struggle early on will read less and often continue to be weak readers.
Like many elementary school teachers, Hess said she has loved reading since she was a child and considers herself a natural reader. But, she said, her husband has dyslexia and her two daughters struggled with reading growing up.
In signing up for LETRS, Hess was motivated to figure out the most effective way to teach reading, and foster a love for it, in children of all skill levels.
“A lot of the time we have behavioral issues with kids because they don’t have the ability to do what we’re asking them to do in their classrooms,” she said.
Hess said she is earning overtime pay and 12 graduate-level credits through the training. Oregon requires teachers to complete about four semesters of college credit to renew their teaching license every five years. The additional credits also allowed Hess to move up on the school district salary scale, which dictates how much teachers are paid based on their education level and years of experience.
Hess has a part-time job at a local business to help pay the bills. She said the financial incentives of LETRS have afforded her time off from her second job to focus on the coursework.
The extra pay “entices teachers who are on the fence about doing more training,” she said.
While most of her reading instruction focuses on phonics and phonemic awareness, Hess said there are elements of the whole language approach that she holds onto in her teaching, such as reading books with the class and nurturing a love for stories. "You absolutely have to have phonics to be able to read on your own…," she said, “But also they have to have a love of reading, and they have to understand that there's a purpose for what they're doing, that what they are doing is tools that give them freedom." Sean Meagher/The Oregonian
In the 2022 legislative session, then-House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner of Portland championed a budget request for $20 million to pay for LETRS training in all high-need elementary schools. Her proposal designated $400,000 for Eastern Oregon University to administer the training and the rest to compensate teachers and hire substitutes so educators could complete part of the training during school hours.
Uherbelau, Oregon Kids Read founder and parent of two children in Portland Public Schools, worked with Smith Warner, a Democrat, on the budget request. While the proposal was not successful, Uherbelau said she anticipates a similar budget request in the upcoming session.
Smith Warner, who will leave office in January, said she expects a similar proposal will have more success in the new session. This year was a short even-year session and education committee leaders prioritized higher education, she said.
“Long-time old-school teacher-types were like, ‘This is just the old phonics debate,’ so it was hard to get past that in the education committee,” the representative said.
But the latest statewide reading scores have created heightened urgency to improve literacy instruction, Smith Warner said, and she’s optimistic that several legislators who have vocalized passion for early education will take up the baton in scaling up LETRS.
But champions of LETRS training are not looking to mandate it in struggling schools, only to offer high-needs schools and their teachers the funding.
“We want them to have the same opportunity as colleagues in better-resourced districts currently offering LETRS,” Uherbelau said.
— Rose Wong covers early childhood education for The Oregonian/OregonLive. Contact her at rwong@oregonian.com, call her at 971-666-7224, or follow her @rosebwong
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