It’s nearly noon in Emily O’Brien’s first-grade classroom, and children are sprawled around the room in small groups amid a clutter of backpacks, notebooks and student artwork.
Some read on pillows next to a bookcase. Others hunch over iPads doing literacy exercises. Some squint at desks as they practice making letters with thick markers.
At a semi-circular desk, Ms. O’Brien directs a carefully chosen group of children in using pictures on cards to match sounds; this phonemic awareness is a building block in learning to read.
“What sound does that make?” she asks, leaning over the table. “Win … win-dow.”
In a far corner of the room, barely visible amid projects made of paper plates and streamers, Dr. Theresa Magpuri-Lavell, a Bellarmine education professor and the first-ever Scholar-in-Residence for Jefferson County Public Schools, nods with approval.
“This is what a reading class should look like,” she says.
Jacob Elementary is one of 63 Jefferson County public elementary schools taking part in the ambitious Bellarmine-JCPS Literacy Project, now in its third year. The program is aimed at bolstering teachers’ ability to impart critical reading skills, particularly in kindergarten through third grade—a time when deficits in that area can compound quickly and act as a heavy drag on a student’s shot at academic success.
So far, the program has provided nearly 800 teachers with 90 hours each of content knowledge and practical skills on evidence-based teaching methods, including ways to more specifically identify and target elements of literacy and reading skills that form the foundation of fluent reading.
Ms. O’Brien, who is in her fourth year of teaching at Jacob and has completed the literacy program, said she was initially skeptical. Wasn’t she already trained as an elementary school teacher?
“I thought I knew everything about reading before I got into the program,” she said. “But it taught me how to teach fluency, comprehension, phonemic awareness and phonics more in-depth. I understood how to group my kids better, and give assessments to see what specifically they are struggling on. It helped me figure out what exactly I need to teach on for each individual kid. … Originally, I was just focusing on what story can they read independently. Now I know more specifically that they need help with their short vowels or their blends, putting sounds to the letters.”
Dr. Magpuri-Lavell knows the challenges firsthand. She taught elementary school for 10 years, in Massachusetts, Tennessee and Japan. With her doctorate, she focused on early-grade literacy and reading instruction. At Bellarmine, she is a professor of education and was assistant dean of outreach programs before becoming “embedded” as JCPS’s Scholar-in-Residence for 2016-17 to help oversee the Literacy Project. The school district is reimbursing Bellarmine for her salary.
In some ways, Dr. Magpuri-Lavell said, the need for additional teacher training is partly rooted in America’s long-running “reading wars,” a debate over the best way to teach reading.
A high-profile National Reading Panel report in 2000 helped fuel a greater focus on phonics instruction and scripted reading programs aimed at basic skills. Some said this approach was especially helpful for children who didn’t have access to experienced teachers, while others characterized it as “drill-and-kill.” At other times, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, toward “whole language” instruction, immersing children in text. But that often led to too little emphasis on explicitly and systematically teaching readers how to decode words, Dr. Magpuri-Lavell said.
While research now supports a more comprehensive approach that includes phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and other areas, she said the debate affected what was taught in university teacher preparation programs.
“We have teachers who were trained in those eras. My teacher education program was about immersing children in text,” she said. “I didn’t learn how to teach phonics, those early foundation skills.”
Officials hope to expand the program to all 90 Jefferson County public elementary schools, but the stakes are particularly high at Jacob Elementary, which is located in southern Louisville in an area of low-income housing.
Among its roughly 670 students, 92 percent qualify for subsidized lunches, Principal Michael Terry said. Many come from single-parent homes and have parents who work multiple jobs. The school also has a high rate of students moving in and out of the school.
Those out-of-school stressors often mean that incoming kindergarteners have less exposure to books, vocabulary and experiences that form foundations of early literacy than their more affluent counterparts. In 2015, just 41 percent of Jacob Elementary’s kindergartners were deemed to be kindergarten-ready, according to district figures. As a result, the school has long struggled with low test scores.
“We’re already starting from behind with our kindergartners,” said Stephanie Basham, the school’s reading facilitator, who knows that those early learning gaps, if not addressed, can quickly compound to the point that catching up becomes exceedingly difficult.
Ms. O’Brien sees that firsthand in her classroom. “I do have a lot of struggling readers,” she said. “Some are on level, but the majority are not.”
But at Jacob Elementary, teachers like O’Brien have bought in to the value of the Bellarmine-JCPS literacy push. That acceptance is key to any teacher training initiative—and there are many—that teachers sometimes view warily.
“When teachers come out of college, they feel like they’re ready. But when they get in the classroom, they need some additional tools,” Principal Terry said. The Literacy Project has “allowed us to say, ‘These are the skills you need; this is what you should be teaching’ … to make teachers more intentional.”
Academic studies have shown that building teacher capacity—improving teachers’ ability to diagnose more accurately and specifically where a child’s skills may be falling short, and giving them additional strategies—is more effective in boosting reading than hiring teachers with many years of experience, purchasing prepackaged reading programs or even creating smaller classes.
So far, the effort is paying dividends.
The Literacy Project has changed what instruction looks like at Jacob Elementary. Before, Ms. Basham said, citing just one example, “we’d teach whole group. Now it’s more individualized. We put kids in small groups based on needs from assessments.”
Principal Terry said test scores are up, which he attributes in part to better-targeted teaching and individualized instruction. And during the last round of results on Kentucky’s state tests, Jacob Elementary was lauded for its gains by Superintendent Donna Hargens.
“Definitely we’ve had a change in our reading scores—they’ve gone up,” the principal said. “My teachers know where every kid is in literacy, and what they need.”
By Chris Kenning