Moore County's Elementary Teachers Undertake New Reading Program page

Elementary Teachers Undertake New Reading Program

Elementary Teachers Undertake New Reading Program
This is the image for the news article titled Elementary Teachers Undertake New Reading ProgramMary Kate Murphy/The Pilot

MCS teachers and administrators kicked off implementation of LETRS training for K-5 teachers earlier this month at the Community Learning Center in Carthage.

More than 300 Moore County Schools elementary teachers will spend the next two years learning more about how their students learn to read.

It’s part of North Carolina’s latest effort to refocus on how public schools address elementary literacy. Research shows that third-grade students who are delayed in picking up reading are likely to remain that way.

But what we call reading is actually a combination of skills involving almost every part of the brain: connecting symbols with sounds, visually recognizing words, associating them with the word’s meaning and interpreting the context of an entire written passage.

For skilled readers, that all happens simultaneously — and so effortlessly that they don’t even realize it.

Last year, the state adopted a new approach to educating its teachers in literacy, designed to help them address each component of reading piecemeal and identify which element a specific child might be struggling with.

“The emphasis for so long has been on comprehension that this kind of gets lost,” said Jessica De Mestre, a fifth-grade language arts teacher at Pinehurst Elementary.

“While comprehension is vital, we cannot expect kids to read to learn if they don’t know how to read. We’re trying to access social studies content, we’re trying to access science content as we get into upper grades. How are they going to do so if they aren’t able to effectively read?”

North Carolina’s legislature has adopted what’s known as “the science of reading” into law, mandating that all public schools use it in their elementary education programs, and spent around $50 million to that end. Much of that has gone toward training teachers in Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS for short.

North Carolina is one of 23 states to adopt LETRS following its success in Mississippi, which put its K-3 teachers through the training beginning in 2013. As of 2019, Mississippi’s fourth-graders — the first cohort to start kindergarten under LETRS-trained teachers — showed the highest growth of any group in the nation. Its minority and economically disadvantaged students also showed more growth than their peers.

“Rather than training teachers on yet another program, it focuses on educating and equipping educators,” Catherine Truitt, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction, said in a video released to kick off the training.

“Through content, online modules, practice activities and coaching, LETRS explicitly shows teachers how to connect research to practice as it relates to everyday classroom experiences.”

Moore County Schools is among the last districts in North Carolina to begin LETRS training for its teachers. The training will take teachers approximately 160 hours over two years. Most of that will be completed online during their personal time. Teachers in districts who took it on last year struggled to find that time as the pandemic waned, schools returned to normal schedules and they began to get a handle on the level of learning loss and the diminished socialization skills their students were dealing with.

Pinehurst Elementary teachers have gotten a head start and are now leading teachers in the rest of the district as they embark on the training. That kicked off earlier this month at the Community Learning Center in Carthage with designated lead teachers and administrators from each elementary school.

MCS teachers and administrators kicked off implementation of LETRS training for K-5 teachers earlier this month at the Community Learning Center in Carthage.

Teachers took on the role of students, practicing breaking down words into their simplest components: the individual sounds that make up a word (phonemes) and the letters, or sequences of letters, that represent those sounds (graphemes).

LETRS has been represented as a return to phonics-based reading education, equipping students with the universal decoding skills that will serve them for a lifetime rather than essentially asking them to memorize words.

“When I went through school, we didn’t learn how to teach reading,” said Sandhills Farm Life Principal Julie MacPherson. “It was what was called ‘whole language,’ where children just learned how to read through seeing words and reading texts.”

Teachers practiced activities like brainstorming homonyms for a given word, or reading through short ‘decodable’ texts that systematically focus on introducing one of the English language’s 44 phonemes at a time. Teachers could lead their entire class through reading such a passage fluently and then ask students to retell the story in small groups.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that students have the ability to recognize words and the vocabulary in equal measure to read fluently. Deficiencies in one area can hinder a student in making progress.

“If it’s not a lightning-fast connection, we are focused on saying the words, identifying the words, and not what the text is about,” De Mester said.

There’s no specific curriculum tied to LETRS, so it won’t supplant what that teachers have been doing in their classrooms. Donna Gephart, Moore County Schools’ director for curriculum and instruction, described it as an investment in the state’s teachers.

“This is professional development that is providing them the skills, or I call them the tools in the toolbelt, to be able to do their jobs and make an impact on every child in the classroom,” she said.

Teachers have found that the training is “100 percent overwhelming” at first, but many end up wishing they’d been exposed to it much earlier in their teaching education, or even as students themselves.

“Talking to a lot of the other facilitators during training, we were all asking where was this when we were in college?” said Beth-Michelle Jones, a K-5 exceptional children’s teacher at Pinehurst Elementary.

“Looking back on how I was taught how to read, I felt like I did struggle. I didn't understand. ‘Why are we doing this? This doesn’t make sense.’ So now, seeing it and it making sense, I wish I was taught in this way so I could have understood.”

Moore County Schools will pay stipends to teachers as they progress through the training – $165 for completing each of the eight LETRS units. Teachers who score 80 percent or higher on unit assessments will receive $330 for those units.

The state has left classroom implementation plans up to each district. The training started to trickle down into practice at Pinehurst Elementary once teachers approached the halfway point.

“I think every school’s going to be in a different spot with that. Teachers work together on this,” MacPherson said. “I’m hoping that conversation is going to come out as they talk each week and we’ll see how we implement this.”
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