The afternoon instructional block in Mrs. Biggs’ kindergarten class at Keystone Elementary School began with a quick review of 53 sight words.
Fourteen bubbly, bouncy kindergartners sat cross-legged on a carpet and said each word in unison as Mrs. Biggs held up each flashcard.
She. He. We. They. Me. My.
Sight words are the most commonly used words in English. Fluent readers don’t need to sound them out. They recognize them instantly.
Mrs. Biggs sat in a small chair in front of the children, keeping them focused with a quiet look, a quick word, a gentle nudge as she held up the cards.
It. Is. In. Here. There. That.
In the days before No Child Left Behind and Common Core, kindergartners were expected to memorize maybe a dozen sight words. Now in Shelby County, they memorize 53.
High-stakes testing has shifted the focus of kindergarten from what’s developmentally appropriate to get kids ready for school, to what’s academically required to prepare students for their first standardized achievement tests in third grade.
Those third-grade tests predict so much, especially for poor and minority students. Children who can’t read on grade level by third grade are much less likely to graduate from high school, and much more likely to experience academic failure, delinquency, violence, crime and incarceration.
The state and many school districts, especially those with a large number of high-poverty students, are struggling to catch up and keep up with the new and more demanding expectations.
Much of the responsibility and the pressure has fallen on classroom teachers.
Tennessee and Shelby County education officials have launched unparalleled efforts to train and equip teachers to provide more sophisticated literacy instruction in grades K-2.
But underfunded reading intervention programs, new and varying curricula, and increasingly complex instructional plans and demands are making it even more difficult for teachers to help their students catch up and keep up.
ALL WORK, NO PLAY
For more than a century kindergarten (German for “children’s garden”) was a half-day, play-based program to help children make the social transition from home to school.
Now, kindergarten is the new first grade. Five-year-olds aren’t coloring with crayons and building blocks. They’re building words and sentences with iPads.
By the end of kindergarten, according to Tennessee’s K-12 academic standards, which are based on Common Core standards, children in Tennessee now are expected to:
- Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
- Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.
- Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage.
Five-year-olds who come to kindergarten from literacy-rich homes or high-quality PreK programs find the challenge much easier than those who don’t.
Keystone is an Optional School with a PreK program. About half of the students enter kindergarten knowing some of their letters. About 20 percent know them all.
“You can tell right away which students have had a good preschool experience,” said Michelle Biggs, now in her 27th year of teaching kindergarten. “They are ready to learn. The others have a lot of work to do.”
As does Mrs. Biggs. Over the next hour, she will direct her students through 15 separate reading and writing activities using flashcards, magnetic letters, pencil and paper, decodable readers, a desktop computer, three iPads and infinite patience.
The mini-lessons cover not just the names and sounds of letters, but a dozen CVC (consonant, verb, consonant) words, five of the eight parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, verb, prepositions and interjections), plurals, punctuation marks and subject-verb agreement.
“I love it. They’re so much fun, but they are easily distracted, so I’m keeping it rolling,” Mrs. Biggs said. “It’s a pretty tight schedule. There really isn’t time for playtime anymore. We’ve got a lot to cover and they’ve got a lot to learn.”
SCIENCE AND ART OF READING
There is more than one way to teach a child to read.
In fact, there are multiple methods and combinations of methods that can work, depending on the child or the group of children being taught.
“Some students can hear and understand a text but are not able to read it, or read a text but are not able to understand it,” said Becky Cox, executive director of the state Department of Education’s Read to be Ready initiative, and a classroom veteran.
“You can tell right away which students have had a good preschool experience. They are ready to learn. The others have a lot of work to do.”Michelle Biggs, Keystone Elementary kindergarten teacher
“We want to support deeper literacy instruction to make sure that students not only learn to read but to become proficient readers, writers and thinkers – to understand and think critically about what they’ve read. Teacher knowledge and practice are critical.”
Teaching young children to become “proficient readers, writers and thinkers” involves a lot more than sounding out letters.
They must learn how to recognize, recall, manipulate, decode and pronounce sounds and letters and words. How to read accurately and effortlessly. That words have meaning. That written language can be organized and crafted and enjoyed in ways that convey information and opinion and make meaning.
Children must learn that spoken words can be written and read. That letters represent sounds, and words are made up of sounds and letters. That there is a difference between a letter, a word and a sentence. That words are read left to right. That there are reasons for spaces and capital letters and punctuation marks.
“Teaching reading is a science, but it’s also a skill and an art,” said Dr. Beverly Cross, who holds the Lillian and Morrie Moss Chair of Excellence in Urban Education at the University of Memphis.
“People think that if you bring in just the right curriculum, voila, our reading problems are fixed. But that’s not enough. There isn’t any single reading curriculum that works for every child or classroom or school system.
“The best reading teachers must know their children and know how to use multiple methods and strategies to help those children.”
NO READER LEFT BEHIND
The push to get children reading earlier and faster began with the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
It dramatically increased the federal government’s role in public education – and in the classroom – by requiring:
- Annual test in reading and math for all students in grades 3 through 8.
- New measures to hold schools accountable for the “adequate yearly progress” of all students.
- “Challenging” new academic standards in reading and math in every state.
The ground beneath public schools shifted again with the Obama administration’s 2009 Race to the Top initiative. It dramatically increased the state’s role in the classroom.
In response, Tennessee adopted more rigorous Common Core standards in 2011, then replaced them in 2017 with slightly revised and more politically palatable Tennessee Academic Standards.
The state also established the takeover Achievement School District, launched a Charter School Growth Fund, and overhauled the way it measures the performance of schools and teachers.
Shelby County Schools overhauled the way it hires, evaluates, pays, places and replaces its teachers, as competing state-run and charter schools expanded.
Meanwhile, the landscape shifted once again when the state replaced the annual TCAP standardized tests with TNReady tests.
TCAP “wasn’t a rigorous test,” state Education Commissioner Candace McQueen said in 2016. TCAP tests showed more than half of Tennessee’s third-graders reading on grade level. Under the new standards and tests, only a third are.
“Tennessee has made tremendous gains in student performance over the past several years – except in reading,” Gov. Bill Haslam said in 2016.
In response, Haslam and McQueen launched an early literacy initiative called Read to be Ready.
“By any measure, too many students in Tennessee struggle to read,” the state Department of Education declared in “Setting the Foundation: A Report on Elementary Grade Reading in Tennessee” in 2016.
“We see it on our state test scores, which have improved in all subjects over the past several years, except grades 3 through 6 English language arts. We see it on NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), where only one-third of Tennessee fourth graders receive a proficient reading score.
The state found “committed and knowledgeable educators” across the state. “Yet each year, despite our collective efforts, at least half of our students complete third grade without becoming readers. What will it take to change this cycle?”
Since 2016, the Tennessee Department of Education has issued a series of reports that provide a framework for “more rigorous” K-3 reading instruction in elementary schools.
Last year, the department issued “Teaching Literacy in Tennessee” – a “practical guide” for current K-3 teachers. It recommends that:
- Students spend more time on foundational reading skills: “Teachers should provide explicit and systematic instruction on foundational skills, such as print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, word composition, and fluency.”
- Students spend more class time reading: “Students should spend a substantial portion of their day engaged in listening to, reading, thinking, talking and writing about texts.”
- Students read more complex texts that are “on or beyond grade level”: “The reading instruction that students are receiving in early elementary grades is not sufficient to carry them into the latter grades where rich vocabulary, a broad base of knowledge, and critical thinking skills become even more crucial,” the state reported.
The guide recommends K-3 teachers spend 90-120 minutes a day teaching reading.
It includes instructions on how to plan literacy units, choose texts, deploy strategies, and ask questions “to support student thinking and meaning making.”
It even tells teachers how they can design their classrooms to promote literacy: “The classroom should be filled with many rich and authentic texts.”
“Teacher knowledge and practice are critical. Educators must have a deep understanding of the art and science of literacy in order to develop lifelong learners,” the state concluded.
“Now we need better training and support for teachers across the state, so they can successfully help students gain necessary reading skills.”
“The key to all of this is putting well-trained, highly qualified teachers in K-2 classrooms. Materials don’t teach kids. Teachers do.”Dr. Ric Potts, Christian Brothers University
Since 2016, the state has trained more than 250 literacy specialists to help K-2 teachers with classroom instruction. Nearly 90 school districts across the state are participating in the Read to be Ready Coaching Network. But funding for the program is scheduled to end in July.
Meanwhile, the state’s “Teaching Literacy” guide has become a training manual for the University of Memphis, Christian Brothers University and every other teacher licensing program in the state.
“It’s changing the way we all prepare teachers for the new standards and assessments,” said Dr. Ric Potts, an associate professor of education at Christian Brothers University. Potts spent 33 years with the Memphis City Schools as a teacher, principal and area superintendent.
“The key to all of this is putting well-trained, highly qualified teachers in K-2 classrooms. Materials don’t teach kids. Teachers do.”
PRIORITY 1: LITERACY
Shelby County Schools has been working to adjust to the new federal and state demands.
In 2015, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson presented a 10-year strategic plan called Destination 2025. Strengthening early literacy became the district’s top priority.
“By the year 2025, 90 percent of our third graders will be reading on deadline,” the plan boldly promised. Last year, about 1 in 4 third-graders hit the mark.
Since the launch of Destination 2025, SCS has had five chief academic officers – Roderick Richmond, Carol Johnson, Heidi Ramirez, Sharon Griffin and now Antonio Burt.
Ramirez and her staff developed a 76-page Comprehensive Literacy Improvement Plan in 2015, but it was scrapped when she left in 2017.
The district’s newest comprehensive literacy plan was developed by the Early Literacy Team. It includes a renewed focus on early intervention strategies, expensive new curricula, and new and expanded teacher training in early literacy.
Intervention has been a challenge.
Tennessee launched a statewide reading intervention program in 2013, but provided no funding for it.
Schools and teachers scrambled to find time and resources to provide an extra hour of remedial instruction every day for students whose reading scores were in the bottom 25 percent.
Some schools asked teacher assistants, librarians or retired teachers to step in. Others turned the job over to computer programs.
Shelby County Schools needed reading intervention for more than double that number of students. They’ve had to settle for about 15 percent because of the funding challenges.
“The challenge isn’t poverty or diversity. It’s designing an education that fits the needs of each and every child. The best person to do that is a skilled and knowledgeable teacher in the classroom.”Dr. Beverly Cross, University of Memphis
Last year, the state admitted that the Response to Intervention program remains poorly funded and unevenly administered statewide.
“Children who are already behind are falling further behind, because they are not getting the intensity of intervention they need,” said Dr. Doug Fuchs, a Vanderbilt University professor who helped to develop the program.
New curricula also has been a challenge.
As policies, presidents and superintendents change, so do curricula. Since the early 1990’s, Shelby County teachers have adapted to more than a dozen different reading curricula.
As the number of charter, state-run and municipal schools have expanded, so have students.
Many charters use Amplify Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA). Several suburban systems use Wit & Wisdom. Shelby County Schools is now using two – Journeys for foundational skills and Expeditionary Learning for comprehension.
The district adopted Journeys in 2013. But early last year, as elementary teachers were still getting used to a new and “more rigorous” math curriculum (Eureka Math), the district added a second and “more rigorous” reading curriculum.
Expeditionary Learning (EL) is designed to improve reading comprehension by exposing students earlier and more frequently to more complex texts, no matter their reading level.
“Journeys is good on the basic reading skills, but EL is stronger on using complex texts to make meaning,” said Pamela Harris-Giles, SCS director of curriculum and instruction. “Our students need both.”
Shelby County Schools gave extra literacy training to 800 teachers this school year, and special early literacy instruction to 87 of them – placing one “Literacy Laureate” like Mrs. Biggs in nearly every elementary school.
The constantly shifting demands and plans from outside the classroom are putting added pressures on teachers and principals inside the classroom.
“The challenge isn’t poverty or diversity. It’s designing an education that fits the needs of each and every child. The best person to do that is a skilled and knowledgeable teacher in the classroom,” said U of M’s Cross.
“That’s especially challenging in a big school system that has big diversity, big bureaucracy, a big curriculum, and one definition of intelligence – a test score.”
CONDUCTING A READING CLASS
Mrs. Biggs has been teaching kindergarten for 27 years.
She’s still teaching children how to tie their shoes and wash their hands, how to talk nicely to each other and not to hit, how to sit still and follow instructions and do their work.
“Kindergarten babies don’t know what their emotions are. They’re either happy, sad or mad,” she said. “You’ve got to help them manage their emotions.”
As the academic expectations for her and her students have increased, that hasn’t gotten easier. Mrs. Biggs knows that to help them keep learning, she has to keep learning, and working harder than ever.
She got a Master’s degree. She earned National Board Certification. Now she is Keystone Elementary’s Literacy Laureate – a designation she earned this school year after taking part in the district’s new advance early literacy training program.
In addition to running her own classroom, Mrs. Biggs advises four other Keystone teachers before and after school and during her planning time. They work together to adjust lessons and schedules and groupings to fit ever-changing needs.
“She’s already a great teacher, but now she’s become even more invaluable sharing her literacy expertise with us,” said Dr. Dee Weedon, Keystone’s principal. “I only wish I had a dozen more of her.”
Good reading teachers are maestros.
They use their art and skill to conduct the simultaneous performance of 20 or more uniquely prepared and variously gifted children.
They stand or sit or move about, watching and listening critically to shape the movements and sounds and work of their sniffling, fidgety, easily distracted, sometimes sad or mad or hungry or tired ensemble.
They make countless preparations (lesson plans) and follow a set of formal rules (standards, curricula, scope and sequence) and practiced strategies (strategies).
But teachers use their own styles, depending on their training, temperament, experience and level of sophistication.
They must interpret each child’s strengths and weaknesses, choose the right works, study the scores, and select the exact arrangements needed for each reader.
They set the tempo of each day’s lessons, depending on the time and amount of material that needs to be covered, and make momentary adjustments as needed in articulation, phrasing, repetition.
They often communicate with quick hand gestures, sometimes tracing the shape a letter in the air, other times to cue movement or silence.
They must conduct the small group of strings sitting in front of them while ensuring the winds and percussions sitting elsewhere are staying on task.
They turn their classroom into a symphony amid (and often despite) the societal, political and bureaucratic cacophony that surrounds them.
“You can give the worst curriculum to the best teachers and they will figure it out,” said Dr. Amanda P. Goodwin, assistant professor of literacy at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.
This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.