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Teachers and researchers look to the science of reading to aid Oregon’s struggling students

Kristyna Wentz-Graff
File photo from March 29, 2022. Oregon has a list of approved curricula school districts can choose from, but each district can select other options without penalty — meaning some schools are using discredited materials for teaching reading. Some teachers and researchers in the state turn to a science based approach to aid Oregon's struggling students.

As some of Oregon' students struggle with reading, teachers and researchers are bringing new ways of teaching to the classroom.

Amanda Francois once thought she would never have to worry about teaching kids to read. As a 4th and 5th grade teacher in the David Douglas School District, students heading to her class should know how to read. By the time they get to her room, they should be ready to use their reading ability to master comprehension.

But since the pandemic, she has noticed a number of her students who have difficulty decoding words are struggling to understand what they’re reading, and are overall reading below grade level.

“I don’t actually know how I can best serve them,” Francois said. “And when it’s a majority of students in my class, I need some tools right now so I can start giving them what they need.”

She is not alone. According to data from the state’s education department, more than 57% of 4th graders aren’t fully proficient in reading.

Because of the challenges she saw, Francois enrolled in the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling program, also known as LETRS.

The program takes two years to complete and educates teachers on the science behind reading, including the ability to correlate letters and language sounds, known as phonics and phonemics.

Francois is just one of many in a growing movement of educators interested in learning how to instruct reading using a science-based approach.

According to Ronda Fritz, an associate professor at Eastern Oregon University’s College of Education and director of the Reading Clinic located there, one reason Oregon is seeing low reading scores is because of how common other instructional methods, such as the whole-language, or balanced, approach has been.

Using those methods, children are exposed to literature and rely on memorizing words and context clues to understand what they are reading, leading to many children not actually learning to read.

“It’s a beautiful idea and it was something that I really glommed onto when I was in my teacher prep program,” Fritz said. “I walked out not having a clue about how I would actually start teaching someone to read because really I was just taught, let’s just enjoy books together.”

Fritz said that there are many unintended consequences children face when not properly taught to read, including dropping out of school, social-emotional issues and being more likely to face the criminal justice system.

“We can’t oversell how important this is for the outcomes of not just those individual children, but our society as a whole,” she said. “It’s just imperative that we figure out how to fix this issue.”

Last year, in an email to OPB about ESSER funding for LETRS, the Oregon Department of Education cited a 2009 study showing the LETRS training increased teachers’ knowledge, but it did not correlate to an increase in reading test scores for students.

While the state may argue against expanding training for teachers, Fritz believes that teachers need more than just a quick course on teaching the science of reading in order to improve reading results in the state. She argues that teachers also need mentorship and some form of guidance to assist them in implementing what they learn rather than a “one-and-done” course.

Amanda Francois is already seeing some evidence that her students are responding well to her new approach to reading. While she did face challenges implementing a program for students at various reading levels, she says 59% of her students are now on track to meet their reading goals.

“If we think that band-aid is going to change our outcomes, then we are sadly mistaken. We have to look at it more wholly,” Fritz said

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting