Educators in Michigan are using many strategies to ensure all their students become strong readers. In Mason, the district employs a “literacy coach” in each of its three elementary schools. They provide on-site training and assistance to classroom teachers.
At Steele Elementary in Mason, Ashley Glover’s first grade class is learning about transportation.
Twenty students sit on the floor, intently following through the lesson. Glover points to the text on a smart board as the kids do their best to read along. They’re learning the sound of the words; not just their shape.
Every teacher knows why they teach kids to read. The hard part is figuring out how to do it.
“It's something we've been focusing on, but we weren't excelling at,” says Mason Public Schools Superintendent Ron Drzewicki.
Historically, Mason students have done very well on annual assessment tests. In 2018, Mason’s third grade reading proficiency outpaced the state average by more than 16 percentage points. Still, Drzewicki says, the district has made a concerted effort to make sure its teachers had the right training and skills to do the work that was asked of them.
Veteran teacher Colleen Rockafellow spent a decade of her career as a reading specialist. These days, she’s the Steele Elementary literacy coach.
The difference? A reading specialist develops the student. A literacy coach mentors the teacher.
“There’s conferencing with the teacher, observing, co-planning,” Rockafellow says. “We also then will reflect; we have a lot of time to sit back and say what worked, what didn’t work. So, the term ‘job embedded professional development’ means exactly that.”
Rockafellow is a big believer in phonics; the science of teaching the correlation between letters and their sounds. While that seems intuitive, for decades many U.S. schools taught the concept of “whole language.” Essentially, whole language is the belief that reading develops as naturally as speaking.
The whole language versus phonics debate still divides American education. Phonics supporters argue whole language is scientifically unfounded. It’s a thorny subject even for groups like the National Education Association, which choosing not to endorse phonics in its official policy on reading instruction.
The combination of phonics education and literacy coaches in Mason seems to be paying dividends. Each of its three elementary schools rank above 92 percent in English language arts proficiency as measured on the Michigan School Index.
That’s a point of pride for superintendent Ron Drzewicki.
He says it hasn’t happened by accident.
“We're not going to take it to chance,” says Drzewicki. “We're not going to have Teacher A doing it one way and Teacher B doing it another way, and all that kind of thing. We believe our program is robust and we're trending upward. And it's because of our people. They've really embraced the cause and the mission.”