Lead to read: How should Vermont schools teach reading?

Published: Dec. 17, 2019 at 3:18 PM EST
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Vermont students are struggling to read according to declining national test scores over the last two years. A local nonprofit focused on helping kids to learn says it could be, in part, because of the way we teach kids how to read.

During study hall at the Vermont Commons School in South Burlington, seventh grader Ryder Anderson does his math homework. It's easier for him than other subjects that require more reading. "It was just a lot harder for me. I wasn't at the same grade level as everyone else. I was behind," he said.

Anderson has dyslexia. His mother, Kristin Foley, says she spotted the signs when he was in kindergarten. He struggled from the very beginning, from identifying letters to sounds to remembering sounds," she said.

Foley also has dyslexia and says that's how she knew the way his elementary school was teaching Ryder to read wouldn't work. "The way the Common Core reading program is, it just doesn't feed to that mindset and that learning style," she said.

So in second grade she took him to the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston. There, she says he made strides. "They started all the way back in the beginning to create the foundation," Foley said. "They're breaking down those sounds. They're doing it again and again. It's very repetitive but it is shown to be very successful for dyslexics."

Not just for students with dyslexia. Stern Center Founder and President Blanche Podhajski says a structured literacy approach -- works better for all students. It uses explicit, systematic methods to help students decode words. "We don't naturally learn to read like we learn to speak," Podhajski said.

She says the "whole language" approach -- which has been widely used over the years -- leaves many students behind. That method assumes that if kids are exposed to enough reading they will naturally pick it up, like they would spoken language. Podhajski says in reality, that only works for about 20 to 30 percent of young learners. And the other widely-used approach -- phonics-based reading -- is a good start but also may not go far enough.

"Phonics is an important piece, but you have to even take a step back and say how are words even constructed into sounds before we even match them to letters," Podhajski said.

She says neuroscience backs up the structured literacy approach. FMRI scans of kids' brains as they read shows researchers how the brain reacts during the reading process and how different techniques activate different areas. And she says the students they have taught with the structured literacy approach have a better awareness of how words are constructed with sounds, how those sounds match to printed letters and how to spell -- all foundations for strong reading skills.

Critics say structured literacy hampers creativity and fluency, but Podhajski says the research is clear. "The science of reading is now unequivocal. We know the data is there, we know the science is there. We know how to teach children how to read. We just have to do it," she said.

Foley says taking a more structured approach early on would help kids like Anderson succeed too.

While he tells us he will never like reading, it doesn't hold him back. "It feels good to be able to read with everyone else," he said.

"It's a lot of relief because I was there when he wasn't doing well," Foley said. "And so now, for him to be happy, for him to go to school is amazing."

Changing the way reading is taught is easier said than done though. Teachers can only teach what they know. That's why the Stern Center is on a mission to bring structured literacy to them. Wednesday, in part two of this report, we'll take you inside two Hinesburg classrooms where they're using this teaching method and show you how it works. And we'll hear from teachers about why they say it's making a difference for their students.

We also asked Vermont's education secretary whether they would bring the Stern Center's program to all schools. He said they don't generally tell districts to adopt specific teaching strategies, but that if the structured literacy approach is shown to be more effective for students' learning, they would consider how they might help districts bring those concepts into the classroom.

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