Pittsburgh schools to accentuate reading fluency for youngest students

Julie King, a second-grade teacher at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8, is returning to the classroom this year with new goals in mind for her students.

After the students arrive today, Ms. King will focus on helping them read more fluently out loud. She’ll incorporate songs, poetry and partner reading into her daily instruction and monitor her students’ progress along the way.

Teaching her students to read is just one part of Ms. King’s job, but according to Brian Smith, Pittsburgh Public Schools’ executive director of strategic priorities, it’s critical. A child’s third-grade reading level is a key predictor of later academic success, and as the school district strives for more of its students to read proficiently by third grade, it’s refocusing efforts on the literacy of its youngest students.

With the other second-grade teachers at Colfax, Ms. King decided to focus on teaching reading fluency after learning about the science of literacy instruction at the district’s professional development center in the West End. About 250 teachers from across the district, most for kindergarten through second grade, participated in a training program titled LETRS, or Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, this month before returning for the start of the school year.

The school district took on training teachers in literacy instruction in an attempt to meet one of the goals presented in its “Whole Child, Whole Community” report, Mr. Smith said. The report, which administrators released last December, calls for the district to “refocus on academic milestones.”

The district offered schools money to fund literacy instruction, between about $500 and $6,000, depending on the size of the school and how many teachers went through the training, as an incentive for them to participate.

“None of the other goals for our students are going to be achieved if they’re not reading on grade level, and so this is why we’re putting so much investment in this,” Mr. Smith said. “This is a tremendously hard job for our teachers, and it is extremely critical that we do everything we can to help and empower them to do that job successfully.”

Lisa Yonek, the district curriculum supervisor in reading, added that administrators hoped that the LETRS programming would supplement the previous training that teachers have received in the subject. The most in-depth look at reading instruction some teachers had before might have been in college years ago, she said.

As part of the program, teachers heard from experts on reading and went through training in one LETRS module, the first of six they will learn over the next two years.

The first module focused on the science of reading, such as how the brain is activated when someone reads. Teachers went through a simulation activity to walk them through the process of learning new letters and sounds, something Ms. King’s colleague, fellow Colfax teacher Kristina Alvarez, said opened her eyes to the challenges her students often face.

“I automatically put myself in the shoes of my students who were struggling,” Ms. Alvarez said.

The teachers then formed future lesson plans, combining what they learned from the week with a look at how their students from last school year performed on reading tests. Administrators broke down data, the results of a series of assessments called DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, by several factors, including grade level and race, so teachers could identify how their students performed compared to the district as a whole.

The Colfax teachers shared how their students had performed on the tests in a presentation for colleagues at the end of the training program. Last year, fewer than 62 percent of African-American second-graders at Colfax were proficient in oral reading fluency, the skill they plan to focus on going forward, according to the presentation.

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh declined to release the districtwide DIBELS data publicly, but other numbers released last week show that 53.7 percent of third-graders across the district scored at or above proficiency in reading in the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests administered this spring. That’s 2 percentage points down from 2013.

Madeline R. Conway: mconway@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1714 or on Twitter.

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