D.C. Public Schools kicked off a new school year last week, and with it a reading curriculum resource designed to improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.
The program — called DCPS Readers Next Door — includes a collection of 120 books largely written and illustrated by educators in the District, and is an expansion of a years-long effort to align literacy instruction with what experts say are the best practices for teaching children how to read.
It also comes as the results of the District’s standardized Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test — widely known as PARCC — illustrate how much learning loss occurred during the pandemic. Thirty-six percent of students in the traditional public school system passed the reading exam this year, a four percentage point drop from the last time the test was administered, in 2019. Students in grades three through eight and high school took the online exam in the spring.
National data released this week painted a similarly sobering picture of the rest of the country, showing reading and math scores among young students dropping to the lowest levels in decades.
The new series of books are “decodable texts,” which emphasize phonics skills, officials said, and will be used in kindergarten through second-grade classrooms. The books mark a departure from “leveled texts,” books that are categorized by the level of difficulty and tend to focus on “whole language” — a philosophy that says children learn to read best by being exposed to words and not by breaking them down into individuals sounds as is done in phonics.
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“What data’s revealed, what research and science has revealed, is that teaching students word-recognition skills using leveled text is ineffective,” said Shareen Cruz, the district’s director of early literacy strategy. “It’s not developing students’ automaticity and fluency with recognizing and decoding words, which is really a huge hindrance in the ultimate goal of reading, which is reading comprehension.”
Children need opportunities to practice phonics skills — which emphasize the relationship between sounds and letters — to be successful readers. Otherwise, said Alison Williams, deputy chief of content and curriculum, “there’s a lot of guesswork that happens. They’re looking at pictures, they’re thinking about what would make sense as opposed to really paying attention to the letter sounds, relationships and word parts.”
Students in the District would often be considered able to read on grade level until they reached fourth and fifth grades, then “fall backward,” because the books they were reading no longer had pictures, Williams said.
The school system, in an effort to prevent that, has adopted more decodable texts in recent years. Each book focuses on a specific phonetic pattern or word family. This year, every building will use that type of text.
In addition to improving literacy, the new books have been designed to reflect the experiences of the children reading them, officials said. The public school system partnered with reading experts and outside consultants to write a series that follows 10 characters living in the District.
Dakota King, 8, a student at C.W. Harris Elementary School in Southeast Washington, said she was a fan of the character, Lex, who is shorter than her peers and has to confront her classmates about a hurtful nickname. Dakota and her mother were present at a read-along last month, during which Lewis Ferebee, the school system’s chancellor, debuted some of the new books.
The books follow characters including Kayden, Amanuel, Jenna, Jacob and Lex, who each attend school in the District. In one title, the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl makes an appearance, said Yolanda Henson, a visual arts teacher at McKinley Technology High School and an illustrator for the project. Students will also read about a pet shop in Anacostia.
“What sets these texts apart … is that they are meaningful, they’re interesting, they’re rooted in community and identity and things that are resonant for kids,” said Celestina Lee, a first-grade teacher at Garrison Elementary School who helped write the series. She said she looks forward to seeing kids students spot places they’ve visited or foods they’ve eaten in the books. “That’s the secret sauce of what makes kids feel happy and joyful at school.”
Literacy scores show widening achievement gap in D.C. during pandemic
The push to improve literacy comes amid widening gaps in reading proficiency between students of color and their White peers. In 2018, 23 percent of Black students, 32 percent of Hispanic students, and 83 percent of White students in D.C.’s traditional public schools passed the PARCC reading exam. By 2019, each group had shown improvement, with Hispanic students making the biggest gains: nearly 40 percent were reading at or above grade level. Eighty-eight percent of White kids and 27 percent of Black kids met that benchmark.
Now, students across racial groups are back near 2018 levels, reversing years of progress.
But, there are bright spots. The city’s youngest students have already been making improvements, based on the results of an exam administered to students in kindergarten through second grade called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills). At the beginning of last school year, 41 percent of children tested met early literacy benchmarks. That figure shot up 25 percentage points, to 66 percent by the end of the year.
“We saw some of the highest gains DCPS has realized in a year, from beginning of year to end of year” said Ferebee.
It’s a number below what was achieved during the 2018-19 school year, when 71 percent of kids met early benchmarks, but a sign that kids are getting back on track, officials said.
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