Washington, North Carolina
Raul Olivares Jr. had heard the phrase “science of reading” before.
Like other education buzzwords, it had filtered down through the ether, mentioned casually in colleagues’ conversations or included in communiques from the district. But it was only last fall that he realized its significance—when Olivares, a kindergarten teacher at Eastern Elementary in Washington, N.C., heard that his state had passed a bill that would require elementary schools to teach the “science of reading.”
This past school year, he has spent hours going through state-mandated training designed to teach the foundations of reading science, processing it with colleagues, and trying out new ideas in his classroom.
“I do like it, and I’m learning a lot,” he said. But the process has been “very, very intense.”
He’s experienced a major shift in how he thinks about his teaching practice. “I almost feel like I need to say ‘I’m sorry’ to some of the kids I taught before,” he said.
North Carolina is one of more than two dozen states that have embarked on an attempt to radically transform reading instruction over the past few years. The goal is to bring instruction in line with the decades of research on how young children learn to read.
Reaching that goal will be messy and hard.
“Your philosophy on reading is as deep as religion,” said Sherri Miller, the principal at Lacy Elementary School in Wake County, N.C. “I’ve had many matches with people where you just go round and round and round. It’s kind of like the politics in our country.”
For many teachers in North Carolina and the other states pursuing “science of reading,” the demands to change will require a seismic shift in how they teach and a complete rethinking of their best practices and beliefs.
As North Carolina’s experience underscores, this kind of change is happening slowly, unevenly, school by school or even teacher by teacher. It relies on a careful alchemy of encouragement, incentives, and teacher buy-in—a challenging balance when most school systems and many individual teachers traditionally make their own decisions about what to teach and how to teach it.
Olivares is committed to learning from the training. He wants to do what’s best for his students. But he’s still not sure what his reading instruction should now look like.
“I felt like a lot of it was giving me background knowledge, background knowledge. But I wasn’t getting—how do you apply it?”
To understand why North Carolina is pursuing such sweeping changes, it’s important to know what reading instruction looks like in most classrooms across the country.
Most early reading teachers in the United States—North Carolina included—say that they practice balanced literacy.
The approach usually relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment: Teachers are taught to have many “tools in their toolbox” and use the methods that they think are most appropriate for the students in front of them.
One common practice in balanced literacy is guided reading, in which teachers coach students in a variety of comprehension strategies as they read a book matched to their level. Teachers encourage students who struggle over individual words to use pictures and context, in addition to looking at the letters, to guess at what the word could be.
This was how Olivares was trained, he said. “At the university level, it was more of look at the pictures, use those picture clues.”
But decades of psychology and neuroscience research have demonstrated that many of these strategies aren’t the most effective for creating skilled readers. Studies have shown that explicit, systematic instruction in how letters represent sounds—phonics—is the most effective way to teach kids how to read words. Teaching students to rely on other clues, like pictures, takes their focus away from the letters. And restricting students to books deemed “at their level” can actually widen achievement gaps.
The science of reading takes a more structured approach. Teachers start with the foundations of language, including phonics. The youngest students don’t spend a lot of time attempting to read books that they can’t decode; instead, teachers work on developing kids’ language abilities and knowledge of the world through read-alouds and conversations.
As students begin to read more fluently, these word recognition skills and language abilities weave together like strands in a rope. Students read increasingly complex texts at or above their grade level—not just in English class, but across disciplines.
There are fundamental differences in how these two approaches work. But often, these differences are flattened into a conversation about phonics—whether to teach it or not, and how much time to spend.
It’s true that some balanced literacy teachers don’t teach a lot of phonics. But others do. And as the science of reading movement has picked up steam, more schools have implemented explicit, systematic phonics programs, while still using guided reading throughout the rest of the school day.
That can undermine the whole approach, researchers say. If students learn phonics in the morning but are then asked to guess at words while reading in the afternoon, they won’t be honing their phonics skills for authentic reading. If teachers then restrict these students to lower-level texts, they won’t be building the knowledge and disciplinary literacy that will propel their learning forward.
Olivares’ school had started this kind of transition long before the new legislation. Eastern Elementary has been using a systematic phonics program for the past several years. But it’s just started figuring out how to move away from guided reading and other balanced literacy practices this past year.
The phonics program was overwhelming to learn at first, Olivares said. But over the past couple of years, he’s started to see his students applying the skills they’ve learned outside of his literacy block—to read math word problems, for instance.
On one Monday this past May, Olivares sat in a chair in front of his classroom smartboard, writing out letter combinations for his students to sound out. They were reviewing several digraphs—combinations of two letters that represent one sound. When they got to “ph,” Olivares reminded the kindergarteners on the rug that this particular duo of letters is tricky—it might not make the sound his students thought it would. This digraph? “He loves to be a spy,” Olivares said.
The letters “ph” make the /f/ sound, “but they look like they want us to say ‘puh-huh,’” said Olivares, steepling his hands together and leaning forward conspiratorially. “We’re not going to fall for it.”
Olivares coaches the group as they diagram words at a quick pace, the kindergartners identifying digraphs and vowels and then raising fingers in the air to “slide” read the words from left to right. He sounds practiced, confident. But that wasn’t always the case, he says.
“It was very hard to accept that it was our new normal, because that’s not what I was taught going to school or at the university level,” Olivares said. “It took me a good two years before I finally saw the benefits of it.” He is an evangelist for the program now. This past year, he had three students start school with no English who are now all reading at or above grade level. Seeing these students’ progress was “my true buy-in,” he said.
But he’s still not sure how the rest of the “science of reading” should apply to his practice.
“For years, it’s been guided reading, guided reading, guided reading: the Jan Richardson model,” Olivares said, referencing a popular balanced literacy approach. But now, the training has introduced him to a new way of understanding how kids learn to read. He feels like he needs a new model to match—he’s just not sure where to find one.
With the aim of providing teachers with this new model, North Carolina’s law touches on almost every part of how teachers approach reading instruction: Training, curricula, and interventions for struggling students must all match new state guidelines.
The majority of the law’s requirements fall on K-12 school districts. And districts were tasked with starting the overhaul just a few months after the legislation passed—a timeline that school leaders said presented a steep challenge amid pandemic schooling.
State officials and legislators said the work was too urgent to delay. But that urgency didn’t account for the time it takes to persuade people to re-examine deeply held beliefs.
It has forced districts to throw together plans that some teachers find frustrating and overwhelming. And the changes to practice, to philosophy, that the department is asking schools and teachers to make are large, and not all teachers understand why they’re necessary.
Take, for example, the law’s most sweeping measure, which requires every K-5 teacher to undergo the same intensive, 2-year training program in both word reading and comprehension instruction. The training—Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling or LETRS—is costing the department $54 million to implement and takes about 160 hours to complete.
Once the law passed in April 2021, it started a countdown clock: The first schools were scheduled to start the course that fall.
LETRS is often described as equivalent to a graduate-level class. Over the course of two years, it gives teachers a foundation in both word reading and comprehension instruction. Completing it takes a lot of teacher time, requiring district leaders to get creative to fit the training into their schedules.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools sent the message out to its principals: Set aside your other professional learning plans. LETRS is your focus now. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, facing a substitute shortage, dispersed students to other classes so that teachers could attend sessions during the day.
“It caused a lot of resentment, because we were already stressed, already overworked,” Emily Bullard, a kindergarten teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, said of having extra students added to her room. Bullard said she was a LETRS “advocate” from the beginning, but juggling the training schedule was a struggle.
(The department of public instruction offered districts the option to push back the start date for the training, and about a dozen did.)
Most teachers also had to spend time outside of contract hours to do the training—time that they aren’t all getting compensated for. The state didn’t provide a stipend, so districts chose whether to offer one. Teachers in some schools are receiving $1,000, others are receiving $250, others nothing, all for doing the same amount of work—a system that didn’t feel fair to many teachers.
LETRS became just another thing to get through—an exercise in compliance—for some.
One teacher said that her colleagues had asked her if she wanted to work together to find answers online, so that they wouldn’t have to do the assignments. A consultant with a nonprofit recounted seeing teachers in one school cleaning out their classrooms while the online training played in the background.
Jennifer Delano-Gemzik, a former literacy coach in North Carolina who has led some LETRS trainings in the state, said she’s experienced virtual rooms of 40 people, all with cameras off, who don’t interact during the training or join breakout rooms.
“I could keep repeating a question until the cows come home and nobody’s going to respond to me,” she said.
Even some of the fiercest advocates for change in North Carolina have critiqued the rollout. It “has not been in any way, shape, or form appropriate,” said Amanda Harrison, a dyslexia activist with Literacy Moms NC, an influential group that helped shape the law. The lack of a statewide stipend and the logistical challenges for districts put undue burdens on educators on the ground, she said.
In other cases, this rocky start has given way to better systems.
In Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Bullard’s district, the school board eventually added extra paid work time to the calendar for the 2021-22 school year. Since then, there’s been somewhat of a “tone shift,” she said. More of her colleagues are invested in the training.
Even so, the department needs to focus more on the purpose and vision behind the initiative, said Beth Anderson, the executive director of the Hill Learning Center, an independent school and research center for students with reading difficulties.
It needs to be clear to teachers why the current practices aren’t working, and why the state is trying to change how reading is taught. “You always have to start with the why,” Anderson said.
For some teachers, the “why” of LETRS training wasn’t clear at the outset. And for others, prior training continues to influence how they view the program—even when it’s taught them useful new approaches.
Some districts have tried to use data to make the case for the science of reading, using stagnant student achievement scores to argue that current methods aren’t working. Leaders stress that they’re not trying to blame or shame teachers, but to help them use methods that weren’t emphasized in their preparation. “When you know better, you do better,” goes a common refrain in the science of reading movement.
But the idea that experimental studies have more insight into best practice than teachers’ experiences and observations in the classroom feels like an attack on many teachers’ philosophy.
“Balanced literacy teaches that you the teacher are the expert, you know what you’re doing,” said Delano-Gemzik, the LETRS trainer.
Teacher knowledge and professional judgment still play a big role in helping students advance in a science of reading framework. But it rejects the idea that teachers can use any tool in their toolbox. It hands them a new toolbox.
Some district leaders decided they couldn’t ask their teachers to make this shift without understanding it themselves, too. These school systems paid for additional staff to go through LETRS, beyond what the state funded.
That’s the case in Beaufort County, where Raul Olivares Jr., the kindergarten teacher who’s trying to figure out how to apply new methods, teaches.
District leaders used COVID relief funds to train special education teachers, interventionists, and some district-level staff. Otherwise, said Jennifer Smith, the district’s K-5 curriculum director, “they’re trying to lead that work really, truly blindly.”
Before the training began in January, Beaufort held a kickoff event with school leaders. Smith put the data in front of them: two-thirds of their K-8 students were below grade level in reading.
Smith tried to emphasize that it was systems—of teacher preparation and training—that were to blame for those results, not teachers individually. “This is what we’re going to do to move forward together,” Smith said, recounting the presentation.
The messaging has hit home for Olivares. Others are more skeptical.
Lauren Johnson, a 17-year veteran educator, teaches in Beaufort County’s Chocowinity Primary School.
“When the law was written 2021, I had mixed feelings, because I was originally, as a classroom teacher, balanced-literacy trained,” Johnson said. “I started seeing a lot of people wanting to change the language of what you deem the best way to teach literacy to kids. … It almost felt like the law was coming in to say, ‘What everybody was doing for the last 15 years was wrong. Now, you have to do this.’”
Johnson’s time is split between delivering Reading Recovery, a one-on-one intervention for 1st grade struggling readers, and leading guided reading groups with students in other grade levels.
Much of her practice is grounded in the balanced literacy frameworks that districts in North Carolina—including hers—have pledged to move away from. But she sees the wholesale rejection of balanced literacy tenets as misguided. “There are so many ways to help children access literature and to help kids become lifelong readers,” she said.
Johnson is not anti-LETRS. “For a lot of our beginning teachers, this has been great,” she said, noting that some of her less-seasoned colleagues are learning about the structure of language for the first time. “If you don’t understand that as a teacher, you can’t teach the code to a kid,” Johnson said.
The content, so far, has been review for her, Johnson said. But she’s learned some new things, too—like how to coach students on their mouth placement to distinguish the different sounds that different letters make.
“That has been a big shift for me,” Johnson said. “We got so focused on the end of where [students] needed to be, and the fast-paced curriculum, that some of those critical foundational skills like the phonemic awareness piece have been overlooked.”
But Johnson worries that her experience as a Reading Recovery teacher is being discounted—that in rejecting balanced literacy wholesale, the state might be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“Reading Recovery teachers are highly trained, and that training should not be disregarded just because it doesn’t fit with what someone else believes,” Johnson said.
The curriculum that her district has adopted leads students through a highly structured progression of foundational skills, which they then apply in decodable texts written to given them practice on the letter-sound patterns they’ve learned. Eventually, they progress to more complex texts that are less controlled.
Johnson supports phonics instruction, but such a structured progression goes against her beliefs about what reading should feel like for young kids as they’re starting out. “I want them to be able to open up any book and look at the pictures, and think about the story, and try to read,” she said.
She believes there’s no “perfect way” to teach reading. There have to be a multitude of approaches.
Lauren Johnson’s mixed reception is probably a fairly typical response to an attempt to change practice at such a scale on such a compressed timeline: It takes time to see the incentive for trying something new, and to figure out what that would look like in a classroom context.
What that means, said Sarah Woulfin, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, is that teachers need a comprehensive system of support.
It means curriculum that’s aligned to the training teachers are receiving. It means time to draw those connections in professional learning. It means an ecosystem of educators—principals, coaches, interventionists—all working toward the same goals.
And it means knowing, with clear examples, what should replace discarded practices. Mississippi, which has come to be seen as a model for other states seeking to improve reading instruction, hit on a strategy for demonstrating this that North Carolina is slowly adopting.
When it began on its science-of-reading journey, Mississippi funded coaches for each of the state’s lowest-performing schools to help teachers apply what they were learning in LETRS training, as well as professional development and online learning for schools without coaches. It also asked coaches to provide monthly reports on their work, keeping school principals and the state officials informed.
“You won’t see any of those things in statute,” said Kymyona Burk, a senior policy fellow at ExcelinEd, who led the implementation of Mississippi’s law as the state’s literacy director. “Those things grew out of a need, working with my assistant director and our leadership team.”
Now, in Beaufort, each school designated a LETRS “ambassador” who meets monthly with ambassadors from other North Carolina schools and district leaders to discuss implementation progress and challenges. School-based reading coaches meet with teachers during the middle of each unit to digest the LETRS information together and talk about how it applies in their school context.
Olivares, the kindergarten teacher at Eastern Elementary, sat in one of these meetings in late May. Denise Owens, the school’s LETRS ambassador, led the group of teachers in a discussion about why understanding the structure of students’ home languages and dialects is important to reading instruction.
They talked about African American Vernacular English and Spanish, and how features of students’ spoken language shape their pronunciation of words. Native Spanish speakers, Owens noted, often confuse the “ch” and “sh” sounds when speaking English.
It’s important to know these features, she said, so that when a student’s pronunciation differs from standard English, teachers can figure out whether it’s due to their language background or whether it might be indicative of a phonological processing problem.
“They may not need that extra intervention service,” Owens continued. “We want to make sure we’re looking at that carefully, and not just the number or score.”
This new information—and help translating it to practice—has been valuable for Monica Littlefield, one of Olivares’ colleagues who teaches 1st grade at Eastern. So far, LETRS has been most helpful for her work with English-language learners, Littlefield said.
She learned that Spanish has fewer vowel sounds than English does and that English learners can struggle to identify two different sounds in English that are pronounced the same way in Spanish. This year, she had a boy in her class who had trouble distinguishing vowel sounds for e and i. The training helped her take a step back and understand why this student, a native Spanish speaker, might be confused. “To him, those vowels sounded very similar,” she said.
Olivares, too, has started applying pieces of what he’s learned in LETRS training. But he still feels like he can’t see the entire picture yet.
Years ago, when he started teaching guided reading, a representative from the curriculum his school used came to show teachers how to use the framework in a small group. Olivares wants something like that for LETRS, too.
“My ideal situation would be that our curriculum coach, or even district literacy coaches, would come into our school, sit all of us down, and say: ‘This is what a small group lesson is going to look like using the science of reading. These are the lesson plans for a small group lesson. These are the resources we’re going to pull from. This is how we understand the data,’” Olivares said.
Then, there’s the need for classroom materials. Over his dozen years in the classroom, he’s bought resources with his own money to support guided reading, and it’s unclear whether they can be modified or used to support the new literacy approach.
“What happens with that now?” he asked.
Olivares’ predicament is one districts all over North Carolina are now wrestling with: how the materials used for teaching can support and deepen the new training rather than subverting it. Curriculum is critical—for the discrete word-identification part of early reading, but also for the much lengthier, yearslong work of building students’ knowledge and comprehension across a wide range of texts.
“We can train teachers up all day long, but if they don’t have the materials they need to then put that training into action in the classroom, we’ve missed that mark,” said Katharine Bonasera, a manager of educational partnerships at the Center for the Collaborative Classroom.
Districts must use core curriculum and intervention materials that are aligned to the science of reading, which they must phase in over the course of the next three years. But unlike other states, North Carolina has not put out a list of approved materials, citing local control.
This leaves districts with a few decisions: Do they buy new products, or try to work with what they have? Do they wait to roll out new curricula until they get formal approval from the state, or start making changes now? Adding to those questions there’s a new one, a product of last year’s culture wars: A science of reading framework calls for students to engage deeply with a variety of texts. But what happens when those texts become the target of political backlash to curricula that teach about equity, diversity, and inclusion?
Cabarrus County, a district in the Charlotte area, is starting with a few homegrown solutions.
As it transitions away from Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Reading, a popular guided reading curriculum, the district has created an evolving, shared guidebook for small group instruction. As leaders and coaches see strong examples of classroom activities aligned to the science of reading, they include them in the guidebook for other teachers to reference.
Liz Schriver, an intervention coach in the district, took pictures of a few of her students making different vowel sounds with their mouths and posted them on the wall in a “vowel valley” for other students to reference. She gathered manipulatives for students to use during phonemic awareness practice—like magnetic chips that kids could use to represent each sound in a word—and started using them in intervention groups.
Those materials support LETRS training, but Schriver didn’t push these things on the teachers she coached.
“I never said, ‘Come look at the things that I’m doing!’ Because that wouldn’t have worked,” she said. Instead, she waited for other teachers to come to her with questions—something that happened when they saw her intervention students having success in their classes.
Finding reading material is another challenge. Most of the teachers Schriver works with use leveled texts—her school has an entire book room full of them. She’s asked her colleagues to take a look in storage closets and back shelves for stray decodable books, which she’s collecting to start a resource library.
But she’s figuring out a way to repurpose the collection of leveled texts, too. “We really don’t need to buy all new and abandon everything,” she said.
She and her assistant principal have started a massive re-cataloging project in the school’s book room. Instead of grouping texts by purported readability level, they’re planning to group them by topic in “knowledge bins.” They’ll put all of the books about rainforests in one bin, and all of the books about weather systems in another. The idea is to help students develop a rich and layered understanding of different social studies and science topics through their ELA block, Schriver said.
Other districts are further along. In Wake County, the biggest district in North Carolina, district leaders completed a curriculum audit in 2016 that ended in system-wide adoption of new ELA materials. So it already had a phonics program and an ELA curriculum designed around developing bodies of knowledge—learning deeply about certain topics and then writing and presenting on those topics.
Wake put together a guide that showed educators here how the LETRS training fit into the materials schools were already using.
When the district moved away from guided reading several years ago, “we had to replace it with something,” said Sherri Miller, the principal of Lacy Elementary in Wake County, and the district’s former K-12 literacy director. “It took giving teachers another language comprehension curriculum that got them away from the leveled readers.”
Staci Pollock, a 2nd grade teacher at Lacy, said that she’s already made new connections from LETRS to the district’s curriculum. But she thinks that, as a whole, her school is farther along on its understanding of what makes for good foundational skills instruction than good comprehension instruction, in part because the curriculum for the former is more straightforward and user-friendly.
In part, this is a difference between constrained and unconstrained skills, said Gina Cervetti, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan who studies the intersection of literacy and content-area learning.
Most foundational skills are bounded. Once students learn how different sounds represent different letters, they’re done. Reading comprehension isn’t like that.
“You can get a kind of easy win with phonics instruction, because decoding is a fairly constrained skill. Kids can learn it with relative ease and relatively quickly. Moving the needle on comprehension, moving the needle on language, those are things that become increasingly complicated,” she said.
That’s why, even in the early years, reading instruction needs to be integrated, Cervetti said. Learning the code of written language is critical, but so is having rich conversations to develop students’ oral language, vocabulary, and critical thinking—even before they can read text. “You can never say enough that … decoding is only half the story,” Cervetti said.
Developing students’ understanding about the world is a key component of the science of reading, said Miller, the Lacy principal. And it’s one that she thinks is lost in some of the decisions that legislators are making.
The curriculum her school uses covers social issues throughout—climate change, civil rights, women’s rights. The resources used to explore these topics are “powerful, great texts that get kids thinking critically and seeing a different perspective on things,” Miller said.
But the same lawmakers who have championed evidence-based literacy instruction—which includes rich curriculum—are trying to circumscribe some of the choices. Senate Leader Phil Berger, the Republican who sponsored the 2021 reading law, told Education Week in a statement that it’s “unnecessary to insert woke dogma” into reading comprehension efforts.
Miller says the kind of issues Wake’s curriculum covers need to be part of that frame.
“If you think about, what do we want of our students to be literate, what it all means, it’s not just reading and writing and speaking and listening,” Miller said. “It’s being able to think and understand different perspectives.”
What it all comes down to in North Carolina after a year of intensive training is this: Many school leaders and teachers still feel like they’re in the beginning stages of a huge shift in both instructional practice and culture.
They’re left with big questions: Who will help teachers make these changes and refine their practice? How do schools create a culture where these shifts persist, even as staff come and go? Is it sustainable to keep asking for more from teachers as the effects of the pandemic continue to ricochet through schools?
The answers may not come for a while. For one thing, the new legislation won’t be fully implemented until the 2024-25 school year and it will take even longer for academic improvements to materialize. “Anything in education, it takes three to five years,” said Amy Rhyne, the state department of public instruction’s director of early literacy.
For another, the pandemic adds a layer of uncertainty to interpreting results. Many school leaders and teachers observed greater than normal growth in their students this year after using the new methods. But this was also the first year spent mostly in the classroom since the beginning of COVID. It’s almost impossible to tease out those two variables.
“How are we thinking about measurement and evaluation of these efforts when we have a new baseline?” Woulfin, the implementation science researcher, asked. “What needs to be adapted, accounted for to account for this new reality?”
The pandemic has also introduced fears about higher-than-average teacher turnover—and the effect that might have on the implementation of new practices, especially after LETRS training ends in 2024. “We’re putting training into people, but that training can walk out the door,” said Bonasera, of the Center for the Collaborative Classroom.
Part of that sustainability challenge will fall to districts, as a consequence of teacher turnover. But part of it falls to the state’s teacher-preparation programs. Some instructors are also taking LETRS now, and they’re redesigning their own courses, said Monica Campbell, a professor of education at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C. But it’s going to be a process.
“The main concern is being able to complete the professional development in the amount of time that we have, and to really be able to take it in and think about it and talk about it, and process it,” she said. “Program redesign is never simple. These things take a lot of time and energy.”
Energy is what Olivares, the kindergarten teacher, is trying to muster for the summer ahead.
He feels drained from this past school year. He spent extra time on the weekends doing his assignments for LETRS training, sacrificing precious time with his wife and three kids. He felt like he put his role as “dad” on the back burner for a while, he said. And he doesn’t anticipate things slowing down anytime soon.
He’s starting grad school in the fall, and along with the other teachers at his school, he’ll be completing four units of LETRS next year. Even so, he sought out another summer PD course to take, which promises to give him concrete strategies for applying the science of reading in his classroom that he doesn’t feel like he has yet.
Stress and anxiety are starting to bubble up when Olivares thinks about the next few months, but he doesn’t want to leave this opportunity on the table. He wants to move beyond the same question that he feels like he’s been asking himself since the beginning of the year.
“You can read all about it, but how do you truly apply it?” Olivares said again.
For right now, at least, he feels like he has no choice but to figure that out by himself.
A version of this article appeared in the August 17, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why Putting The ‘Science Of Reading’ Into Practice Is So Challenging