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Too Many Vermont Kids Struggle to Read. What Went Wrong — and Can Educators Reverse a Yearslong Slide in Literacy?

๐ŸŒˆ Abstract

The article discusses the decline in reading proficiency among Vermont students over the past two decades, and the efforts by educators to address this issue by shifting away from the "balanced literacy" approach and towards a more structured, science-based approach to teaching reading.

๐Ÿ™‹ Q&A

[01] The Decline in Reading Proficiency in Vermont

1. What were the key findings of the National Reading Panel that former University of Vermont neuroscience professor Reid Lyon shared with Vermont lawmakers in 2000?

  • The National Reading Panel concluded that nearly all children can become skilled readers if taught using the right methods.
  • Effective teaching should begin with clear, systematic instruction in phonemic awareness (the ability to hear, identify and manipulate sounds in spoken words) and phonics (the ability to connect those sounds to print).
  • Vocabulary, comprehension and fluency are also essential components of effective reading instruction.

2. What approach did Vermont schools pursue instead of the one recommended by Lyon, and what were the consequences?

  • For over two decades, Vermont schools pursued a "balanced literacy" approach that deemphasized the importance of systematic phonics instruction.
  • This led to a long, gradual decline in standardized test scores, with only about half of Vermont third graders now reading proficiently. The results are worse for children of color, those with disabilities, and those living in poverty.

3. How does Vermont's reading performance compare to other states?

  • Once ranked second nationally for reading achievement among fourth graders, Vermont has dropped to the middle of the pack, despite having the second highest spending per pupil and a relatively small, homogeneous, and well-educated population.

[02] The Shift Towards Structured Literacy

1. What is "structured literacy" and how does it differ from "balanced literacy"?

  • Structured literacy emphasizes explicit, step-by-step instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, which are seen as essential foundational skills for learning to read.
  • This contrasts with balanced literacy, which deemphasizes systematic phonics instruction in favor of a less structured approach focused on exposing children to engaging books and teaching comprehension strategies.

2. How are Vermont teachers and schools responding to the shift towards structured literacy?

  • Many teachers, like Beth Thayer, have taken training courses in structured literacy approaches like Orton-Gillingham and are implementing these methods in their classrooms.
  • Some school districts, like Winooski and Addison Northwest, have adopted new curricula and provided teacher training to transition away from balanced literacy.
  • However, the state's approach has been described as "piecemeal", with little direction or support from the Vermont Agency of Education.

3. What challenges have Vermont faced in implementing these reforms?

  • The shift away from balanced literacy has been slower and more scattered in Vermont compared to other states.
  • There has been little guidance or leadership from the Vermont Agency of Education, which has sent a "muddled message" about the validity of different approaches.
  • Some teacher preparation programs in Vermont, like those at the University of Vermont, have been criticized for inadequately covering the science of reading.

[03] The Path Forward

1. What examples of successful reading reforms in other states does the article highlight?

  • Mississippi has made impressive gains in reading proficiency after requiring teacher training in the science of reading and mandating the use of state-approved, science-based curricula.
  • New Hampshire has also made a concerted effort to train all elementary teachers in the "Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling" (LETRS) program.

2. What recommendations does the article make for how Vermont can improve reading instruction?

  • Devote more time to literacy instruction, with two hours per day in the early elementary grades.
  • Ensure that all students spend the majority of their day learning from well-trained teachers, supported by classroom aides.
  • Provide clear direction and support from the Vermont Agency of Education, including a statewide literacy curriculum or list of vetted programs.
  • Improve the coverage of the science of reading in teacher preparation programs at Vermont's colleges and universities.

3. What is the overall urgency and importance of addressing Vermont's reading challenges?

  • Low literacy is linked to negative outcomes like poor health, poverty, and incarceration. It also causes "deep hurt and shame" for struggling students.
  • Experts warn that Vermont needs to act with more urgency to prevent more students from falling behind and suffering the long-term consequences of inadequate reading instruction.
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