BY KAREN CAMPBELL
Weakley County Schools Communications Director
WEAKLEY COUNTY (January 6) – Can you read this? (That’s what those characters say in Japanese.) Chances are, a majority of Weakley County readers did not know what those lines and curves represented. Just like a child opening a book for the first time, readers of a new language must learn the letters that make up the words, the sounds formed with the letters and the meaning applied to a word.
Contrary to prior thinking, reading mastery doesn’t occur “naturally” if you just expose children to enough books. And we’ve learned that avid readers aren’t created via the old guessing game of determining whether “dog” meant the boy, the girl or the furry animal first graders saw in the Dick and Jane books of old.
“We know now, and improved reading scores back this up, there is a science to reading,” said Terri Stephenson, Elementary Supervisor of Instruction. “We need to provide our students with the keys to unlocking the code of written language and offer them experiences that will expand their vocabularies. That’s a job for the classroom and at home. Together, we can achieve reading mastery.”
The current path to better reading began in Weakley County when the Read to Be Ready initiative was introduced in 2017. The state launched the initiative after test results revealed less than half of its students in grades 3-8 were considered proficient. Ready to Be Ready focused on literacy leaders in each school serving as instructional coaches who split their time between working with teachers to improve their instruction and working with students in small groups.
While the names of the programs may change, Weakley County educators see the focus on reading is working. In August 2019, Weakley learned that it was one of five school districts from across the state to have improved 3rd grade scores by 10 percent. Weakley actually saw improvement by 13 percent.
Stephenson, District RTI Coordinator Jessica Glasgow and the school literacy leaders are convinced the new curriculum Benchmark Advance adopted this year will build on that foundation.
The new curriculum for grades K-5 provides phonics instruction, practice with writing that expands the reading text, research projects that further connect the concepts introduced in the reading material to students’ real life, and diverse content, written by popular authors, that can be fodder for further student-to-student conversations. Topics from subjects in science, social studies and literature are the focus of learning for three-week spans.
“Read to Be Ready provided unit starters as resources for teachers but not a full curriculum. It introduced effective strategies that our teachers learned but did not go far enough. With the new curriculum, we have all the pieces,” Stephenson underscored.
In the summer, teachers received a virtual introduction to Benchmark Advance and then before the school year began, participated in a thorough overview of the materials. Beginning in January, Glasgow and the school literacy leaders began offering additional instruction on how to plan with the new curriculum.
“Now that teachers are familiar with how the lessons build on each other day to day and week to week, we are focusing on looking at units as a whole and working backwards from the time when we achieve our reading goals,” explained Glasgow who is modeling the training with second grade teachers. Literacy leaders are observing and will then train other grade level teachers in their schools.
“If we successfully implement this new curriculum with its proven practices, we will see an increase in reading achievement and see less need for reading interventions,” Glasgow concluded.
The literacy leaders and their schools are Beth Davidson, Sharon; Lea Ann Crowe and Emily Perry at Martin Primary; Jane Hudgins at Martin Elementary; Honey Cantrell at Dresden; Paige Vaughn at Gleason; and Jamie Doster at Greenfield.
In addition to the new curriculum and the help of literacy coaches, Weakley County families of PreK through 3rd grade will have extra assistance in promoting reading at home. Ready4K, a research-based text messaging program, will help families bridge the gap between school and home. The program is free.
“To use a throwback slogan, reading really is fundamental to student success,” said Stephenson. “We cannot expect our children and youth to advance without this basic building block. When schools introduce the tools and families at home reinforce those efforts by reading with children, we will see the growth we all want.”