In Hawaii: Teaching Kids To Read Is Going Back To Basics
This article was originally published on October 29, 2023, with Honolulu Civic Beat.
At Makakilo Elementary, Christine Carder posed a question to her first graders. “What letters make the sound ‘ea’ as in tea?” The class eagerly scrambled to write down the correct letter combination in their notebooks.
This exercise helps to build students’ phonemic awareness, instructional coach Karen Yogi explained to the group of parents invited to observe Makakilo’s reading lessons for the morning. Older students will later advance to activities such as reading in pairs and assessing each other’s fluency and vocabulary skills, Yogi added.
“This is why my son says he’s famished at dinner, instead of hungry,” said parent Donna Sinclair, noting the improvement she’s seen in her fifth-grader’s vocabulary this year.
Makakilo Elementary is one of about 80 schools in the state to receive funding from a roughly $50 million federal grant awarded in 2019 to improve literacy among the country’s youngest readers.
Principal Raechelle Fabrao said her school used some grant money to purchase a new reading curriculum, adding that teachers have embraced the program’s emphasis on phonics, vocabulary, and reading comprehension — all strategies aligned with evidence-based teaching practices called the science of reading.
The methods aren’t new. But in recent years, Hawaii has strengthened its commitment to implementing the science of reading in elementary schools, especially as reading scores declined following the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers and administrators believe these initiatives are producing positive results, but many programs have yet to be scaled up at the state level.
At the same time, the literacy gains in other states raise questions about whether Hawaii could be doing more to help struggling readers.
Building The Basics
Prior to the pandemic, Hawaii’s 3rd grade reading scores were slowly improving, with just over half of the state’s 3rd grade students scoring at or above proficiency on the state’s annual assessment. The proficiency scores dipped to 43% of 3rd graders in the 2020-2021 academic year but began to rise again, with just under half of students achieving proficient scores in spring 2022.
Still, the academic struggles students experienced while learning at home during the pandemic may have alerted more parents to the challenges their children faced with basic reading skills, said David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN.
“You have schools doing incredible work and kids are reading at a really impressive and staggering rate, and then others where the students may appear to be doing OK, but then under the surface, they don’t actually have the foundational skills they need to be successful readers,” Sun-Miyashiro said.
This recognition has helped drive a national movement around the science of reading. Common teaching practices may encourage young students to use pictures or contextual clues to determine the meaning of words, said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. But these practices weren’t actually teaching students how to read.
Instead, Peske said, research suggests that students need to sound out words and understand how different letters combine to make sounds. As simple as these skills sound, it’s not a guarantee that they’re taught in all schools, she added.
In addition to educating students using the science of reading methods, the DOE has embraced the professional development program Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.
Because students learn basic reading skills in early elementary, there’s a strong emphasis on assessing students’ literacy when they reach the third and fourth grade, said Cassandra Wheeler, director of LETRS state success for Lexia, a professional development and curriculum provider company. By the time students reach the fourth grade, she added, they’ve advanced past learning how to read and are now employing their reading skills to understand new material.
In the 2023-29 strategic plan, DOE set a goal that all students achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.
“That’s our internal (goal), is all children are capable and leaving third grade and beyond as fully literate,” said Lauren Padesky, an early childhood specialist at the DOE. “We are at a crossroads in terms of accomplishing that goal.”
Teaching For The Teachers
Successful student learning begins with effective teacher preparation, Peske said. But, she added, only a quarter of teacher preparation programs introduce students to all of the fundamental skills associated with the science of reading.
In a 2023 National Council on Teacher Quality review of four Hawaii teacher preparation programs, only the University of Hawaii Manoa received a passing score when analyzed on its inclusion of the core components of the science of reading, including phonics, reading fluency, and comprehension.
The DOE is “certainly concerned” about these results, said Petra Schatz, the comprehensive literacy state development program manager at the Department of Education. But, she added, the department continues to work with its higher education partners on aligning teacher preparation programs to the state’s reading standards.
The National Council on Teacher Quality has also received backlash regarding its review methods of teacher preparation programs. In 2021, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) said NCTQ placed too much emphasis on colleges’ course catalogs and syllabuses and failed to take into account faculty feedback in its evaluation.
Peske said NCTQ reviews a variety of materials from colleges, including their syllabuses, required reading material, and students’ opportunities to develop first-hand teaching experience in the classroom.
Nathan Murata, dean of the University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Education, echoed concerns around NCTQ’s methodology. But, he added, the college is still committed to continuously improving its program.