A Call to Action: Changing the Trajectory of Reading in Oklahoma
Staff | January 11, 2024
Improving the reading levels of Oklahoma students is imperative for a successful education system and the competitiveness of our economy. Implementing the Science of Reading (SoR) has been used by other states to achieve this goal. Funding is needed to provide training and coaching for teachers and administrators, as well as accountability for the multiple changes that will need to occur. This includes eliminating the debunked three-cueing strategy with SoR-based instruction. Changes in Educator Preparation Programs (EPP), selection of assessments and curricula, support for parents and caregivers, and alignment of systems are necessary. Increasing the awareness of all stakeholders can assist in bringing about successful and coherent change.
Description of the Problem
While more than 30 legislatures across the nation have passed policies promoting the Science of Reading, Oklahoma students have fallen behind in reading achievement to the lowest level in decades. The 1997 Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) implemented elements of a successful literacy law, such as intervention for struggling students in grades K-3 and the use of reading coaches across the state to help educators implement scientifically evidence-based reading instruction. In 2011, mandatory third-grade retention for students scoring in the “unsatisfactory” range was implemented. From 2011 to 2015, Oklahoma’s fourth graders showed improvement on the National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP). However, a number of “serial tweaks'' to the RSA occurred (Swisher, 2018). In 2015, the RSA was modified by Oklahoma legislators to provide flexibility to local schools (Ford, 2015). This resulted in minimizing the RSA’s effectiveness. NAEP scores have continued to drop, with only 24% of Oklahoma’s fourth-grade students demonstrating proficiency in reading in 2022. This reflects a decrease of 5% from 2019 (29%) and a decrease of 6% from 1998 (30%). The percentage of students at or above the NAEP Basic level also dropped in 2022, with only 55% scoring at this level compared to 63% in 2019 and 66% in 1998 (NAEP, 2022). Oklahoma’s implementation of a comprehensive early reading policy went off course in a number of areas, including a lack of adequate funding, clarity, and cohesion (Swisher, 2018). Recent testimony from national experts highlighted the urgent need for action in the area of implementing SoR in Oklahoma (Carter, 2023).
The SoR represents a large body of scientific research from multiple fields, including neuroscience, cognitive psychology, communication science, developmental psychology, education, implementation science, and linguistics. Decades of research from the United States and around the world have provided a large body of evidence that informs how reading and writing should be taught. This includes specific methods to overcome barriers and obstacles for individuals who experience difficulty in learning. The importance of prevention and intervention for individuals with reading difficulties highlights opportunities for wide-scale implementation of best practices (The Reading League). Ultimately, a comprehensive literacy law, which aligns all systems and supports, is an equal-opportunity law enabling all students across Oklahoma—no matter their ZIP code, socioeconomic status, or any other factor—to read proficiently. To achieve this goal, Oklahomans should support legislation that serves as a preventive model to protect students against reading failure. The following high-impact actions have been used in legislation across the country to improve student reading outcomes by aligning state and district systems:
Teacher training for inservice and preservice teachers
Coaching for teachers
A comprehensive system of assessments
Eliminating three-cueing and providing effective instruction and interventions
Parent and family involvement and resources
Teacher Training for Inservice and Preservice Teachers
Oklahoma needs to prioritize teacher knowledge in the science of how to teach reading. All K-5 classroom teachers and administrators—as well as K-12 special education, K-12 ELL, and K-12 interventionists—should be required to complete an approved in-depth training that requires participants to show competency in the SoR. Since many teachers missed out on this reading instruction during their preservice years, training and coaching are needed to address the change in teacher knowledge and practice.
Although the state offers LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) through the Oklahoma Science of Reading Academies—which is free, high-quality, job-embedded professional learning—it has been funded by the American Recovery Plan which does not provide a long-term funding solution. Participation in these academies is voluntary and has focused on educators who teach kindergarten through third-grade students (Oklahoma Science of Reading Academies). Expanding the types of educators in this training (administrators, special education and ESL teachers, interventionists) is essential to moving the state forward in both reading instruction and achievement.
States have chosen LETRS based on what is referred to as the “Mississippi model” since the state saw unprecedented growth in the 2019 administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) after training K-3 teachers. However, Mississippi did much more than just train teachers: it aligned the state’s reading instruction to the SoR and included teacher coaching. Many other states followed Mississippi’s lead with LETRS training, although achieving their results will take much more than jumping on the LETRS bandwagon (Schwartz, 2022).
Additionally, making changes at the educator preparation program (EPP) level has a high return on investment for the long-term implementation of SoR. In a 2018 report, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) found that Oklahoma “ranks below the national average for the average number of components of reading its programs adequately address” (Strengthening Oklahoma's Implementation, 2023). No programs earned an A for teacher preparation in reading, and five EPPs were cited as using techniques debunked by science that can actually hinder students’ reading progress. In addition to aligning standards to the SoR and evaluating implementation, NCTQ identifies requiring teachers to pass a reading licensure test and publishing programs’ pass rates as next steps for Oklahoma. Any reading licensure test chosen should be rated “strong” by NCTQ (Putman, 2023). EPPs should be required to have standards, materials, and syllabi aligned to the SoR which do not include the three-cueing system or model of word reading instruction. The impact of teachers entering schools across the state unprepared to effectively teach students to read creates years of potential loss in reading achievement and will ultimately cost districts and schools large amounts of time and money.
Coaching for Teachers
The use of ongoing classroom-based support from highly qualified and knowledgeable individuals is referred to as coaching and is seen as essential to changing teachers’ classroom practices (Sailors & Shanklin, 2010). Reading coaches are responsible for supporting administrators and teachers in transferring knowledge to practice by providing support. The number of school districts employing instructional coaches has skyrocketed in the past 20+ years, and coaching researcher Jim Knight notes that this was often due to previous forms of professional development having failed. He states some districts and schools have tended to hire instructional coaches as a short-term fix; however, there is evidence that coaching can be a longer-term solution under the right conditions. This includes coaches having sufficient time to work with teachers, high-quality professional development for coaches, hiring the right people for the job, and the working relationships between coaches and school administrators (Knight, 2009).
Likewise, measuring the impact of coaching is essential to achieving sustained change in schools; otherwise, well-intentioned activity can often be confused with effectiveness. Building measures of accountability for not only coaches, but also for administrators, district, and state staff, can ensure that funds spent for coaches are used to maximum impact. Many reports can be utilized to adequately express both the complexity of the endeavor and to provide accountability and transparency. These include reports that track the overall impact of coaches; analyses of student performance data and coaching outcomes; teacher reflections and feedback; and coaching program evaluations (Spangler, 2023).
Oklahoma currently has a three-year $10 million pilot for reading coaches. Expanding the pilot to provide reading coaches for all K-5 schools would require significant new funding and training and support at all levels. However, by prioritizing coaches being placed in the lowest-performing schools, a model could be developed for later scaling efforts. All individuals serving as reading coaches should be enrolled in or have completed the LETRS training. The success of coaching programs will be directly correlated to coaches being in schools and supporting administrators and teachers, including special education, ESL, and intervention teachers.
A Comprehensive System of Assessments
Schools typically use three major types of assessments—formative, diagnostic, and summative assessments—with each having distinct purposes in the ecosystem of instructional data (Assessments, Lead for Literacy). Formative assessments are used for instruction and to universally screen all students for risk factors of reading failure. An effective assessment system for reading includes these assessments as well as corresponding teacher training to districts, schools, and grade-level teachers on using results to evaluate and improve core instruction and intervention. The key to a system of assessments is to determine students’ instructional needs which allows teachers to address them quickly and effectively. Data should not only be used to determine if an individual student has reading deficits, but also to determine if state standards are aligned with the SoR, if the core curriculum has any skill gaps, and if educators need additional knowledge/support to meet the needs of students.
The RSA requires a state-approved list of screening instruments for students in grades K-3, which are used at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year (RSA K-3 Screening). The RSA stipulates screening instruments, or screeners, for kindergarten students to assess for “phonemic awareness, letter recognition, and oral language skills.” Screeners for students in first, second, or third grade include, but are not limited to, “phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.”
Oklahoma should consider moving towards one statewide universal screening instrument and move away from a “wait to fail” model of assessment to a preventive model that protects students from reading failure. A statewide universal screener allows for transparency and accountability with easy comparison of student results across the state. It also enables support to be provided accordingly. Some states that have multiple screeners in place have struggled to compare results; this has slowed both the understanding of the underlying issues that schools and districts are experiencing and an effective response to improve it.
Oklahoma’s universal screener should screen all students for critical prerequisite skills that are predictive of future reading success and key indicators of dyslexia. Currently, Oklahoma only screens those below the 40th percentile for the characteristics of dyslexia. Research has consistently shown the increased difficulty that comes from delaying the identification and intervention of struggling readers. The National Institutes of Health states that “many reading difficulties and disabilities can be prevented if students are provided with early reading intervention,” as well as concluding that intervention provided to students in the upper elementary grades and beyond is less effective (Wanzek, et al, 2018). The only way to prevent reading difficulties is to address critical reading skills early to mitigate the negative impact on future reading success, and the only way to address those critical skills is to measure them.
In determining the universal screener, Oklahoma should consider the following:
What is the predictive validity of the screener? Does it predict which students will have difficulty on the 3rd-grade summative assessment?
How much time are students spending on assessments which reduces the amount of time spent on instruction?
Does the screener assess key indicators or will additional assessments be needed to determine the needs of students?
How and when will the results of assessments be shared with parents and guardians?
How is the assessment standardized so that all students are assessed on the same skills versus adaptive assessments which measure different skills for each student?
Data from the screener may be used to align state standards, core and supplemental curricula, teacher training, and interventions. Each district should analyze its universal screening data to determine any patterns that indicate gaps in core instruction. The expectation is that adjustments to core instruction will be made as part of regular and ongoing continuous improvement processes.
Eliminating Three-Cueing and Providing Effective Instruction/Interventions
As of 2022, 21 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that require schools to use evidence-aligned curricula and interventions (Schwartz, 2023). To improve the reading levels of Oklahoma students, effective instruction and interventions should be delivered by teachers who are highly trained in the SoR. Aligning all instructional systems is essential, and there are several important steps in this alignment.
Oklahoma should align state standards to current research in the science of how children learn to read and create a vetted and approved list of instructional materials that do not include the three-cueing model of instruction. The creation of a vetted and approved list of materials—including core, supplemental, and intervention materials—would assure that all students will receive instruction in scientifically based reading instruction and intervention rather than balanced literacy or the three-cueing model of instruction. Districts should be required to adopt materials from the approved list.
The three-cueing model is a debunked instructional approach embedded in whole language and balanced literacy programs. It has been used widely across the United States for decades and appears in numerous well-known literacy curricula still used in schools today. However, this model “goes directly against what is known from the science of reading (SOR)” (Petscher quoted in ExcelinEd, 2022). Three-cueing teaches students to guess at words rather than decode them. Students are taught to ask themselves three questions when they encounter words that they cannot read automatically: Does it look right? Does it sound right? Does it make sense? Three-cueing undermines the instruction of phonics, including phonemic awareness, decoding, and the sound-spelling relationship. Additionally, three-cueing negatively impacts how teachers select instructional priorities, delivery of instruction, the selection of resources and materials, the choice of interventions, and the use of assessments (ExcelinEd, 2022).
Currently, 10 states have passed policies to ban three-cueing, but only three have included banning this harmful model in EPPs. EPPs have taught, and continue to teach, this model to preservice teachers. EPPs’ course content should be grounded in the SoR and include the harmful effects of three-cueing, how to recognize three-cueing in materials and instruction, and strategies to replace this failed model of word reading.
Effective literacy instruction in the SoR should directly teach critical foundational skills (such as letter names, letter sounds, phonological and phonemic awareness, and phonics concepts/skills, including sounding out words and spelling) and should build background knowledge, vocabulary, and language development. Core instruction and interventions should be aligned to the needs of students based on universal screening and diagnostic data. Interventions should be direct, explicit, diagnostic, systematic, sequential, and cumulative. Students should be progress-monitored to determine if the intervention meets their needs.
Summer reading camps based on the science of reading are needed for some students to reach grade level. Oklahoma should fund and require districts to offer summer camps to students completing grades K-3 who have individual reading plans and/or are being promoted to fourth grade on a good-cause exemption. Additionally, students who are promoted to fourth grade through a good-cause exemption should continue to receive intensive interventions that are needed to address their reading needs. This should be documented in an individual reading plan until they no longer exhibit a reading deficit based upon a state-approved universal screener or summative assessment. According to Swisher, the state’s funding for the intensive remediation of struggling readers was “never earmarked more than $7.1 million” (compared to Florida’s $130 million annual appropriation) and has “now been defunded” (2018).
If Oklahoma plans to use volunteers or outside contractors as reading tutors, they should have an approved plan to train those volunteers before they work with children. It is important that all systems align and are moving towards the same goal.
Parent and Family Involvement and Resources
The role of parents and guardians in a child’s life directly impacts his or her success, and the importance of their involvement in children’s education cannot be overstated. Literacy skills begin at birth with a strong foundation of language and interaction. Parents can encourage their children’s listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills through daily activities that provide a purpose for literacy. This sets the stage for a child's later reading success (Early Literacy, Pacer Center). Schools and districts can and do provide resources for parents on how to engage their children in pre-literacy and literacy activities. This can be a more consistent effort throughout the state, with additional individualized resources provided for families that need more support, especially those with children with disabilities and multilingual families.
As Oklahoma ramps up literacy efforts, it will be essential for communication about these changes to be shared with families in multiple modalities and settings. Families have often been blamed for their children’s reading difficulties, and the SoR clearly illuminates the fallacy of this thinking. Reading is not a natural skill like language acquisition, and educating parents on how to help their child is essential.
Parents should be notified when their child has deficits in reading in any grade and provided with read-at-home plans with ways to work on the specific deficits. Options should be clearly outlined for what parents should do if their child struggles in reading at each grade level, as well as providing resources for them to advocate for their child. This transparency benefits both families and schools. Oklahoma policies can place parents in a position of knowledge and action, which also provides accountability to schools and districts.
Currently, the RSA specifies that parents must be notified and involved in decisions for promotion when students do not demonstrate reading proficiency, which creates an avenue for social promotion and sidesteps the intent of the law. However, the goal is prevention over retention: schools should intervene early in order for students to read proficiently at the end of third grade.
The state should plan and hold “town hall”-type parent and caregiver meetings throughout the state to provide information on relevant laws and policies that apply to students, including specific activities to implement at home to prevent reading failure and improve reading skills. Partnering with organizations such as Be A Learning Hero can help Oklahoma identify and develop resources for parents, educators, districts, and community organizations. This work will need to address how to engage and communicate with families, as well as measure the effectiveness of efforts. Topics of discussion for parent meetings can include how to:
Engage with children and their emergent language in a positive and supportive manner.
Play with words, including vocabulary, figures of speech, and environmental print.
Read to their children and model reading as an enjoyable and worthwhile activity.
Provide access to a wide variety of text, especially children’s books, whether through local libraries or books in the home.
Listen to their children read and provide encouragement and feedback.
Advocate for their child receiving SoR-aligned literacy instruction at school.
Question why their child is struggling and monitor progress so that adjustments to the instructional program can be made early and often.
Changing the literacy trajectory of the state of Oklahoma will require a full commitment on the part of its stakeholders: the state Legislature, the Oklahoma State Department of Education, the Governor’s office, the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration, teachers and education staff, unions, parents, families, community organizations, and caregivers. Although some states have tried to emulate the “Mississippi model,” the lack of alignment between key players, as well as the lack of a coherent plan that addresses all of the components listed above, has resulted in failure to provide similar success.
Providing sufficient and ongoing support is a key element of this work. Budgets can be reviewed to determine if funds should be reallocated. Aligning multiple sources of funding to focus on a common goal can help to achieve impact. A downfall of many initiatives is the lack of a clear implementation and accountability plan. Execution of the plan will need to be intentional with funds dedicated to the highest needs in the state. The funding needed to provide teacher training and implementation support will be significant; however, success will not be achieved without it. Providing additional support to schools through teacher coaching and additional support for students and families will require funding, as well as leadership development at districts, schools, and within communities. Although changing the practices of universities and colleges and EPPs will not require the kind of expenditure that training inservice teachers necessitates, there will be costs associated with the support and ongoing monitoring of their efforts.
Equally as important as funding, the alignment of all systems to the SoR must be a priority. These systems will require accountability measures to ensure sustainable implementation and identify areas for improvement. Three-cueing must not be allowed in any curricula, interventions, coursework, or classrooms. Involving families, community agencies, and contractors in this work is vital, as knowledge of not only what, but also the why, of the needed changes must be understood by all stakeholders. The predictable opposition to change can be mitigated if everyone understands why it is needed.
While Oklahoma has in place many of the fundamental principles other states have adopted to improve reading outcomes, there is a need to continue to move forward and tighten legislation and policies to leverage what is known about the SoR.
Reading is one of the most important skills students learn, and the personal cost to individuals who either don’t read or read at low levels is incredibly high. For the state of Oklahoma, negative outcomes such as increased high school dropout rates, high levels of illiteracy in incarcerated populations, and limited postsecondary and career options for these individuals also impact society. As Oklahoma seeks to expand the innovation that is taking place in the state, successfully educating the state’s future workforce is essential to its competitiveness and overall quality of life.
References and Resources
Assessments. Lead for Literacy. (n.d.). https://leadforliteracy.org/framework/assessments
Carter, R. (2023, October 20). Oklahoma reading instruction, teacher prep, failing students. Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. https://ocpathink.org/post/independent-journalism/oklahoma-reading-instruction-teacher-prep-failing-students
Early literacy: Parents play a key role. PACER Center - Champions for Children with Disabilities. (2007). https://www.pacer.org/ec/early-literacy/parents-play-a-key-role.asp#:~:text=From%20the%20moment%20babies%20are,develop%20language%20and%20reading%20skills
ExcelinEd. (2022). Why the three-cueing systems model doesn’t teach students to read. ExcelinEd. https://excelined.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/ExcelinEd_FactSheet_ThreeCueingDoesNotTeachChildrenToRead.pdf
Ford, J. (2015, May 22). Bill modifying reading sufficiency act clears Senate. Oklahoma Senate. https://oksenate.gov/press-releases/bill-modifying-reading-sufficiency-act-clears-senate
How we support our partners. Be A Learning Hero. (2023, October 20). https://bealearninghero.org/our-partners/
Knight, J. (2009, November 16). Instructional coaching. https://www.aasa.org/resources/resource/instructional-coaching#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20school%20districts,doesn%27t%20affect%20student%20achievement
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Oklahoma Science of Reading Academies. Oklahoma State Department of Education. (2023, November 17). https://sde.ok.gov/scienceofreading
Putman, H. (2023, November). False assurances: Many states’ licensure tests don’t signal whether Elementary Teachers Understand Reading Instruction. National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). https://www.nctq.org/publications/False-Assurances:-Many-states-licensure-tests-dont-signal-whether-elementary-teachers-understand-reading-instruction#Ratings
RSA legislation. Oklahoma State Department of Education. (n.d.). https://sde.ok.gov/rsa-legislation
Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) K-3 State Approved Screening Instruments (2021-2022). https://sde.ok.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/Screening%20Assessments%2021-22_1.pdf
Sailors, M., & Shanklin, N. L. (2010, September). Introduction: Growing evidence to support coaching in literacy and ...The Elementary School Journal. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/653467?journalCode=esj
Schwartz, S. (2022, July 28). What is LETRS? Why one training is dominating “science of reading” efforts. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/letrs-program-teacher-training
Schwartz, S. (2023, July 21). Which states have passed “science of reading” laws? What's in them? Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/which-states-have-passed-science-of-reading-laws-whats-in-them/2022/07
Spangler, D. (2023, September 12). Track the instructional coaching impact across district coaches. SmartBrief. https://corp.smartbrief.com/original/2023/09/track-instructional-coaching-impact
Snow, P. (2023, April 4). Calling time on parent-blame and children’s reading success. The Snow Report. http://pamelasnow.blogspot.com/2023/04/calling-time-on-parent-blame-and.html
Strengthening Oklahoma’s Implementation of the Science of Reading through Teacher Preparation. Teacher Prep Review: Strengthening Elementary Reading Instruction. NCTQ. 2023. https://www.nctq.org/dmsView/Oklahoma_Profile_-_TeacherPrepReviewReading
Swisher, C. (2018, February 5). Oklahoma and the expanding reading sufficiency act: A short history. National Council of Teachers of English. https://ncte.org/report/oklahoma-expanding-reading-sufficiency-act-short-history/
Wanzek, J., Stevens, E. A., Williams, K. J., Scammacca, N., Vaughn, S., & Sargent, K. (2018, May 21). Current evidence on the effects of intensive early reading interventions. Journal of learning disabilities. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6247899/
What is the science of reading? The Reading League. (n.d.). https://www.thereadingleague.org/what-is-the-science-of-reading/#:~:text=The%20science%20of%20reading%20is%20a%20vast%2C%20interdisciplinary%20body%20of,studies%20conducted%20in%20multiple%20languages