Too Many Vermont Kids Struggle to Read. What Went Wrong — and Can Educators Reverse a Yearslong Slide in Literacy? | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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

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Published October 4, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 11, 2023 at 10:06 a.m.


DIANA BOLTON
  • Diana Bolton

I n spring 2000, former University of Vermont neuroscience professor Reid Lyon visited the Statehouse with advice on how best to teach the state's children to read.

Lyon, then a leader at the National Institutes of Health, had recently directed a group of scientists, academics and educators — known as the National Reading Panel — to review thousands of studies that identified the ingredients of effective literacy instruction. The group concluded that nearly all children can become skilled readers as long as they are taught using the right methods.

"The biggest impediment to kids learning to read well is how they're taught," Lyon told the group of lawmakers.

He said effective teaching should begin with clear, systematic instruction in the sounds that are contained within words and how those sounds connect to print. Building a strong foundation in those two skills — known as phonemic awareness and phonics — is an essential step to becoming a successful reader, he said. Vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, or the ability to read accurately and quickly, rounded out what the National Reading Panel called the "five pillars" of effective reading instruction.

But for more than two decades, Vermont schools pursued a very different approach, paying little heed to Lyon's advice about the fundamental skills needed to crack the code of the English language. What followed was a long, gradual decline in standardized test scores. Today, only about half of Vermont third graders read proficiently. Results are far worse for children of color and those with disabilities or living in poverty.

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Once ranked second nationally for reading achievement among fourth graders, Vermont has dropped to the middle of the pack, even though its spending per pupil is second highest of any state and it enjoys the relative advantage of a small, homogeneous and well-educated population.

In response to these declining scores, Vermont's schools and teachers are rethinking how they teach reading. Many also are wondering how much damage has been done.

Experts in the field say Vermont — and many other places across the country — went wrong by buying into a teaching model called balanced literacy that became popular in the 1990s and was widely adopted by school districts and teacher-training programs at UVM and elsewhere.

In recent years, the balanced-literacy approach has come under fire from parents, educators and activists who say it has failed to teach students the rules of the English language. They have pushed for science-based reading instruction, prompting some states to mandate new approaches and to provide teacher training in the methods that Lyon laid out to Vermont legislators 23 years ago.

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Those reform efforts have been slower and more scattered in Vermont, which leaves it to local school boards and administrators to make their own decisions about educational policies. A number of school districts already have made sweeping changes in how they teach reading. Others have convened committees to phase out ineffective programs and select new reading curricula. But some lag behind — and there has been little direction from the state's Agency of Education.

Critics say Vermont's piecemeal approach is unlikely to produce the kind of substantive improvement in reading that will pull the state out of its 20-year slide. And even in schools where changes are under way, it could take years for improvements to translate to higher standardized test scores.

The stakes are high. Low literacy is linked to a host of negative effects, including poor health, poverty and incarceration. And there are less obvious costs. Being unable to read proficiently causes deep hurt and shame, according to Bruce Rosow, a Windham County teacher, curriculum developer and college instructor who has taught Vermont students how to read for decades.

"We're talking about alleviating suffering for our children," Rosow said. "That's the heart of this whole story."




'A Light Bulb Went Off'

Melissa Haggett teaching reading to first graders at Vergennes Union Elementary School - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Melissa Haggett teaching reading to first graders at Vergennes Union Elementary School

Beth Thayer, a kindergarten teacher in the Essex Westford School District, thought she knew how to teach kids to read. A veteran educator with a master's degree in elementary education, Thayer would proudly send a weekly message to parents describing what her pupils were working on.

Then one day during the 2021-22 school year, Thayer was approached by a parent who worked at the Stern Center for Language and Learning, a nonprofit in Williston that has evaluated and taught struggling learners for four decades; it also offers literacy courses and workshops for teachers. The parent told Thayer that some of her teaching methods might actually be making it harder for her students to learn to read. She suggested Thayer take a class at the Stern Center that would help her better understand the science of reading.

Thayer put aside her pride and registered the following summer for the class, called "Introduction to Orton-Gillingham," a 90-year-old model named for neuropsychiatrist Samuel Orton and educator and psychologist Anna Gillingham. She was gobsmacked by what she learned. The parent was right: Some of her teaching was doing more harm than good.

"I can't believe I spent so much time doing all these things that were just getting in kids' way," she recalled thinking.

One of those misguided practices was telling kids that they should try to figure out words they didn't know by looking at an accompanying picture or thinking about what word might make sense in context. Another was having students read books independently, even if they contained a large number of words the children weren't yet able to sound out.

Thayer didn't invent those approaches. She had learned them as part of her graduate training and through balanced literacy, which deemphasizes the importance of sounding out words in favor of a less systematic approach that focuses on exposing kids to engaging books. Balanced literacy posits that if kids are taught comprehension skills and the habits of good readers — and given some instruction about the relationship between sounds and letters, or phonics — most will learn to read.

Though there was little evidence of the effectiveness of some balanced-literacy techniques, charismatic reading gurus such as Columbia University's Lucy Calkins, a leading writer and teacher-trainer on the subject, helped to make the model wildly popular. The downfall of balanced literacy has been precipitous, thanks to a growing awareness of reading deficits, in part due to a popular American Public Media podcast, "Sold a Story," that laid out the ways in which the approach strays from science. Last month, Columbia announced it was dissolving Calkins' Reading and Writing Project and planned to hire faculty with more expertise in the science of reading.

Louisa Moats, a former Fairlee resident and nationally known reading expert who worked with Lyon at the National Institutes of Health, said Vermont and other states fell victim to the "philosophical entrenchment of wrongheaded thinking" in classrooms and colleges and universities.

Before a person can understand written text, Moats said, "you have to be able to read the words. And this fundamental fact of reading psychology has never been embraced."

Moats, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat, said she believes the politicization of literacy — with phonics often being thought of as a Republican cause — is one reason that scientific knowledge about reading hasn't been put into practice widely.

Thayer, the Essex Westford teacher, learned where she had been going wrong during the 58-hour class at the Stern Center. Guessing a word based on pictures or context, for example, sent children the message that they didn't need to pay attention to the letters.

Thayer learned a new approach, known as structured literacy, which holds that most students need explicit, step-by-step instruction in phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear, identify and manipulate the sounds in spoken words, and in phonics, the ability to connect those sounds to print. These principles aligned with the long-ignored findings of Lyon's research from decades before.

When Thayer returned to her classroom in the fall, she retained some of the practices she'd used with her students, such as reading aloud, building vocabulary and teaching comprehension skills. But now she devoted more than an hour each day to phonemic awareness and phonics and helped fellow kindergarten teachers use the same approach. She got specialized, "decodable" books for her classroom that allowed kids to practice reading the words they had learned to sound out. By early spring, her students were plowing through the decodable books, and their spelling had improved, too.

"I've never felt as confident about a group of kindergartners I've sent off to first grade," Thayer said in an interview over the summer. "Learning how to read feels so good for these kids."

Other educators across Vermont report similar experiences. Katie Yoskowitz, a first-grade teacher at Wolcott Elementary School, took the introductory Orton-Gillingham class through the Stern Center in 2020 and has taken a more advanced version since then.

"This information wasn't part of my master's program ... All of this was new to me," Yoskowitz said. "It was like a light bulb went off."




'Rita, Please Learn to Read'

Dorinne Dorfman - KEVIN GODDARD
  • Kevin Goddard
  • Dorinne Dorfman

Dorinne Dorfman, a former school administrator in Townshend, Burlington, Duxbury and Randolph, said she had become increasingly troubled as parent after parent told her that their kids could not read well.

Her alarm deepened when she dug into data indicating that students in one of the districts where she worked showed a significant decline in state reading scores between third and sixth grades. One graduating class, which had many students with significant behavioral issues, was only 30 percent proficient in reading, according to the state tests. During the pandemic, Dorfman enrolled in Bay Path University's reading program, where she studied structured literacy, with many of the elements that Thayer also had learned. She now works as a reading teacher for middle school students in Barre and sits on the board of the northern New England chapter of the International Dyslexia Association.

Dorfman said it is critical to train teachers to use structured-literacy techniques during the early elementary grades, when kids' brains are most pliable.

"You reach children who have language and reading deficits then, and that will prevent so much heartache and hardship years forward," Dorfman said.

Julia and Rita Spaulding, 17-year-old twins who live in Franklin County, struggled for years with reading and spelling in schools that had adopted balanced literacy. Their mother, Brittany Lovejoy, still keeps a piece of paper that Rita's first-grade teacher sent home, with a list of random words.

"Rita, please learn to read," it directed her — as if by staring at the words long enough, she would somehow master them.

By the time the twins were in ninth grade, they'd fallen so far behind that they were ready to drop out of school. Lovejoy was desperate. She contacted Rosow, the Newfane teacher, who had studied with Moats and other experts in the field. He had started an innovative program in structured literacy, called the Language Lab, at Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend.

Rosow and his wife, Kate Conway, who is also trained in structured literacy, tutored Julia and Rita on Zoom, teaching them how to break words into individual sounds and to identify word parts, such as prefixes and suffixes. When the teens stumbled over a word while reading aloud, Rosow and Conway stopped them immediately and made them go back and try again, rather than letting them keep going, as other teachers had. Julia was reading on grade level in a year and a half; Rita took two and a half years to make substantial gains. The teens are now seniors in high school and enrolled in the Early College program at Community College of Vermont.

"I would hope one day that all students have the opportunity through the public education system that we had," Julia said, and that "less kids fall behind and less parents have to worry about them."




A 'Moral Obligation'

Julia (left) and Rita Spaulding at home in Montgomery - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Julia (left) and Rita Spaulding at home in Montgomery

When Michael Eppolito became curriculum director of Winooski schools three years ago, the 800-student district was using Calkins' readers and writers workshop and other balanced-literacy materials. State testing data showed that more than three-quarters of students were not reading proficiently. Among Black students in the district, many of whom were not native English speakers, only 8 percent were proficient.

Eppolito, a special educator who also was trained in balanced literacy, had come to realize through research that many of the practices he and others had been using were not based on scientific evidence. He was determined to change the district's approach.

In his first year, Eppolito brought in a consulting firm to study literacy teaching in the district and recommend changes. Winooski began looking into a new curriculum and hired the Stern Center to train classroom teachers and special educators in structured literacy. At the start of the 2022-23 school year, Winooski adopted a new curriculum, called EL Education, combining it with another phonics-heavy program called Fundations in the younger grades.

So far, benchmark tests given to students throughout the school year point to gradual gains. Eppolito attributes the tentative progress to the new curriculum and teachers' willingness to change their classroom techniques.

But, he added, "We have to undo a lot of damage that we did."

An informal survey of superintendents by Seven Days suggests that many of Vermont's school districts are shifting away from balanced literacy, though in varied ways.

In Franklin County, the Maple Run Unified School District adopted a new structured-literacy curriculum after years of steadily declining reading scores. The district has focused on training teachers in the science of reading and increased the time devoted to reading instruction to two hours a day in the early elementary grades.

The changes represent "a total paradigm shift," assistant superintendent John Muldoon said.

Burlington schools, which formerly used Calkins' curriculum, adopted a new program last year after data showed that students — especially students of color and those who qualified for free and reduced-cost lunch — were making only halting progress.

In Missisquoi Valley School District in Swanton, teachers for several years have received 30 hours of training in the science of reading from the Stern Center in response to data showing that many students were weak in basic skills. This year, administrators and teachers are visiting other school districts to scout possible new programs.

Some educators blame the state's Agency of Education for failing to provide support and clear direction when it comes to literacy instruction.

Kosha Patel, Missisquoi Valley's director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, said she and her counterparts in other districts have asked the agency for more guidance — so far, in vain.

"We keep telling them, [we're] all doing the same work and trying to find out what the best thing is for our kids," Patel said. A list of vetted curricula would be helpful, she said, though she doubts that the agency has the in-house expertise to produce one.

Eppolito said the education agency has delivered a muddled message, suggesting that balanced literacy and structured literacy are both valid approaches. For example, an agency document called the Blueprint for Early Literacy, which is now being revised, contains a section titled "Balanced Literacy" and is vague in laying out an ideal approach, asserting that research supports "a range of instructional approaches" in teaching the youngest pupils to read.

"The data is telling us that what we have been doing is not working," Eppolito said. Education leaders in the state have "the moral obligation to figure out how to do it better."

Agency of Education officials expressed surprise at the criticisms and said they stand ready to provide feedback on curriculum materials if a school asks. They say efforts to improve literacy in the state are informed by the science of reading.

Jess DeCarolis, director of Student Pathways at the agency, said the scores "are reason for concern" but represent just "one snapshot" of how students are doing. She declined to draw a link between the use of balanced literacy in Vermont and declining standardized test scores.

DeCarolis said Vermont looked into a statewide literacy curriculum that districts could buy into but decided against it, in part because of the high cost. One company presented a proposal for $38 million, she said.

"We urge people to look at the whole student when assessing student literacy rates," an agency spokesperson said in a statement. Test scores "are just one piece of the puzzle. We also have data on factors like housing, poverty, attendance, and mental health that affect students and families in Vermont."

DeCarolis said the education agency is offering help to teachers. It recently launched an online course that teaches about the neuroscience of reading and classroom practice that was funded by Act 28, which allotted $3.5 million in 2021 to improve pre-K-12 literacy. The law also created a 16-member Advisory Council on Literacy that offers recommendations on literacy to state officials but has no power to put policies into action. It is chaired by Gwen Carmolli, Colchester School District's director of curriculum and instruction.

Julia Spaulding, the Franklin County teen who struggled to learn to read, sat on the advisory council for one year but said few members seemed to favor a structured-literacy approach. She left the council harboring doubts that it could make real change.

Cynthia Gardner-Morse, a private literacy tutor and parent of three now-grown dyslexic children, has been on the council for two years. It is clear that the council's members "want children to love to read," she said, but many "do not recognize that this love comes from having learned the skills to read fluently." She said Vermont's work on reading improvement lacks the urgency seen in other states.

More than 30 states and Washington, D.C., have passed legislation or launched new literacy policies, most since 2019, according to Education Week. Much of that legislation requires schools to use science-based methods for teaching reading. Forty-one states have laws that require students to be screened for dyslexia between kindergarten and second grade.

But in Vermont, legislation related to the science of reading — including a bill calling for structured-literacy instruction in grades K to 3 and a review of the state's teacher-preparation programs, and another to require dyslexia screening — died in committee.

Moats, the national expert, said Vermont should be more willing to "face the music about all the kids who aren't learning" and look to states and districts that are showing reading improvement as examples.

"There has to be an expectation coming from the top on down ... 'Here's the five-year plan,'" Moats said. "So that we don't have kids going into fifth grade who can't read."




'A More Scientific Approach'

Vergennes teacher Melissa Haggett working with a student - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Vergennes teacher Melissa Haggett working with a student

In June, kindergartners in Beth Bearor's classroom at Vergennes Union Elementary School gathered on a rug covered with colorful dots.

Bearor showed her students a series of laminated letter cards.

"J says j," "P says p," the kids said in unison. "X says ks," "Wh says wh like whisper."

Later in the lesson, Bearor used letter magnets on a whiteboard to help the kids create and pull apart words.

"Say ing," she directed them. Now put a W in front of it."

"Wing," the group answered.

"Say lush," she said. "Now don't say the L." "Ush," they said.

Bearor projected a sentence — "I can see a big frog" — onto the board.

Students raised their hands to read the words, one by one.

"Can," a girl volunteered.

The whole class tapped out the letter sounds on their arms, a multisensory approach that has been shown to activate different areas of the brain: "C, A, N."

Once all the words had been identified, the children read the sentence together.

Bearor, who became Vergennes Union's assistant principal this fall, is relatively new to the structured-literacy approach. She, along with every other classroom teacher and special educator at the two elementary schools in her district, Addison Northwest, were trained in Orton-Gillingham by the Stern Center two years ago. Teachers new to the district are also expected to take the training.

Before that, Addison Northwest was what Vergennes Union principal Matt DeBlois described as "a patchwork literacy district," one lacking a common approach to teaching reading and spelling.

"We're trying to use a more scientific approach to supporting all students in the classroom," DeBlois said. "There's a much greater sense of cohesion at this point."

Bearor said the methodical way of teaching kids to read has led to tangible results. At the beginning of the last school year, the majority of her kindergartners knew five or fewer letter names and sounds, she said. By June, virtually the whole class knew all the letter names and sounds.

"In 15 years of teaching, I've never seen that happen," Bearor said.

As kids get older, literacy instruction focuses on more difficult word patterns. In the fourth grade, for example, students learn about "R-controlled" words such as "chirp" and "lurch" — where the "bossy" letter R takes over so that the word's vowel sound is neither long nor short. They also learn about parts of words, such as prefixes, suffixes, base words and roots.

Before the school implemented structured literacy, students didn't understand why words were spelled the way they were, Vergennes teacher Melissa Haggett said. "We're giving them that secret information to unlock the code. Once they have it, they have it for life."

Seventy miles away, at Woodstock Union High School & Middle School, teens who never learned to crack that code take part in a structured-literacy program aimed at turning them into confident readers before they graduate.

The program was started nine years ago by Julie Brown, who got a master's degree in language and literacy from Simmons College in Boston after her son struggled to learn to read in public school. His skills didn't improve until she arranged extra tutoring and eventually enrolled him in a private school in Vermont. She said her work is driven by the belief that all students deserve high-quality reading instruction.

Brown designed the adolescent literacy program after Sherry Sousa, superintendent of Mountain Views Supervisory Union in Woodstock, decided it was time to try a new approach for the rising number of students in middle and high school who were unable to read well. During the hourlong class, five or six students of different grade levels work on the phonemic awareness and phonics skills they hadn't mastered in the early years, with additional instruction in vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. Most students take the reading class for credit, in addition to their regular English class.

It typically takes two to three years for students to show enough improvement to stop taking the class, Brown said. The results have been striking. Of the roughly three dozen students who completed the program and were reevaluated, about two-thirds were able to leave special education entirely and only a handful still showed signs of a reading disability.

Last year, Brown turned over the program to another teacher and began training elementary-school teachers and administrators in structured literacy. This year, Mountain Views dropped Calkins' curriculum and is piloting a new one.

Brown hopes that as more elementary teachers use structured literacy to teach younger students, fewer older students will need the adolescent program.

Mountain Views recently set a lofty goal: that 90 percent of students become proficient readers by third grade. Brown believes it's achievable, with the right kind of instruction.

Educators "didn't have the tools or the training needed to teach reading in a way that brought the majority of students to proficiency," Brown said. "It's really exciting for our teachers to realize that better is possible."




Shift in Practices

In April, Dorfman, the administrator turned reading teacher, made a three-day trip to Mississippi to see success in the making. The state, which has the nation's highest childhood poverty rate, has made impressive gains in reading after the legislature called for training thousands of teachers and principals in the science of reading and required schools to use one of five state-approved curricula. Since 2013, Mississippi fourth graders' reading proficiency has vaulted from among the lowest in the country to 21st — tied with Vermont.

During her visit, Dorfman was struck by the rigor in classrooms.

Each class had two hours a day of reading and writing instruction, teachers kept detailed data of students' performance, and special-education students learned for the bulk of their day with a highly skilled classroom teacher, rather than an instructional assistant.

Dorfman came away from her trip believing that Vermont should adopt some of the practices that have shown success in Mississippi, such as devoting more time to literacy instruction and ensuring that all students spend most of their day learning from a well-trained teacher, supported by classroom aides to help with behavior issues in the early grades.

Mississippi was also the first state to train its teachers in an intensive course that was cocreated by Moats, the former Vermonter, and has since been provided in around two dozen states.

New Hampshire began offering the two-year program, called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, to all elementary educators last year and provided a $1,000 stipend for successful completion. More than 3,000 teachers have enrolled, according to New Hampshire education commissioner Frank Edelblut.

Vermont's colleges also have an important role to play in training the teachers on the front lines, those pushing for reform say. But an independent assessment gave poor marks to several of the state's public universities for their treatment of scientifically based reading instruction.

In June, the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C.-based policy group, gave a grade of F to Northern Vermont University, now part of the newly established Vermont State University, for its undergraduate and graduate teaching programs. Castleton University, which also became part of Vermont State University, and UVM received Ds for their undergraduate programs. UVM, with about 580 undergraduates in its education school, was criticized for inadequate coverage of phonemic awareness and fluency and for its teaching of several practices deemed contrary to the science of reading.

UVM Education Department chair Kimber Vannest took issue with the group's rating, noting that the organization was evaluating programs based on written course outlines, rather than by watching professors teach their classes. Juliet Halladay, an associate professor of education, said UVM seeks to equip students with a range of concepts to draw upon as they enter classrooms as student teachers. Just because a topic or method is on a course syllabus, Halladay added, doesn't mean the university endorses it.

In a statement, UVM's dean of the College of Education and Social Services Katie Shepherd wrote that "phrases such as 'balanced' or 'structured' have become politicized phrases to draw lines that have moved, and will likely continue to move, in the future. It's most accurate to say that we are on the side of science, evidence, and equitable literacy opportunities and outcomes for all learners."

But some who favor reforms are calling on UVM and other colleges to more fully embrace structured literacy, rather than teach a variety of approaches.

At Saint Michael's College, which was not graded by the Council on Teacher Quality, education instructor Amy Knight teaches a required structured-literacy class for graduate students. She leads an "inclusive education" class for undergraduates, which covers how to use structured literacy for students with reading difficulties.

Knight, whose background is in special education, said structured literacy has historically been taught as a small-group or one-on-one intervention for struggling readers. Using it as a whole-class approach is "a new way of thinking for schools," she said.

Norwich University's education program, which also was not evaluated by the Council on Teacher Quality, has seen a marked shift away from balanced literacy since the arrival of education program director Rommy Fuller-Young four years ago.

When Fuller-Young took on the role at Norwich, there were no classes about the science of reading. She added two required courses in language and literacy that give students a good foundation in speech sounds, the structure of the English language and how the brain learns to read.

Still, Fuller-Young said, "the problem that I run into is that I will teach my students all about science of reading ... and then they go into schools and they don't always see that stuff." She said it's not enough for schools, or teacher-preparation programs, to change their practices in isolation. The reform needs to be widespread.

For now, plenty of teachers across the state are experiencing individual awakenings.

Thayer, the Essex kindergarten teacher, said her shift in practices has come with much soul-searching.

"How do I live with this misunderstanding that was guiding my teaching for so long?" she's asked herself. "How do I forgive myself?"

She's found solace in her belief in restorative justice — the practice of acknowledging the harm one has caused and figuring out how to make repairs.

"I can't go back into a time machine and do something different," Thayer said. "But I'm also not going to wait around for some big initiative to come about."

Dorfman believes that Vermont is likely to experience a similar, collective grief when more people realize the scope of the state's reading shortfalls.

"Our schools are our pride and joy, the center of our communities," Dorfman said. "The thought that we might actually not be reaching every student — and that our choice of methods is potentially setting kids back for years, if not for a lifetime — is going to be a period of mourning as a state."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Reading Reckoning | Too many Vermont kids struggle to read. What went wrong — and can educators reverse a yearslong slide in literacy?"

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