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Schools see success in statewide push for phonics-based approach to reading

New grant program helps districts train teachers, overhaul instructional practices

All districts — Sibley Elementary second-grade teacher Bernice Wisnieski makes a scoop shape with her hand several inches from her face and says “can.” She then closes her hand as if catching the word.

Slowly, she sounds out each letter, “c-aa-n,” while counting the sounds with her fingers.

“How many sounds?” she asks while holding up three fingers. The five students in the reading group all respond “three.” 

This visual lesson in phonics is helping students learn to read. Wisnieski, along with many other teachers at Grand Rapids’ Sibley Elementary School, is using the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling approach, more commonly known as LETRS, which many states — including Michigan — are using as their cornerstone in overhauling how schools teach reading.

Since the 1990s, reading instruction has focused on “balanced literacy,” an approach aimed to provide a well-rounded and comprehensive education in reading and writing. Instead of sounding out words, students would learn to read words and passages using practice, context, and clues such as letters and pictures.  

LETRS shifts back to the basics of phonics instruction, from “A is for apple” to “Z is for zebra.” 

“I never understood how to teach reading until I learned LETRS,” Wisnieski said, summing up what many educators who have gone through the LETRS training have said.

Taking a Scientific Approach to Reading

LETRS is a professional learning course teachers across the country are being trained in that incorporates the science of reading philosophy. Based on scientific research in early literacy instruction, it focuses on awareness of sounds in spoken language, phonics and word recognition, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension of both oral language and text.

Kent ISD Assistant Superintendent Ron Gorman said the shift in instruction techniques began in 2014 in Mississippi. The Mississippi Board of Education’s Reading Reform Model, Every Child is a Reader, (nicknamed the “Mississippi miracle” or the “Mississippi model”) focused on passing laws that emphasized phonics, as LETRS does, and early screening for struggling students.  The state went from being the second worst in fourth-grade reading in 2013 to 21st in 2022. 

States’ leaders took notice, legislating similar changes. By summer 2023, 32 states and the District of Columbia had passed such laws, according to Education Week. In 2016, Michigan enacted legislation that requires schools to provide evidence-based core instruction and interventions for struggling readers in grades K-3. The Michigan Department of Education was also mandated to develop a literacy coaching system, and coaches are required to have knowledge of scientifically based reading research.

Sibley third-grade teacher Mandee Allen reviews with her students some of the sound rules for words

In 2021, the Michigan Department of Education started offering grants for districts to train teachers in LETRS. At the recommendation of two of her teachers, Sibley Principal Rose Maher signed up for the LETRS training in January 2022. When Grand Rapids announced its district-wide literacy initiative in the fall of 2022 — which included offering free LETRS training through the MDE grant — Maher encouraged all of her teachers to sign up. Now, all Sibley teachers are incorporating science of reading principles in their classrooms.

“The data is incredible,” Maher said of the results. Within a year of implementing LETRS schoolwide, Sibley went from the middle of the pack to the top elementary school in reading performance for Grand Rapids Public Schools on Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests. 

Equity was also evident. The 2022-2023 MAP report showed that almost all students (female, male, Black, Hispanic, and multi-racial) had increased reading scores and were at or above grade level.

Sibley kindergarten teacher Ruth Wezeman said she believes the success is because LETRS explicitly teaches children how sounds represent letters. She has been teaching for 46 years, 34 in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

Learning the Shapes of Sounds

During a lesson in her class, Wezeman’s students watch the shape of their mouths in mirrors as they make the “m” sound. They place their free hand on their necks to feel the vibration, or “voice sound.”

Moving on to vowels, they practice the “a” sound, watching their now more open mouths in the mirror as they say “apple.”

Wezeman demonstrates how to write the letter “a” on a board. The students follow her hand movements with their own as she makes the “a.” She then hands out practice sheets, still emphasizing the “a” sound.

Sibley Elementary kindergarten teacher Ruth Wezeman demonstrates some of the techniques she learned in LETRS to help her students with reading
Sibley Elementary second-grade teacher Bernice Wisnieski has students ‘catch’ words to help them learn their sounds

Wezeman said she learned about the science of reading six years ago through training with Leading Educators. She was so intrigued that she began to read everything she could find about teaching reading.

“LETRS incorporated everything I read and learned into one cohesive package,” Wezeman said. “The program teaches brain research and explains how specific areas of the brain are involved in reading. …  It is by far the best training I have ever received.”

Wezeman’s advocacy and success with LETRS is a reason Maher pushed to have her team participate in the grant-funded LETRS training program. While the state’s grants help cover the expense, which is $369 per part (of two parts) per person, teachers complete the 120-hour training through Lexia on their own time.

Creating a Better Understanding of Phonics

Taking advantage of an MDE grant as well, Kent ISD last summer offered LETRS training to staff members who provide literacy and reading support, with plans to offer professional development, coaching and other support to districts. Gorman estimated that of the 20 public school districts in Kent County, 17 have at least one teacher enrolled in LETRS training, making the county the highest in participation for the program in the state. 

In Godwin Heights, West Godwin Elementary second-grade teacher Charlotte Szakal uses LETRS in her classroom. She said it has opened her eyes to the importance of phonemic awareness, which is being able to listen, identify and work with individual sounds. 

“Before I was kind of struggling with phonics,” said Szakal, who is in her second year of teaching. “I feel that it has been very helpful for me in just understanding, and I knew I needed a better understanding of how reading works and how to teach it.”

‘LETRS incorporated everything I read and learned into one cohesive package. …  It is by far the best training I have ever received.’

— kindergarten teacher Ruth Wezeman

Szakal said she’s learned what the brain does when it is learning to read and how many different elements go into reading. She now pays more attention pointing out the sounds and stretching the words out for her students.

“So let’s go from ‘cat’ to ‘cot,’” Szakal says to her students in a recent class. “What do I need to change to make the word ‘cat’ into ‘cot’?”

Students sound out the word “cot” and then write it on a whiteboard. Szakal pays close attention to which students move quickly through the lesson and who needs additional help.

The state’s English Language Arts standards require that by the end of second grade, students should be able to read two-syllable words that have long vowels, short vowels and controlled vowels, and be reading about 90 words per minute. Szakal believes her students will reach those goals.

“I think LETRS helps me better be able to teach them so that they can excel to get to that goal,” Szakal said. “I think without those LETRS skills, I would have trouble intervening when they’re not quite there yet or just not knowing the best practice strategies.”

Sibley second-grade teacher Bernice Wisnieski uses phonics to help students sound out words

Read more from All Districts:
Preschool programs preparing for ‘more staff, more classrooms, more building space’
Teacher shortage: ‘glimmer of hope’ on horizon?

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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