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The City Journals

Jordan District opens a new chapter in literacy education

Jul 29, 2021 10:49AM ● By Jet Burnham

Students will become independent decoders through a new way of teaching reading skills in Jordan District classrooms. (Doug Flagler/Jordan School District)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Students in Jordan District schools will be learning to read in a whole new way this fall using a new curriculum based on the science of reading. With this more balanced literacy approach, students learn to recognize letter sounds and letter patterns and then decode them within words.

“I feel like it's the piece that we've been kind of missing for a while—how to teach them the basic skills in the most logical sequence,” second grade teacher Laurie Ferrini said.

For the last several years, children have been taught to read more by guessing than by identifying. The focus was on comprehension and wasn’t effective for many kids.

“We just created a lot of guessers,” said Mandy Thurman, a district Elementary Language Arts consultant. “Now we're really trying to give them the phonics skills so that they can come across a word, and even if they don't know what it is, they can use these skills, and now they'll know [how to read it.]”

In addition to a focus on phonics skills, the new curriculum also introduces direct assessments that reveal specific holes in a child’s skills and provides targeted interventions to fill them.

The district has increased funding this year to provide additional aides (with increased hours) to work with students in daily targeted intervention groups, using curriculum-provided materials to address students’ specific needs.

“I'm excited for kids to read,” said Michelle Lovell, a former kindergarten teacher who works for the district as a K-3 language arts consultant. “There's nothing I want more than to know that all of our kids are leaving third grade with the reading skills that they really need, that we're not letting any students by without giving them those skills.

The intervention time, which will be held for 30 minutes each day, will also benefit students who are proficient readers.

“Often we'll spend so much time focused on the kids that are struggling, that our kids that are really needing more challenge become unengaged and bored,” Thurman said. “And so we've been working with the Gifted and Talented department so that those kids get what they need as well in terms of extension and enrichment.”

Educators at Heartland Elementary have been piloting the curriculum for two years and have seen measurable performance gains on reading assessments.

“Last year for the first time ever, we saw kids maintain—or even go up—by the middle of the year,” Heartland Principal Buddy Alger said. “They were acquiring skills faster than they really ever had on the measures that are in [the state reading assessment.]”

Ferrini credits the new phonics and targeted intervention programs for the gains her students have made.

“Using the [curriculum] as a screener really is a good diagnostic of what they're missing,” Ferrini said. “So it really takes the guesswork out of what they're missing and where they need help. It'll point you in the right direction, so you're really saving a lot of time. This tells us right away and we can get started on that intervention quickly.” 

Reading aides at Heartland also reported increased student confidence.

“There’s power in knowledge and seeing kids being empowered by that knowledge,” Alger said. “It's been really powerful and inspiring for our school.”

“As a teacher it's exciting to see kids want to read,” Ferrini said. “They're excited to read and to go to their groups to read and to learn the new skill that they're working on. They're taking ownership of their own reading now.” 

Teachers said parents will notice a difference in how their students are reading at home.

“What parents will see is that their students are able to do more problem solving in their reading,” Heartland first grade teacher Amy Harvey said. “They're going to be able to use the patterns that they have learned in the classroom when they sit down to read at home. They can break words apart and sound it out and they will be able to do that on their own.”

Parents will see less of a focus on guided reading levels, reading comprehension passages, memorizing sight words, and sounding out words one letter at a time. Rather, students will learn the different types of syllables, how to predict what sound a vowel will make, and hand gestures to help identify patterns within words. 

Parents are encouraged to continue to read to and with their children often. Equally important, said Lovell, is for parents to continually expose their children to new experiences and places to help them build vocabulary and background knowledge.

“You do that by talking to kids, having great conversations, reading with kids and taking them to explore places,” she said.

Thurman said kids can read words but can’t truly comprehend what they read without having a basic understanding of what things are.

“If they have solid word recognition and decoding ability, and they fully understand the language, and they have lots and lots of background knowledge and a high vocabulary, that's really what will make reading comprehension,” Thurman said.

The new curriculum launches this fall. Every K-6 teacher in the district received two full days of training over the summer to understand the science of reading and learn the curriculum tools. Thurman said it’s part of Superintendent Anthony Godfrey’s vision for the district to ‘be united, be intentional, be curious.’

“It's the first time in my career of 19 years that I feel like we are united as a district, where every single teacher will have two days worth of training on all of these parts and pieces,” Thurman said.