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Missouri educators hope a new approach to reading will improve low literacy rates

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Tariyah Jones-Eddie, right, a third grade student at Kipp Victory Academy Elementary School, reacts while playing rock, paper, scissors with classmate Kennadie Gray on Dec. 12 during class at the school in Visitation Park. The school recently began to lean into research-backed literacy instruction methods, known as the science of reading.

Missouri education leaders are pushing for a big change in the way children are taught to read. They’re leaning into something called the science of reading, a blanket term for research-backed teaching methods that have been gaining in popularity in recent years.

Multiple new laws are part of this push, including one that takes effect this week. At the same time, the state is in the middle of an effort to train elementary English teachers to completely rethink their approach in the classroom.

In a state where reading test scores have been declining for years, educators hope this method could be a solution to Missouri schools’ failure to teach all kids to read.

The research-backed approach

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Allison Feldmann, a first grade teacher at KIPP Victory Academy, goes through phonemic reading exercises on Dec. 12 at the school in Visitation Park.

In the St. Louis area, you can see the science of reading in action in KIPP elementary schools. The charter network has been moving toward a research-backed curriculum in its schools for a few years, and about 70% of its English teachers are going through an intensive professional development course on these teaching methods.

Something seems to be working here. While overall test scores are low, KIPP Victory Academy students’ English language growth scores led the state in the 2020-21 school year, according to St. Louis University’s PRiME center. PRiME researchers say growth is an important measure, because while test scores often reflect the socioeconomic background of students, growth can tell you whether students are improving at school.

On a December Monday at Victory Academy in St. Louis’ West End neighborhood, first graders were getting fidgety in anticipation of recess, but they powered through for their teacher Allison Feldmann. A big textbook from the science of reading professional development course sat on a table at the back of her room; Feldmann is in the middle of the program.

She wore a headset that amplifies her voice as she led the kids through exercises — they were learning how letter sounds combine to make words.

“Say damp,” she asked.

“Damp!” the class responded.

“Change ‘duh’ to ‘luh,’” she prompted, making the sounds for the letters.

“Lamp!” the class yelled in unison.

Feldmann asked the students to move their bodies as they broke down the sounds in words. As they replaced letters to form a new word, they folded their little arms in front of them, "Macarena" style.

This letter sound exercise is meant to teach students a skill called phonemic awareness. science of reading-based classes focus on it alongside phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Research has shown readers need to have a good grasp of these concepts, and these words have also recently been written into multiple Missouri education laws.

Law changes

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
A third grade student looks toward a phonetic alphabet on Dec. 12 at KIPP Victory Academy.

At December’s state board of education meeting, the stakes were clear during a presentation on the latest test results from the Nation’s Report Card. Education leaders looked at charts showing consistent declines in Missouri students' reading scores since 2015, with a big drop after the start of the pandemic.

Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education officials are hoping a push toward research-backed literacy instruction will help.

The department is rolling out a big, statewide effort to put teachers through an intensive professional development program on the science of reading for all teachers, called LETRS. It’s the same course Victory Academy teacher Allison Feldmann is in the middle of.

The training is a time commitment for busy teachers; it can take more than 160 hours to complete over the course of two years. The state has funding for 15,000 kindergarten through fifth grade teachers to go through this training. So far, about 9,000 have at least started it.

On top of that, lawmakers enacted a series of reading instruction changes last session that are already in effect. One makes components of the science of reading a required topic for teachers to learn in college or other training institutions. Another says schools must offer an evidence-based reading program for elementary students.

Another law, which took effect this week, requires new reading testing for kindergarten through third grade at the beginning and end of the school year, to identify students who are behind or at risk for dyslexia. Those students’ parents will then be notified so the struggling students can be given intensive reading instruction.

Altogether, the laws and initiatives represent a big investment of time and money in the science of reading in Missouri.

“We want to ensure that when you hear conversations across the nation about states who have been successful with reading improvement, Missouri needs to be part of that conversation,” said Tracy Hinds, a deputy commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The barriers

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Student reading goals are displayed in the reading interventionist classroom on Dec. 12 at Kipp Victory Academy Elementary School in Visitation Park.

The science of reading training for teachers is a good start, but more will be needed to truly change how kids are taught, said Matt Burns, a professor of special education at the University of Missouri. Teachers will need support to implement effective instruction.

“If we want this to happen, we have to have school districts have people on site who could help coach teachers,” Burns said.

There’s another barrier to implementation; methods that aren’t backed by science are still popular in schools. Allison Feldmann remembers how she and her colleagues used to teach at KIPP Victory Academy.

“We weren't really teaching kids to listen to the sounds in words,” Feldmann said.

In about 3 out of 4 classrooms, teachers do the same, deemphasizing methods like sounding out words and instead telling students to use context clues or illustrations to guess a word they don’t know while reading.

“We had been teaching kids, ‘guess this letter and look at the picture,’ and now, because of the science of reading, we know that was definitely not what we were supposed to be doing,” said Angela Jackson, an elementary literacy curriculum manager at KIPP.

To truly improve reading in Missouri, Burns said other schools will have to make the same change. “I think we have to really make sure that some of these practices for which there isn't a research base aren't used in schools,” Burns said.

Feldmann said going through the intensive science of reading course has changed her perspective.

“I really enjoy it. It's just a very deep dive into the curriculums that I'm teaching and kind of the why behind everything,” Feldmann said. “It has changed my perspective a lot.”

Missouri education leaders hope more teachers will change their perspectives too.

Correction: Tracy Hinds is a deputy commissioner with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. A previous St. Louis Public Radio report misstated her title.

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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