Implementation a hurdle in new Alabama reading instruction plans, say educators

By: - October 27, 2023 6:59 am
A small child pulling children's books off a bookshelf.

A small child pulling children’s books off a bookshelf. (Getty Images)

BIRMINGHAM — Training remains a major challenge for implementing new state literacy guidelines, educators said at a meeting of a state task force on Thursday. 

Members of the Alabama Literacy Task Force also discussed implementing a “continuum” of training on the new standards and expressed concerns about not reaching all children.

“As long as we allow what I call the fraying of the edges, there’s those that are going to accept that,” said Jackie Zeigler, the District 1 representative on the Alabama State Board of Education.

The Alabama Literacy Act, passed in 2019, put reading coaches in schools and provided for special training for K-3 students struggling with reading, with an aim of having students read at grade level by fourth grade. Third-grade students who are not reading at grade level run the risk of being held back.  

The law also created the Literacy Task Force to make recommendations about reading programs, continuum of teacher training in the science of reading and an annual list of vetted assessments.

The 2023-24 school year is the first year of full implementation after several delays of the retention portion of the Literacy Act.

The Alabama Legislature made changes to the law last spring, including changes to the amount of time that previously purchased assessments could be used by districts. Assessments vetted by the Task Force will be valid for three years beginning with the 2023-24 school year. In that time, assessments can be added but not removed.

Task Force Chair Kristy Watkins, director of curriculum instruction at Jasper City Schools and a new member of the group, said that one of the problems she has been seeing on the district side is getting teachers to teach to the course of study standards, not the textbooks.

“That is where I am struggling,” she said.

Watkins said she has had questions from a teacher about first-graders not being taught adverbs, which are not in the standards. Watkins said the teacher told her she does not have the time.

Short said that she remembered she could not get everything done in a textbook each year, so she had to shift her idea to teaching the five big ideas of the textbook.

The discussion came in a small group discussion that went through previous memorandums issued related to the Alabama Literacy Act. 

Cailin Kerch, clinical coordinator of early childhood elementary at the University of Alabama, said that a new test for the early childhood reading instruction will be more “rigorous” in the science of reading than the previous version.

Science of reading

The science of reading is a body of research that looks into how kids learn to read. The skills associated with learning to read were not being taught in many schools for many years, as reported by Emily Hanford for APM Reports. 

According to the Hechinger Report, balanced literacy rose in prominence in the 1990s as a bridge between phonics and whole language instruction. Whole language was the philosophy that kids learned to read through exposure. Balanced literacy includes methods such as “three-cueing,” which encourages kids to look for clues, such as at pictures, to guess an unknown word.

Watkins said that she sometimes gets teachers who are not trained in science of reading before they come to her.

“I have to retrain you to come in and do science of reading,” she said. “So, it’s aggravating.”

In the whole group discussion, the Task Force also discussed losing some districts. Zeigler said that she worries about “most” in terms of helping most but not all kids.

Bonnie Short, director of the Alabama Reading Initiative,  said that districts who are further along in their progress might not be able to access all of the help that they might need. 

Limited support (LS) schools are defined in the Alabama Code as being schools not in the bottom 5% of reading proficiency. An Alabama Reading Initiative regional literacy specialist will visit Limited Support One schools once a month. An Alabama Reading Initiative regional literacy specialist will visit Limited Support Two schools quarterly. The local superintendent will “determine the level of limited support that each regional literacy specialist shall provide.”

Short said more intervention might be required.

“Even our LS one schools that get monthly support, they really need more than that,” she said. “And our LS two schools, while they may be trucking right along, they may need additional pieces and parts. But I’m limited.” 

Short also suggested a cohort for some of the highest performing districts so they can share their skills. She said they still have room to grow but less than other districts.

Reading camps

Another aspect of the law that they needed to look further into were the summer reading camps.

 Under the law, the camps are under the Task Force. The Alabama State Department of Education has been mostly working with that portion so far, said Mark Dixon, president of A+ Education Partnership, an advocacy group that aims to improve public education in Alabama.

“It was something that we received funding for, to be able to support,” Short said after the meeting about the summer learning programs.

The summer learning programs are avenues to improve literacy instruction for students outside of the normal school year.

Some of the changes, such as extending the amount of time that some current assessments are allowed to be used, has given the Task Force some time to work more on other things such as a continuum of training. Dixon said that some of those changes could be to their benefit.

“You’ve given yourself a little breathing room,” he said.

In discussion, the members said that they could use that time to focus on the “continuum” for teachers and other school employees outlined in the law. A smaller subcommittee had looked into that portion of the law in the past. Since then, other legislation, like the Numeracy Act, has passed, so they want to make sure they do not overwhelm teachers. They also said they want to bring in other groups and look at what other states are doing.

Short said that she does some work with higher education groups.

“Do you start with those groups separate?” she asked the members. “Do you start with those groups together? I think it’s probably important to have our vision board.”

The next meeting will be in January.


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Jemma Stephenson
Jemma Stephenson

Jemma Stephenson covers education as a reporter for the Alabama Reflector. She previously worked at the Montgomery Advertiser and graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.