How Minnesota is — and isn’t — teaching kids to read

By: - May 3, 2022 8:50 am

Detroit Public Schools Community District students and teacher at Ronald Brown Academy (Photo: Ken Coleman/Michigan Advance)

When Rachel Berger’s son was diagnosed with dyslexia in kindergarten, she thought she found the “golden key” to getting him the right support in school.

Instead, the school district said they didn’t have any services for her son. Berger, who is also dyslexic, was furious.

Over the next 10 years, Berger launched Decoding Dyslexia MN and successfully advocated for a slate of laws to improve services and outcomes for children with dyslexia, whose brains process language differently.

Now, Berger is spearheading an effort to get more teachers trained in the science of reading — a contentious effort as the so-called “reading wars” rage over how to best teach kids to read. 

State lawmakers, frustrated over some districts’ lack of progress on literacy, are taking a more aggressive approach, directly intervening in efforts to improve literacy. 

The GOP-controlled state Senate’s education budget bill would spend $30 million on providing a training called LETRS, which aims to give teachers an understanding of language structure, brain development and how to teach literacy. The House DFL bill includes $4.75 million for LETRS and literacy efforts.

The effort comes as educators nationwide say the pandemic has created a host of challenges for young readers, with literacy rates among the youngest students dropping to concerning levels.

Advocates say a strong push on literacy  would help ensure all children — including those with dyslexia and other learning disabilities — develop strong reading skills, which are critical for keeping up with schoolwork and linked to lifelong benefits like increased odds of graduating high school, higher earnings and lower chance of interaction with the criminal justice system.

Here are your questions about reading instruction in Minnesota, answered. 

How many Minnesota students are proficient readers?

About 48% of Minnesota third-graders scored as “proficient” on standardized reading tests last year, down from 57% five years ago.

Wide racial gaps in reading proficiency have persisted for years. In 2021, fewer than 30% of Black, Indigenous and Latino third-graders were proficient in reading — nearly half the statewide rate.

The picture isn’t much better by 10th grade. Last year, 58% of high school sophomores scored as “proficient” on statewide standardized tests.

What’s the best way to teach kids to read?

Reading instruction is a fraught, emotionally charged topic in the education world. You may have heard about the “reading wars,” a battle that reappears every decade or so when academics duke it out over the best way to teach kids to read. (That debate is already settled, however, but we’ll get to that.)

We’re in the middle of a reading war now, sparked by a 2018 podcast called “Hard Words” about why American students aren’t being taught to read.

The war is between two camps:

  • Phonics, which focuses on teaching how letters and syllables connect to sounds.
  • Balanced literacy, which is sort of a hybrid between phonics and another philosophy called whole language.
  • Whole language asserts that kids will naturally learn to read if they’re around a lot of books. An earlier round of reading wars in the 1990s featured whole language vs. phonics.

Here’s what the extremely extensive and complicated research on literacy instruction boils down to: Phonics is the most effective, reliable way to teach children to read, according to decades of scientific studies; whole language and balanced literacy are not.

Our brains are not hardwired to understand written language — unlike spoken language, which we’re naturally equipped for. That means young children learn to speak by hearing other people talk, but they won’t learn to read just by being around books.

Learning to read is a big task for our brains. It requires networks of activity across several brain areas, in a process that actually changes our brains. Most people need explicit, systematic instruction to become skilled readers — and it’s not easy to teach.

Nancy Young, a reading researcher, breaks down types of readers and their instructional needs in what she calls the “ladder of reading.” It goes like this:

  • 5% of students seem to read effortlessly and will likely become skilled readers, no matter what type of instruction they get.
  • 35% will become proficient readers, even with low-quality instruction.
  • 40%-50% need systematic, explicit instruction to become proficient readers. 
  • 10%-15% have learning disabilities and require systematic, explicit instruction with more repetition or additional support.

That means about 60% of students are at risk of falling behind or never becoming proficient readers without high-quality instruction.

How do we teach reading in Minnesota?

That depends on where you live.

State law bars the Minnesota Department of Education from mandating any specific curriculum or instructional styles, so lesson plans and teaching methods are left to school districts and teachers. Statute does require, however, that schools use “comprehensive, scientifically based reading instruction.” 

But that’s often not the case. Kim Gibbons, a researcher with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Reading Research, said balanced literacy — which she describes as “whole language, repackaged” — seems to be the norm in most Minnesota schools.

To understand how a child might be given vastly different instruction depending on where she lives, consider two metro school districts:  Minneapolis Public Schools, the state’s third largest school district, is among the many school systems still using balanced literacy. The district’s third grade reading proficiency rates have hovered between about 41% and 45% for the past decade. 

In response to criticism, administrators have defended the choice to stick with balanced literacy by saying it includes a phonics curriculum. Teachers in kindergarten through second grade are supposed to incorporate 20 minutes of phonics instruction each day, according to the district’s website.

That’s not happening consistently across the district, however. In an MPS survey of more than 340 elementary school teachers in 2019-20, nearly one in five teachers responded “disagree” or “strongly disagree” to the statements, “I have built in time for phonics” and “I have built in time for phonological awareness.” Nearly one in three said they implement phonics, word study or vocabulary instruction a maximum of two days per week.

Parents frustrated with MPS’ lack of support for their own struggling readers formed a group advocating for the district to improve its literacy instruction. They’re pushing for a sweeping overhaul of how the district approaches everything from reading fundamentals, like phonics, to lesson plans in other subjects, since vocabulary and background knowledge are key to strong reading comprehension.

“There’s a lot of kids who are not only struggling, but they’re failing. The outcome for them is they won’t have the opportunities they deserve. And we are just passing these kids along,” said David Weingartner, one of the parents behind MPS Academics Advocacy Group. “We’re ignoring the data. We’re ignoring the testimonials and experiences of these families.”

A MPS spokesperson said district officials were not available to comment.

Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools, Minnesota’s largest school district, switched from balanced literacy to science-based literacy instruction six years ago. The move involved a new elementary school curriculum, teacher training and a revamped approach to literacy coaching, said Ann Sangster, the district’s director of elementary curriculum.

Between 2016 and 2019 — before COVID-19 interrupted education — the percentage of third-graders who scored as “proficient” on the MCAs increased from 59% to 65%. In 2021, that rate fell to 55% as schools nationwide struggled to bounce back from the pandemic.

This year, Anoka-Hennepin is expanding its efforts with LETRS for all K-2 teachers, along with some third grade teachers, principals and district administrators — 560 educators total.

The 144-hour virtual training also requires teachers complete three case studies explaining how students respond to practices from LETRS and attend face-to-face training, Sangster said.

The whole process takes about two-and-a-half years, but the district is also already seeing results, Sangster said. Student scores on several kindergarten and first grade phonics assessments had bounced back to or exceeded pre-pandemic levels this winter, she said.  

Why don’t we use best practices across the board?

Education schools play a big role. Minnesota recently started requiring that teacher prep programs include some information on the science of reading, and the majority do, according to a report by the National Council on Teacher Quality. Still, about a quarter weren’t providing adequate instruction in 2020, the report found.

Teachers who didn’t learn about literacy instruction in college may step into the classroom with no awareness of reading science. And, if their school district doesn’t provide training, a teacher might unknowingly use faulty methods for years. To make matters worse, many popular reading curricula aren’t totally aligned with best practices, Gibbons said.

Even training isn’t a cure-all, Gibbons said. Many popular reading curricula aren’t aligned with best practices — and the multimillion-dollar price tag means replacement often isn’t a viable option. Teachers need ongoing coaching to implement what they learn in training, as well as support to identify where their curriculum might fall short and how to supplement it, Gibbons said. 

“If (teachers) are coming back into a system that has a (poorly aligned) curriculum in place, it’s going to be really hard for those individual teachers to make change,” Gibbons said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled David Weingartner’s name.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.