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$20M plan hopes to improve Utah’s ‘best of the worst’ student reading rates

Glendale Middle School paraeducator Tina Tuifua works with students in small groups to help them with reading.
Jon Reed
Glendale Middle School paraeducator Tina Tuifua works with students in small groups to help them with reading.

The statistics are sobering. Nationally, between 24 and 49% of fourth graders can’t read at grade level. That comes from 2019 data by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

Utah, despite its relatively low per-pupil spending, does better than most other states. But even here, just 40% of fourth graders are considered proficient. A slightly higher 43% of students at all grade levels are considered proficient in language arts generally, according to the State Board of Education.

“We are the best of the worst,” said Jennifer Throndsen, director of teaching and learning for the USBE, in a House Education meeting last week.

Throndsen was speaking to a bill aimed at boosting early literacy progress, SB 127. It would provide about $20 million in state funding in its first year to scale up training and support for teachers to learn best practices in teaching reading, which many educators were never taught as they were getting their degrees.

The ultimate goal — a “strenuous” one, according to the bill’s language — is to boost third grade reading proficiency to 70% by 2027. That’s been shown to be a key benchmark in later academic and life success and is currently around 50%.

Kathleen Brown, director of the University of Utah’s reading clinic, said the funding would be a “sea change” in helping kids learn to read. She said a major failing in the education system nationwide has been the slow adoption of what’s now understood as the “science of reading,” which emphasizes explicit instruction on things like sounding out words and breaking them down so students learn how to put them together.

That’s compared to what was the dominant method through which many teachers were formerly taught to work with kids, known as “whole language.” It became popular in the 1980s and 90s, Brown said. It often involved teachers reading to kids and letting them choose the books they want to read, but put less emphasis on the essential building blocks.

Some teachers like Lori Anderson never learned the former approach and are now having to play catch up. Anderson is a reading coach in the Davis School District and recently received LETRS training (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) from USBE. It’s basically a smaller-scale version of what SB 127 would do, funded with federal COVID relief dollars.

She said the training not only helped her and her colleagues improve student outcomes but helped her own son, who is dyslexic and has been struggling with reading for several years.

“I've been an educator for 23 years, so I've been around the block,” she said. “And it's just heartbreaking to me that there's so many kids that we could have helped along the path that haven't gotten their needs met.”

Brown said more teachers have learned and embraced the science of reading over the years. But it’s also proven difficult to implement on a large scale. She said most days teachers are “drinking from a firehose” — managing large classes and a range of lessons. They’re also working with more students with traumatic backgrounds, whose life outside the classroom can make it more difficult for them to focus on school.

“Teachers may understand the science of reading, but it's in the implementation in the classroom with kids,” she said. “That's where change needs to happen and that's where, unfortunately, the whole nation has been slow to make an impact.”

She said she is excited about the new bill though, as it would establish a statewide, ongoing effort to provide more literacy coaches to schools, train and mentor teachers and analyze data.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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