As an educator, you can imagine that I often get phone calls from parents. Recently, I received a call about a sick child. Not so unusual – until I learned the child was also crying about having to miss class. This student didn’t want to miss the next chapter in our book; the parent was calling to ask if I could Facetime with them and let the student listen in.

At Lenoir City Schools, our students are more engaged in English language arts (ELA) classrooms than ever before. They are excited about what they are learning. Why and how did we do it?

Currently two-thirds of our third-grade students in Tennessee are not reading on grade level. Research tells us that not only are those students unlikely to ever become strong readers and writers as learning gaps continue to grow, but those students are four times less likely to graduate than their peers who are reading proficiently. Across all tested grades, only 35 percent of Tennessee students met or exceeded grade-level expectations for ELA in 2019, and this number is even lower for historically disadvantaged students, English learners, and students with disabilities. 

Science tells us that learning to read is a complex cognitive process requiring continuous practice, development, and refinement. It is imperative that teachers entering the field of education understand the science of reading in order to resolve our literacy crisis. Teachers and instructional leaders need exposure to consistent reading instruction research and access to high-quality, content-rich, instructional materials based on the science of reading.

In 2018, Lenoir City Schools had the opportunity to begin working with the LIFT network to implement high-quality, aligned instructional materials, giving our students equitable access for rigorous learning. During the implementation of those materials, we came to the hard realization that focusing on the “what” of education instead of the “why” was contributing to the crisis that our students are facing in literacy.

Hours of planning focused on the “what.” What text will they read? What questions will they answer? What writing prompt will they respond to? When we focused on the “why,” planning transformed into collaboration that was relevant, impactful, and meaningful. We could now focus on why we want students to be able to access and understand a text, why some students are struggling, and how to support them. Our instruction shifted to educators as facilitators and students as the owners of the learning.

In 2019, Lenoir City Schools saw achievement almost double for all of our students, including those in any defined groups of achievement, economic status, or ethnicity. All students experienced historic improvement in reading proficiency.

I’ve witnessed students problem-solving on how to keep wasps from building nests around their homes in fear their parents would destroy them. “Ms. Tufts, we have to stop this injustice, because we just read that wasps are pollinators, and we have to protect our pollinators.” And there’s the student who always asked, “Do I have to write two sentences?” who is now asking to write another paragraph because he wants to compare our school to the one in Brazil we just read about.

This year, school districts across the state will participate in ELA textbook adoption. To improve reading instruction in our state, we must exercise our due diligence and only accept high-quality materials with a systematic vision for implementation. Training must be provided so that teachers can focus on their “why” and improve literacy outcomes for all students.  

As I practiced a version of these remarks for a recent presentation, my son, Charlie, who is 8 years old and a student at Lenoir City Elementary, noted that I’d forgotten to mention one thing. “You forgot to tell them that now it’s FINALLY fun to be a reader!” he said.

Let’s make it fun for all students to be readers by ensuring that teachers know how to teach reading from the first day they enter the classroom. And let’s give teachers the materials and support they need to make it engaging and meaningful for our students.

Shannon Tufts is a K-3 literacy specialist at Lenoir City Schools.