The study of how people learn to read has changed over time. Beginning about 15 years ago, Laura Suckerman said the name of the game for teacher training has been Language Essential for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.
“LETRS is the leading reading professional learning resource that is being used across the country,” Suckerman said.
Suckerman is the Robbinsdale Area Schools literacy coordinator for kindergarten through fifth grade. In her 22 years with the district, she has taught grades four through eight.
She described LETRS training as less transactional, and more foundational. Ultimately, it equips teachers to better understand what students are and aren’t grasping on their road to reading.
“LETRS isn’t something that you directly take from training and use it in your classroom,” Suckerman said. “(It) is the research and science behind what happens in our brains when we learn to read.”
In October, the Ciresi Walburn Foundation granted ServeMN $450,000 to continue to improve reading and literacy outcomes in Minnesota schools, which have generally been in decline. According to the Minnesota Report Card, 51.1% of Minnesota students met reading standards in 2022, down nearly 10 percentage points since 2018.
The grant money will reach two District 281 schools – Lakeview Elementary in Robbinsdale and Sonnesyn Elementary in Golden Valley – putting LETRS-trained instructors in classrooms. The grant will support six classrooms for three years.
The two schools have seen similar declines in literacy standards the past few years. At Lakeview Elementary School, the percentage of students meeting reading standards has dropped from 37.7% to 21.1% in the last four years. At Sonnesyn Elementary School, the percentage of students meeting reading standards has dropped from 45.4% to 29.4%.
Suckerman and the district’s director of curriculum, Bridget Hall, talked with the Sun Post about the science of learning to read and how the district plans to make LETRS concepts sustainable long after the grant money is spent.
Before this grant, how had Robbinsdale Schools invested in LETRS training?
Hall: Over the past few years, a small number of teachers have been attending the trainings. This year, we pushed to have a larger number of staff receive training after seeing the positive results.
Suckerman: Robbinsdale Area Schools started training teachers in the science of reading using LETRS in the fall of 2018. We started by training our Kindergarten and first grade teachers along with elementary administrators (principals). After that cohort was trained, we opened it up for other elementary teachers to attend during professional development days and during the summer. We have district staff who are now trained facilitators who lead many of the trainings we provide.
This year, our focus is to get all our elementary teachers, all K-12 English Learner teachers, and all K-12 teachers of students who receive special services to be trained through LETRS. This will ensure that all elementary teachers have a common knowledge base on how to best teach children to read.
Is the grant money essentially buying another set of eyes in the classroom?
Hall: The grant money from the Ciresi Walburn Foundation is providing support to students through additional staff. These trained staff provide additional interventions to support reading and math within the classroom; and use instructional tools to support teachers as they put the LETRS framework to practice.
Talk about the applications of LETRS in classes. What does it look like? How does it differ from traditional teaching methods?
Suckerman: LETRS teaches us the complex strands and skills needed to be a successful reader. It provides guidance and strategies to assist teachers, but is not a curriculum to follow in the classroom. After completing LETRS learning, teachers take what they have learned and determine which activities, strategies, and skills need to be taught in their classrooms to help their students. It can be eye opening as a teacher – to go through the training and learn the way we were taught to teach reading in our teacher education programs was incorrect, and the way that we have been teaching reading for years or decades is not the best way to do it.
LETRS outlines two main aspects of reading: one is word recognition and the other is language comprehension. Word recognition is the complex system of sounds, sound symbol correspondences and patterns in our language. Language comprehension is the complex system of understanding the meaning of words and sentences.
For many years literacy instruction has focused mainly on language comprehension, and has ignored word recognition. That is why we are seeing alarming rates of students not being proficient readers across our country.
The district has three years before funds are exhausted. Do you believe the district will be able to sustain the same level of instruction after the period is over?
Hall: The district is committed to the LETRS framework and how we are teaching children to read. We have committed to training all K-5 classroom teachers, K-12 English Learner teachers, and K-12 Special Education Teachers. This investment will build and increase capacity in how we are teaching reading through common language and meeting students where they are in their learning.
In addition, as we increase the implementation of Bridge 2 Read classwide intervention lessons, we are reaching more students and aligning the LETRS framework into practice. Reading is not one specific skill – it is a multitude of skills that all need to be taught and mastered simultaneously. Learning to read is a very complicated process. Due to the complexity of learning to read, teaching to read is also complex and includes a lot of elements for teachers to be teaching, which is not just reserved for K-2.
LETRS has a stated goal to “improve student literacy and literacy instruction.” How does the district stack up in terms of student literacy in elementary schools right now? Is it considered an area that needs improvement?
Hall: National, state and local trends in reading scores have shown a decline in recent years. Robbinsdale Area Schools is like many other districts in that our students are showing a strong need in literacy skills. Improving literacy skills in our students is a high priority.
What benchmarks will you look to track the results of this grant?
Hall: We are currently developing this with ServeMN and our Research, Evaluation and Assessment department as we are just starting to launch the program. We will identify progress through multiple data points including reading assessments, and support for readers above, at and below grade level.
From a classroom perspective, what about this curriculum is benefiting students most? What are you seeing anecdotally?
Suckerman: Teachers are more confident in their teaching of reading, they know that they are making the correct changes to their instruction and are seeing the benefits in their students. Students are more excited to read, they are learning to understand the systems of our language and how they all work together when we read. There are many students that have gaps in their reading abilities and skills, the learning teachers are receiving for LETRS is allowing them to help fill those gaps.