Kansas schools to revamp reading education, but pandemic has caused some delays

Wichita — The way kids in Kansas learn to read is in for a major rewrite.

Teachers will soon ditch their time-worn memorization and context-clues methods. In their place, they’ll work with state teacher colleges on new styles meant to accommodate dyslexic students and other children who struggle with books. For instance, they’ll train kids to break down words and to methodically drill through English’s tricky rules.

Screening will be key to the new approach. Schools will put more effort into identifying children with the poorest reading skills and giving them special help before that weakness snowballs and sinks them on other subjects.

But the effort gets a late start, delayed by the pandemic and the setbacks it caused in efforts to train teachers in a fresh, determined approach. Dreams of state money to fund those changes were trashed by a battered economy and the damage that left to the state’s budget.

Still, educators remain confident that the state is finally on a unified — if winding — path for meaningful reform to help struggling readers.

“The important thing is the entire conversation has changed,” said Jim Porter, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education. “We are no longer discussing what may or may not work because the research is clear.”

Learning to read

Advocates have been arguing for years that Kansas schools and their traditional reading instruction have failed students with dyslexia.

Traditional reading instruction in American schools relies on kids memorizing words or using picture books to help the kids guess that D-O-G refers to the four-legged animal on their page. According to researchers, these techniques lead to poor reading skills for students with and without dyslexia.

In place of these methods, researchers have pushed for a technique called structured literacy.

Structured literacy aims to teach kids how to decode words. Students break down words phonetically and are drilled on specific English spelling rules, which researchers say makes a huge difference for students with dyslexia.

At the start of 2019, a dyslexia task force made up of advocates and educators recommended that the Kansas State Board of Education adopt that structured learning approach. It also called for teacher colleges to make the same shift. And the task force wants teachers already in the classroom to be retrained, and for students from kindergarten through high school to be tested regularly for reading problems.

Lotta Larson, an associate professor of education at Kansas State University whose work focuses on literacy, called that aggressive screening plan a game changer.

“If you’re just letting them slip through the cracks and continue from one grade level to the next, the problem doesn’t go away,” she said.

Colleges have already adopted new reading instruction standards. New elementary teachers must pass a test that shows they know the new methods for teaching reading. Earlier this week, the state board of education approved a dyslexia handbook as the go-to resource for parents and teachers.

But progress on other recommendations ran into the same problem the rest of the education world is still grappling with this year — COVID-19.

Pandemic slowdown

Kansas teachers were supposed to get six hours of training on reading intervention and screening before the start of the school year. Some districts, like Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley, managed some of that before the pandemic struck.

More commonly, districts buckled down on getting teachers ready for leading online classes.

Kansas teacher colleges may have adopted new teaching standards, but the coronavirus postponed their arrival in actual instruction. K-State said the coronavirus delayed its plans to integrate the standards by at least a semester.

Hopes for financial help from the Kansas Legislature also stalled with the pandemic. The Legislature seemed poised to fund a dyslexia coordinator position in March. But the coronavirus cut the legislative session short, and that position remained unfunded and unfilled.The Kansas State Department of Education instead spread the coordinator’s duties across several other employees.

Hopes for extra higher education funding to help colleges shift to structured literacy and screening look unlikely given Kansas’ budget shortfall.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Christina Middleton, the founder of Decoding Dyslexia Kansas and a member of the dyslexia task force. “For the students that are in the classrooms right now, they are feeling the loss.”

Still, Middleton argues these are just speedbumps. The biggest barriers to getting help for students with dyslexia have already been passed. The Kansas State Department of Education said teacher colleges, previously resistant to structured literacy, have bought into the reforms. And school districts are still required to screen all students for dyslexia next year.

“The tracks have been laid. The train’s left the station,” Middleton said. “It’s going to happen regardless of if we get the funding.”

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio.


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