The ability to read is one of the most basic and important skills students must master as part of their education to be successful. Learning to read is a process that involves listening and understanding as well as working out letters and sounds to form words and sentences. Some children come to school knowing many words or sounds and are on their way to reading in a relatively short time. Other children may come to school and struggle with learning to read for many reasons. Without a doubt, it is critically important that educators do everything they can to ensure that students can read on grade level.
Last year, after much evaluation of our existing reading program and numerous discussions with principals and teachers, it was clear that we needed to add a more targeted phonics program to our balanced literacy framework. Our district engaged with seven of the top reading program vendors in the country to share their phonics resources with our schools to review and evaluate. In November 2021, the district sent out a survey to administrators, school site coaches, district-level coaches, as well as leadership and curriculum teams, asking them to rate the programs on a rubric so we could narrow down the choices to two vendors. Every elementary reading teacher was able to review the final two choices and weigh in on the phonics resource that would best meet our students’ needs.
At the end of 2021, the results of these surveys were analyzed and the Open Court Foundational Skills Program by McGraw Hill stood out as the majority favorite. At the start of the school year, the district began utilizing the Open Court program at all of our elementary schools.
Our goal is to make sure that 60 percent of the district’s current class of kindergarten students are scoring proficient and distinguished on Georgia Milestones in English/Language Arts by the time they are in third grade. There are four achievement levels for Georgia Milestones: Beginning Learner, Developing Learner, Proficient Learner, and Distinguished Learner. Proficient and Distinguished are the highest achievement levels and indicate that students who score at these levels are on grade level or above. In 2022, the state percentage of students scoring at proficient and distinguished for English/Language Arts in third grade was 37 percent. Our district percentage for proficient and distinguished in English Language Arts was 29 percent. We have a lot of work to do in this area, but I am confident that we can meet our goal over the next four years. The goal is written into our five-year strategic plan, so it is a top priority in our district.
The Open Court program concentrates on the essential skills that students need in order to read and understand the text. Reading is a complex activity that requires the integration of a range of skills. Some of these necessary skills include the understanding that words are made up of sounds, that letters or combinations of letters represent those sounds, and that when sounds and letters are connected they form the words we read.
Fluency, the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and proper expression, underlies all these skills. Young readers must fluently recognize letters and their names; connect sounds to letters, and blend sounds and letters to read words. These skills are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves. They are a necessary and important part of an effective, comprehensive reading approach designed to develop skilled readers, capable of comprehending what they read.
As part of our Open Court Foundational Skills implementation plan, teachers and staff will receive direct support services from phonics specialists for the first two years of the implementation. The specialists have already spent one day working in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms at each elementary school, and they will complete another day in each school this week.
Additionally, two specialists presented at the district’s annual professional development day and worked with teachers on the Open Court Digital Platform and facilitated interactive phonics work. In addition to school support, there is district-level training for DPS administrators and instructional coaches which occurs three times a year.
An important element of teaching children to read is to read to your child/grandchild or have your child/grandchild read aloud. While there are opportunities for that in the classroom, we have a need for volunteers in all of our elementary schools who would be willing to spend some time with a child to work on reading. If you’re interested, please reach out to one of our schools or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I assure you that you will enjoy playing a small part in helping a child become a proficient reader.