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Unlocking the code to reading instruction

A Georgia school district took steps to ensure its students mastered reading during the critical primary years. What they did and how it’s working.

6 min read

Voice of the Educator

Unlocking the code to reading instruction


Too many of our nation’s students arrive at school each day dreading six words: “Can you read the next paragraph?”

I can only imagine the anxiety and frustration of the non-reader as he or she attempts to navigate subject after subject void of the tools to decipher the “code.” Learning to read is analogous to receiving one’s wings to fly or the master key to doors of opportunity. Frederick Douglass conveyed it as “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”

Those 26 funny-shaped letters in the English language are significant tools for learning, communicating, creating, and ultimately, thriving in a knowledge-based economy. Mastery of foundational and complex reading skills must be the non-negotiable goal of education when society expects its citizens to be civically engaged, able to access and use a range of texts, and carry out everyday responsibilities as a contributing member of society.

In Clayton County Public Schools, just south of metro Atlanta, we have been more intentional with helping to fulfill this promise to our students. We have taken clear steps to ensure more of our students learn to read during their primary years so that they are ready to “read to learn” — beyond the formative years.

This is certainly a necessary shift but typing this phrase is easier than its full realization, as evidenced by report after report and national measure after national measure. Only 35% of students in fourth grade are reading at or above proficiency, and only 34% of students in eighth grade are proficient, according to the 2019 National Assessment for Educational Progress.

And in my district, just 40% students in grades 3-5 in our school district are reading at the expected mid-point Lexile to be on track for college and career readiness. We know from research that if students do not learn to read by the end of first grade, they have a one in eight chance of ever catching up.  

To confront and improve students’ literacy outcomes, we decided to take a solution-oriented approach by:

  • increasing leaders and teachers’ understanding of how students learn to read and comprehend at deep levels

  • implementing a comprehensive reading program

  • engaging all stakeholders for collective momentum 

Increasing Leaders and Teachers’ Understanding

Learning to read is complex; we were never “wired” to read. Thus, leaders and teachers must have knowledge of how the brain learns to read and the associated practices and experiences that contribute to creating a reader. In order to take a deep dive into the scientific research of reading, we decided to participate in research-based professional learning Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling — known also as LETRS — by author and creator Louisa Moats. Our focus audience is district leadership, principals, primary teachers and select secondary instructors.

To cultivate sustainability, we employed a train-the-trainer model, where approximately 25 of our teachers were trained and met the requirements to become a certified local LETRS teacher-trainer. Key stakeholders learned how to take scientific reading research and apply it purposefully in the classroom. They understood:

  • the cognitive and language factors that contribute to optimal student literacy

  • how to design and deliver systematic and explicit reading instruction

  • how to use universal screeners and diagnostic data strategically in order to differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all students

The National Reading Panel says that five components of reading — phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension — are essential skills for reading mastery.  The panel further states that these competencies are most effectively developed through systematic and explicit instruction — not gut feeling or creative guessing.  As such, our selected core curriculum and reading program reflect the research-based guidance, tools and resources to develop these five components.

Implementing a Comprehensive Reading Program

Our current reading program provides teachers with structured time to provide explicit, systematic and easy-to-follow phonics instruction. Teacher resources include sound-spelling cards, decodable readers and routine cards that help students build skills toward fluent and accurate word recognition. Additional tools include a balanced assessment system — with universal screener, diagnostic and instruments for progress monitoring — and resources for conducting data-driven small group instruction.  

We also focus on developing students’ ability to read to learn through explicit vocabulary routines and other practices that increase comprehension. As a school district, we have prioritized three high-impact practices:

  1. close reading and evidence-based writing,
  2. academic discussions, and
  3. higher-order questioning, which serve as vehicles to mastering the Georgia Standards of Excellence.

Step-by-step guidance documents, clear “look-fors” for teacher and student behaviors, and videos modeling these strategies help teachers implement the practices.

Finally, we developed the Clayton County High Performance Framework for Collaborative planning. It is built on six tenets: Students, Time, Assessments, Resources, Techniques, and Standards. We refer to this framework as START.

As teachers are collaboratively designing lessons, they are encouraged to consider STUDENTS’ learning needs based on data; how much TIME will be devoted to learning tasks; what ASSESSMENTS will be used for monitor students’ learning; what are the essential RESOURCES for lesson delivery and learning tasks; what evidenced-based TECHNIQUES support management, scaffolding, and rigor; and how will the STANDARD(S) drive the lesson design.  

Engaging All Stakeholders for Collective Momentum

This work is too complex to do alone. Therefore, we have developed a districtwide Literacy Task Force that includes both internal and external stakeholders: teachers, parents, students, business members, collegiate community and valued partners. The work of the Task Force is guided by our district-wide Literacy Achievement Plan, which ensures a laser-like focus on improving students’ literacy skills. It provides clarity to all stakeholders of the beliefs, goals, and specific components that must be implemented to improve student outcomes.

Most critically, the plan outlines the specific methods for monitoring and supporting implementation in an effort to establish coherence and efficacy. There are five committees that work strategically on key actions that support our literacy goals. The committees are:

  • Expanding Early Access for Kindergarten Readiness [0-4]

  • Engaging Parents and Caregivers

  • Providing Students with Authentic Literacy Experiences

  • Expanding Communication Platforms

  • Increasing Partnerships to Incentivize Efforts  

Literacy is life. It is our hope that our strategic and solution-oriented actions lead to Clayton County graduates who have the will and skills to be informed, to inform, and to make informed decisions through their ability to read and communicate proficiently, think critically and keep pace in a world that is continuously evolving.

Ebony Lee is the assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Clayton County Public Schools in Jonesboro, Georgia. In the past 20 years, she has served in various instructional roles, including a secondary English teacher, literacy coach and K-12 Language Arts Coordinator. She has presented locally, nationally and internationally and has been recognized as Teacher of the Year and Support Leader of the Year. Lee takes the literacy and learning mission seriously and aims to continue expanding her knowledge so that she can positively influence her community and beyond.


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