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Using science and reading to build strong literacy foundations

Teachers Kimberly Isaacson, left, and Katelyn Boardman, offer a professional development session on Orton-Gillingham and the Science of Reading at H.H. Garnet Elementary School Friday, Jan. 26.
Teachers Kimberly Isaacson, left, and Katelyn Boardman, offer a professional development session on Orton-Gillingham and the Science of Reading at H.H. Garnet Elementary School Friday, Jan. 26.

CHESTERTOWN — More and more school systems are adopting an approach already entrenched in Kent County Public Schools to build strong literacy foundations in students.

In January, the Maryland State Board of Education issued a resolution calling for a comprehensive literacy policy aligned with the Science of Reading.

The Science of Reading applies a body of work studying how the brain learns to read and aligns instruction with lessons emphasizing phonics, vocabulary and comprehension.

"The State Board and Maryland State Department of Education are taking swift action to improve literacy in our schools by prioritizing collaboration with our local school system leaders to ensure data-driven, evidence-based instructional practices,” said Clarence Crawford, the board's president, in a statement last month.

Dr. Carey Wright, Maryland's interim state superintendent of schools, is renowned for her work turning around low literacy rates in Mississippi. She is looking to repeat that success here in her home, where she began her education career in Prince George's County.

“Our goal is to ensure that more Maryland students have foundational literacy skills that equip them for lifelong success,” Dr. Wright said in a statement. "Students should have access to robust instruction that prepares them for higher education, the workforce, military and other pathways."

While the state resolution calls for all literacy instruction in Maryland's public schools to be aligned to the Science of Reading for the 2024-25 academic year, Kent County already has a head start.

Under Superintendent Dr. Karen Couch, schools here have been an early adopter of the Science of Reading.

"The Science of Reading teaches us that reading comprehension comprises both word recognition and language comprehension and that skills in both of these areas are imperative for successful reading comprehension," said Dr. Erika Costa-Gooding, coordinator of special education in Kent County Public Schools.

GIna Jachimowicz, Kent County Public Schools' director of teaching and learning, said that in the fall of 2021, teachers and administrators chose to begin a two-year training program called Language Essentials for Teaching Reading (LETRS). She said the LETRS training provided a deeper understanding of the 'why' and 'what' of teaching reading.

"This decision was an excellent next step to the adoption of our reading core program Wonders," Jachimowicz said. "Both LETRS and Wonders are grounded in the Science of Reading."

Prior to the start of the current school year, kindergarten through third-grade teachers and many special education teachers received additional training in a Science of Reading-based approach to early literacy.

Commonly referred to as Orton-Gillingham, this method of reading education is based on the work of neuropsychiatrist and pathologist Samuel Orton and psychologist and educator Anna Gillingham.

"We are so excited to implement Orton-Gillingham reading instruction with our students in Kent County Public Schools and have already seen tremendous growth from our elementary school students," said Dr. Costa-Gooding.

She describes the Orton-Gillingham approach as "research-based, explicit, systematic and multi-sensory reading instruction."
In Kent County Public Schools, teachers and students call the daily Orton-Gillingham instructional periods "OG time."

"This year, adding Orton-Gillingham to the daily literacy block was a game changer. It provided literacy teachers with the 'how-to' for applying the skills and strategies and ensuring quality instruction on a daily basis," Jachimowicz said.

During these lessons, elementary school teachers focus on the phonics, or sounds, that make up words. It's less about learning the alphabet song and more about focusing on the sounds represented by the letters to build words.

A classroom visitor during OG Time will see students and teachers not just making sounds, but also using their hands and arms in specific gestures to help make a stronger memory connection to the literacy skills they are building.

"The Science of Reading is considered the 'what' and 'why' to reading, while Orton-Gillingham instruction is considered our 'how,'" Dr. Costa-Gooding said.

Science of Reading and Orton-Gilingham training for teachers in Kent County Public Schools did not end last August, though. It is an ongoing — and collaborative — process.

During a professional development day in January, teachers Katelyn Boardman and Kimberly Isaacson gave a presentation at H>H. Garnet Elementary School to their peers on Orton-Gillingham.

"It's important we use the sounds and not the letter name," Boardman told the group. "Seeing the letter and saying the sound — that links a lot with students."

Their discussion went beyond a how-to on Orton-Gillingham. They offered their fellow teachers a detailed presentation of why the approach works, of why the method better helps students connect with reading.

"The professional development session led by Kim and Katie was very informative," said Brenda Rose, principal of H.H. Garnet Elementary School. "They emphasized the importance of implementing the program with fidelity."

One handout they provided from the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education, which led the Orton-Gillingham training here last summer, offers a glimpse into the science of the Science of Reading.

The handout featured Scarborough's Reading Rope, developed by psychologist and literacy expert Dr. Hollis Scarborough.

Scarborough's Reading Rope illustrates how the aspects of language comprehension — including vocabulary, language structure and literacy knowledge — entwine with the elements of word recognition — phonological awareness, decoding and sight recognition — leading to skilled reading.   

Boardman and Isaacson also offered resources they found to help supplement OG Time. These included shareable videos produced by educators elsewhere in the country with some engaging OG-themed songs.

"Kim and Katie outlined and modeled the components of the OG program that are used daily in the classrooms," Rose said. "They also shared quick and fun activities that could be used to help students who may struggle building phonemic awareness."

Gov. Wes Moore has called the state board's adoption of the Science of Reading as an important step forward to make Maryland's schools the best in the nation.

“When we prioritize literacy, we help our children read, achieve, connect and grow," Moore said. "This approach sets us on course to lift our children and build a more competitive state."

Having already implemented the Science of Reading in classrooms, Kent County Public Schools is on the leading edge of the state's literacy goals and continues to grow these efforts.

"We are looking forward to continuing training our teachers this spring and summer so that even more of our students can benefit from this instruction moving forward," Dr. Costa-Gooding said.

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