TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

As a reading teacher, I wasn’t prepared to help kids like Kaeden; I am now

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When five-year-old Kaeden walked into my classroom, I could tell he was excited and eager to learn—every teacher's dream. But as the year progressed and the work became more difficult, I noticed that he struggled to read. So I did what most teachers do: I pulled him for extra small-group and individual practice with a mix of written work and games, I modified lessons for him, and I checked in on him frequently during whole-group instruction.

Despite my best efforts, Kaeden fell further behind. He became hesitant, sad, and disengaged—every teacher's nightmare. I was failing this child. He was sinking and I didn't have the knowledge, skills, and tools (i.e., curriculum and assessments) to help Kaeden succeed.

Then I found an ad for a training program designed to prepare teachers in the science of reading, Orton Gillingham, an approach that has proved to be successful with struggling readers. I applied. During my time in the program, I learned about structured literacy, an entirely new way of teaching reading. Structured literacy uses a systematic, explicit approach grounded in the science of how we learn to read. It provided a logical scope and sequence for teaching letter-sound relationships to help kids like Kaeden crack the code of reading. I found the multisensory strategies I learned and the techniques for implementing them highly effective.

In the program, I was assigned to teach two students diagnosed with dyslexia. As I worked with them using my new knowledge, expert structured literacy instructors oversaw my practice. We met twice a week for two years, and at the end of our training, I felt empowered. My teaching practice had improved immensely, and I had gained so much knowledge about the English language.

Kaeden was in second grade and in a different school by the time I finished my program and felt equipped to help students like him regain his excitement and eagerness. But I wasn't there to help him learn to read. I think about Kaeden at least once a week and I hope that he has teachers who are equipped to help him succeed where I wasn't. I hope that his life is filled with books and that he regained his joy of learning.

I may never know what happened to Kaeden, but I do know that now I am prepared to teach children to learn how to read. Still, too many teachers across Pennsylvania, and across the country, still haven't been trained in structured literacy and don't have access to evidence-based curricula and assessments. And too many students like Kaeden aren't being identified as struggling readers and receiving interventions grounded in the science of reading.

Fortunately, progress is being made at the state level to ensure that all students have access to evidence-based teaching and instructional materials. Recent updates to Pennsylvania teacher certification regulations require that current and future teachers be trained in structured literacy; this training began in districts this school year and must begin in educator preparation programs by the fall. Two bipartisan companion bills, House Bill 998 and Senate Bill 801, are currently moving through the state legislature, with SB 801 on track to pass in the Senate this spring. These bills would require districts to adopt curricular materials aligned with the science of reading, screen early elementary students for reading difficulties, and implement intervention plans for struggling readers. They would also provide grant funding to defray the costs of adopting new instructional and assessment materials. Together, these policies—if enacted, adequately funded, and well-implemented—would address the needs of educators, guide teachers to provide the best possible data-driven literacy instruction, and help improve literacy outcomes for all students. It's critical that Governor Shapiro and legislative leaders ensure these bills are passed and funded as part of the 2024–25 budget process.

Pennsylvania is not alone. At least 12 states, including Massachusetts and New York, have bills or budget commitments to provide training and/or coaches to support teachers' implementation of structured literacy. I implore all state leaders to ensure that these efforts include enough funding to provide opportunities for teachers to receive training to build their skills and ongoing support. We won't make meaningful gains or sustain them unless we commit investments for multiple years.

We can't afford to leave our students' success in reading up to luck or chance. All teachers must know how to teach literacy and use practices backed by research for our instruction to be effective. Kaeden and all our students deserve nothing less.

Kristyn Kahalehoe teaches kindergarten in the School District of Philadelphia and is a Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.