Chris Schulz Published

State Educators Hope To Transform Students’ Reading Ability Early 

An adult hand indicates a letter written by a student on a letter/image board. The child can be seen holding a dry erase marker and writing the word "got" for a second time at the bottom of the board, where short words are paired with simple images. The entire vignette is seen over the child's shoulder.
First grade teacher Robin Hagedorn works on phonemic awareness with a student during small group work Oct. 9, 2023.
Chris Schulz/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Reading is a fundamental life skill. Studies show that if children aren’t up to speed by the third grade it can indicate future difficulties in and out of the classroom. A new law is now in effect across West Virginia to implement more effective reading education.

At the Bruceton School in Preston County, Robin Hagedorn’s first graders are preparing to break up into small groups for the day’s reading lesson.

“It takes me a whole month to train my kids in their stations, so that they know what to do,” Hagedorn said. “I was nervous, and I worried, and I wanted to make sure I had all of my ducks in a row for Miss Vicky and myself.”

Miss Vicky is Vicky Nieman, a paraprofessional that joined Hagedorn’s classroom this year. Hagedorn says she is so grateful to have the extra help because individualized learning in small, student-led groups by six-year-olds is made much easier by having another adult in the classroom. Nieman agrees.

“Having that second person you can just jump in, if you see somebody getting off task or needing a page turned, and you don’t have to disrupt the whole entire class. I feel like it’s going smoothly,” she said.

Nieman is in a first-grade classroom this fall thanks to House Bill 3035, also known as the Third Grade Success Act. Passed earlier this year by the state legislature, the law aims to address low reading and math test scores across the state.

“I think the legislature understood the need to close the achievement gap as it pertains to literacy in our state,” said Jonah Adkins, director of the office of pre-K through 12 academic support for the West Virginia Department of Education. “They saw the need in general to do something, to address our deficits. There was a sense of urgency there.”

The most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress published October 2022 showed that West Virginia students had some of the lowest reading scores in the nation and were at least 10 percent behind the national average.

Adkins says bringing extra help into the classroom will be one of the most visible changes of many implemented by the law. But he points out the name Third Grade Success Act only hints at the scope of the undertaking. The work to ensure that students are reading on level by the third grade starts much earlier.

“That would actually be kindergarten through third grade that are actually getting this instruction,” Adkins said. “Now, the first-grade classrooms, they are the ones that were introduced to our EL-CATs, early classroom childhood assistant teachers were introduced to first grade this year. Next year, they will be introduced in second grade and the year following, they will be introduced in third grade.”

The state’s educators aim to achieve results through several changes including regularly screening and assessing students’ development, continuous contact with parents and guardians and focusing instruction on what is called the “science of reading.”

Mindy Allenger, associate professor of literacy instruction for pre-service and in-service teachers at Marshall University, said phonemic awareness is the foundation of how children learn to read. Phonemes are the distinct sounds that make up a word.

“We’re segmenting a word by sounds like cat C-A-T and we’re manipulating; if I take off the C and add a M, that’s Matt. So that’s manipulating,” Allenger said. “All of those are features of phonemic awareness.”

West Virginia is following the lead of other states like Mississippi and Tennessee that focus on evidence-based fundamentals like phonemic awareness to produce repeatable results across classrooms. Before, most counties tended to choose one curriculum and stick to it. Now, teachers are welcome to draw from multiple sources as long as what they implement is aligned with the science of reading. Allenger likens it to medical care: what worked in the past shouldn’t trump cutting edge research.  

“We’re not looking at anecdotes, where I say, ‘Oh, well, my little one learn to read like this,’ or ‘I like to teach like this,’ or ‘This is how I learned.’” she said. “Instead, this is all based on research. And so it’s quantitative, meaning we have numbers, it’s reliable. And reliable just means ‘Can the results be reproduced, no matter who’s testing, no matter what conditions, and it’s valid, meaning that it’s really testing what it says it’s gonna test.”

Allenger and other educational trainers say the science of reading already underpinned most literacy instruction nationwide, so teaching programs have not had to change their curriculums. Before this year, the level of awareness of the science of reading and its application have varied greatly from county to county in West Virginia. That led the Department of Education to launch a teacher training initiative.

“As you can only imagine we’re on all different levels across the state,” said Kelly Griffith, coordinator for the office of pre-K through 12 academic support of the West Virginia Department of Education. “We have some people that they’re just learning about the signs of reading, they’ve never heard it before. But then we also have some really great high fliers that have been using it in their classroom, and that we are highlighting as model examples in the classroom.”

She says the state office has been hosting trainings all summer and into the fall, as well as creating a library of resources online.

“We’ve been doing regional rollouts for the county level. We’re taking the county level admin, the LEA’s of each county, and we are training them on all of the resources that we have developed to date,” Griffith said. “They have everything that we’ve developed for educators. Our plan is to build the capacity in the districts and support them because they know best the needs of their individual counties and where their teachers are.”

One of the next steps for the implementation of the Third Grade Success act will be a focus on numeracy and math education, another subject where state test scores have lagged after the COVID-19 pandemic. But in these early months the focus for Allenger and other educators remains on reading. 

“The inspiration and the hope that if I can make sure that all my little first graders leave, knowing how to read, what other gifts could you give to someone’s life, then teaching them how to read?” Allenger said.