The educational world is witnessing Arkansas embrace a huge initiative toward ensuring all students can read. Tremendous strides are being taken to align instructional practices within districts across the state to the evidence based approaches of the science of reading. The International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards focus on Structured Literacy, while Arkansas’s Department of Education has been aligning laws to help guide districts and teachers to utilize these evidence based practices to ensure all students can read. These practices include making data based decisions and employing explicit, systematic, cumulative instruction in the essential elements of reading.
As a teacher who graduated from college with a 4.0, I looked around during that first year of teaching and felt wholly unprepared for instructing my students in reading. My Master’s degree in Teaching and endorsements in teaching English Language Learners and Special Education did not fully prepare me for instructing my students with special needs. Although I had studied research and even conducted an action research project of my own, which focused on brain-based learning, I taught that first year feeling a great sense of disservice to my students. I reflect back today and feel as though I was the one with a disability. A disability in applying the best practices of the Science of Reading. Not for lack of trying or desire, but because I did not know any better. Although we had studied the National Reading Panel Report, had full classes on data and instructional decision making, it was impossible to put that knowledge into practice without the materials and systems in place across the state. The district had not yet adopted a wide-spread program, and I myself was not taught the rules of the English Language. It wasn’t until my district offered training to become a Certified Academic Language Therapist and Dyslexia Specialist that I had the tools to provide my students with the proper instruction to become fluent readers.
Arkansas has passed four laws in the past seven years which focus on the instructional practices and materials in the area of reading. The revised Act 1268 was the first of its kind in Arkansas to ensure districts screen all students in the areas of foundational reading skills, in order to ensure that any child who struggles with dyslexia is provided proper instruction utilizing a multisensory, structured and systematic, phonics based approach. The dyslexia law did far more than ensure all students were screened and provided services if characteristics of dyslexia were present. All students, not only those with dyslexia, would now be provided high quality instruction in reading based on empirical scientific evidence. The law displayed a problem that not all teachers were aware of and they were now instructed on best practices and how to implement them within their classrooms.
After implementing the reading program in my classroom, my students began making marked gains in reading that transferred to their classrooms and state testing. Once the initial dyslexia law was passed, my district made great strides toward a structured response to intervention model that utilized a clear data making decision process. Brainspring’s Phonics First and Structures programs were adopted as our dyslexia program, and our intervention teachers received training and ongoing support to ensure students are making progress. “When you know better, you do better” is the saying heard around the state. I am seeing this become true on a daily basis as teachers learn and grow together through training and discussions.
Arkansas’ Right to Read Act
It soon became clear across the state, that there was a gap between the scientific knowledge and instructional practices within our core classrooms. In order to close the gap that followed the initial dyslexia law, The Right to Read Act (Act 1063) passed, which outlines that, “By the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year: A) All teachers employed in a teaching position that requires an elementary education (K-6) license or special education (K-12) license shall demonstrate proficiency in knowledge and practices of scientific reading instruction; and B) All other teachers shall demonstrate awareness in knowledge and practices of scientific reading instruction.”
Over 20 pathways have been established by the Arkansas Department of Education for teachers who must demonstrate proficiency or awareness in the science of reading. The proficiency training requires two phases.
- Phase I outlines professional learning that meets the knowledge and practices in scientific reading instruction.
- Phase II requires teachers to demonstrate their knowledge through instructional practices which employ the scientific reading instruction approaches learned throughout the training. This process not only helps to ensure teachers can demonstrate the head knowledge, but are putting that knowledge into action. Teachers, along with administrators, are going through the training, keeping everyone on the same page to ensure the success of every student.
Most recently, Arkansas has enacted Act 940 which requires districts to inform parents in writing of their child’s reading level at a minimum of twice per year. Act 83 outlines that the school level improvement plans shall include literacy curriculum and professional development that aligns with the district’s needs and the science of reading. This multifaceted approach is tackling the instructional gap on many levels, teacher knowledge and demonstration of that knowledge, parental involvement and data driven decision making for intervention, and curriculum materials.
Each of these four laws are currently being fully embraced in the state of Arkansas. It is hard to draw a line where one law stops and another begins. Teachers and administrators are trained in evidence based practices and the materials and assessments we utilize align with what science tells us is best for students. Currently, about 80% of the teachers required to demonstrate proficiency have completed their training and continue to receive follow-up coaching and support to implement what they learned in the 6 to 8 days of training. Administrators are conducting walk-throughs with specialists and instructional coaches to ensure the teachers know and understand how to implement the practices within their classrooms.
I look forward to Arkansas’s future as I see the strides being taken across the state to make this change happen through a multifaceted approach. I smile at the prospect of our future students who have teachers with the knowledge, demonstration of skills, curriculum and resources to provide this effective instruction to all students. I am filled with hope and pride in the advancements we have made, and the embracing of the spirit of Arkansas’s laws my district has done.
Written by Kristen Kossover, CALT, Certified Dyslexia Therapist, Phonics First/Structures Trainer
- Arkansas’s Department of Education
- International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards and Perspectives on Language and Literacy
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