By Sam P.K. Collins

Teacher Jewel Cauley has made it her business to ensure that her students can properly recognize and pronounce unfamiliar words they encounter while reading. 

For several months, Cauley sat with her second graders on a colorful carpet at the front of her spacious classroom at Stanton Elementary School in Southeast, where they would break down multisyllabic words, decipher the sounds made by various letter combinations, and discuss the similarities and differences in vowel and consonant sounds. 

A sound-to-print wall, chock full of visuals that show the unique movement of lips and tongues for certain sounds, is an additional resource for boosting students’ reading fluency. 

For Cauley, a Southeast native and alumna of Anacostia High School, this endeavor became even more critical upon realizing, during recent professional development sessions, that her students spoke with a distinct hometown dialect that made it difficult to recognize words as they’re traditionally pronounced.  

That’s why Cauley’s instruction, as she describes it, strikes a balance between embracing the uniqueness of the D.C. dialect and incorporating the “Science of Reading” research disseminated during reading clinics hosted by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Office of Teaching and Learning. 

“When I went in depth with reading and phonetic awareness, I realized that I have to study what it takes to know different sounds,” Cauley said. 

“It just inspired me to bring the research to the classroom, telling students the correct way to say things,” she added. “The sound-to-print wall helped us with our word formation. During my D.C. reading clinic class, I looked at the pictures and sounds.” 

The Science of Reading in Action

During a tour of Stanton Elementary last week, DCPS officials said students who transitioned between kindergarten and first grade made significant gains in their reading skills once introduced to the Science of Reading curriculum. The instruction builds on research conducted over the last couple of decades about dyslexia. This neurological disorder causes difficulty in identifying speech sounds and their relation to letters and words. 

In the fall of 2019, the Office of Teaching and Learning launched reading clinics to introduce teachers and school leaders to the Science of Reading. Currently, 15 District public schools enjoy a partnership through which three coaches conduct professional development sessions. A citywide program also involves 50 students and teachers who engage in the learning process under the purview of mentors and reading clinic coordinators. 

Elizabeth Corney, an English and Language Arts instructional coach at Stanton, called Science of Reading the cornerstone of an instructional strategy that guarantees student success across various subject areas.

“Literacy is the foundation from which all disciplines derive,” Corney said. 

“We started this work at the end of last year to give teachers the actual knowledge to understand the science and ensure they knew the expectations. Once teachers understood the Science of Reading, they executed it.” 

Codifying a Response to Dyslexia 

Between 5 and 15% of young people and adults in the U.S. are considered dyslexic. However, with early interventions, dyslexia can be mitigated. A DCPS official said that some students diagnosed with dyslexia had been given an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, to help meet learning goals. 

In 2020, the D.C. Council passed the Addressing Dyslexia and Other Reading Difficulties Amendment Act, which required the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to develop guidance and support public schools in the identification, remediation, and prevention of dyslexia and other reading impediments. 

The legislation also imposed teacher professional development requirements and required the use of science-based reading programs. 

Ward 7 resident Sheila Carr counted among those who testified before the D.C. Council in support of the Addressing Dyslexia and Other Reading Difficulties Amendment Act. She did so in honor of her grandson, who was diagnosed with dyslexia in the third grade and didn’t receive adequate services in his public school. 

Carr said she, too, received a dyslexia diagnosis in adulthood. While she expressed gratitude for DCPS’ reading clinics and Science of Reading program, she noted instruction must extend to the fifth grade. She also said she wanted to see older students, starting in the 12th grade, tested for dyslexia. 

For the time being, Carr relished in the victory of teachers effectively executing the Science of Reading in the classroom. 

“The teachers knew how to teach [the science of reading],” Carr said. “They didn’t fumble, and they were confident. The children could feel that. They kept their attention on the teacher and did what the teacher asked them to do. It was wonderful to see these second and third graders so far ahead.”

This post was originally published on The Washington Informer.