Coaching Idaho Teachers in the Science of Reading

two teachers in a meeting

The Idaho State Department of Education’s (ISDE) Striving to Meet Achievement in Reading Together (SMART) is a multiyear project that trains K–3 teachers and reading specialists in the evidence-based science of reading approach. The state adopted this comprehensive plan to improve early literacy in 2020 after national reading assessments over two decades demonstrated nearly a third of grade 4 students scoring below the “basic” level.

To ensure SMART’s success, Idaho needed a statewide network of reading coaches to support teachers as they learned to implement the science of reading in classrooms across the state. ISDE partnered with the Region 17 Comprehensive Center to develop the Idaho Reading Coach Academy to build the capacity of literacy coaches across Idaho. “It’s been so rewarding to see the confidence being built in those teachers,” says Shantelle Oliphant, a former principal in Clark County and current reading academy coach.

What is the Science of Reading?

The science of reading, Oliphant says, is based on “decades of research on what works in helping all students learn to read.” Early literacy is important, she says, because the data shows that students who are behind on reading in grade 3 struggle to catch up. When we identify struggling readers in kindergarten and use instruction aligned with the science of reading, we can change the trajectory of a child's reading journey. There are social and emotional benefits as well. When a student is given explicit, systematic instruction on how to use speech sounds to encode and decode words, they make gains―and that feeling of competency is rewarding.

Reading instruction has traditionally focused on memorizing words by sight and using pictures as clues, with little emphasis on decoding. The brain, however, needs to develop orthographic mapping by connecting speech sounds with the spellings that represent them. Additionally, kindergarteners were only introduced to consonants and short vowel sounds. We now know that we can discuss sounds and the spellings of the sounds earlier, to the benefit of all readers.

In contrast, the science of reading focuses on teaching students phonemes—the 44 sounds of the English language. Through visual drills, auditory drills, and other multisensory strategies, Oliphant says, this helps students understand and recognize these sounds when learning to read new words. Rather than posting words on an alphabetical “word wall,” teachers post sounds (such as “th”), allowing students to move from speech to print as they learn to read and write.

The Idaho Reading Coach Academy

The Idaho Reading Coach Academy trains reading coaches in the science of reading and prepares them to coach their peers. Dividing the state into six regions, the academy holds three in-person training sessions each year. Fifteen coaches also hold regular virtual meetings with Region 17 Comprehensive Center staff members and receive asynchronous support. The training focuses on building trust with teachers, modeling best practices, classroom coaching, and building teachers’ capacity to use data in their decision making. The academy also incorporates autonomous coaching, in which teachers set their own goals for learning effective early literacy strategies.

Oliphant coaches 46 K–3 teachers from three of Idaho’s six regions. She meets with the teachers once a month, visits classrooms to observe, and offers feedback on videos of teachers in action. “Some of our teachers who have been teaching for years are just having an epiphany of, ‘oh my goodness, I did not know. This is the better way to do it. I’m seeing the results, and I’m making changes,’” Oliphant says. “It’s exciting to see what they see―how it’s benefitted the kids in their reading journeys.”

The Region 17 Comprehensive Center not only provides expertise in the science of reading, Oliphant says, but also a collaborative environment to learn and share built on trust. “The building administrators and reading coaches can all feel like this is a safe place to talk,” she says, “because the Reading Coach Academy is facilitated by a trusted third party.”

Looking Forward to a Literate Future

After engaging in the project’s activities and supports, 80 percent of Idaho Reading Coach Academy participants reported increased knowledge and initial implementation of evidence-based practices. And student test scores, Oliphant says, are showing big gains as well. Data shows that students with a teacher in the SMART program had a 79 percent proficiency rate on spring 2022 Idaho Reading Indicator assessment, compared to the overall state proficiency rate of 68 percent.

Oliphant and the other coaches will continue working with the same teachers for a second year, as well as welcoming a new cohort into the program. After two years in SMART, teachers are able to become mentors, she says, “keeping up on things so they can be a resource in their buildings.”

Kindergarten students typically begin basic writing sentences towards the end of the school year, but one teacher who Oliphant supports reported that they’d never had kindergarteners write so much in January. “The kids are eager to get their words on paper like never before,” she says. “How exciting is it that all the kids are feeling like confident readers.”

Connect with us!