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Lauren Williams' second-graders get two hours of reading and writing practice every day at Hamilton Elementary in Coon Rapids.

All 27 of them learn in unison for about half that time. Each lesson contains a dash of phonics, some vocabulary building and a healthy dose of phonemic awareness — or how words are made up of a series of sounds. It's a method of literacy instruction far different from the one used as recently as two years ago.

The kids then break up into small groups. Williams takes six kids into one classroom, her student teacher takes another small group, and a part-time teacher leads a third while clusters of students work independently.

"Having that extra teacher really helps," Williams said. "It's one way we make sure everyone has what they need."

That two-pronged approach — the new literacy instruction coupled with staffing boosts to provide students with individualized attention — is the blueprint several of Minnesota's largest school districts have adopted to curb the drastic decline in students' reading and writing skills.

Minnesota students registered some of the steepest drops in reading proficiency in the country this year, according to the first set of state and national exam scores released since the onset of the pandemic. And, more worryingly, students who were struggling before the pandemic fell furthest behind.

About 51% of Minnesota students were reading at grade level this spring, compared to 59% in 2019.

"This, more than anything, is an indication of what happens when we limit access and limit exposure to instruction," said Michael Rodriguez, dean of the College of Education and Humanities at the University of Minnesota, adding that students who didn't have reliable internet at home or access to tutors fell furthest behind. "The answer? Create more access, create more instructional opportunities."

Susan Braithwaite, elementary curriculum director for the St. Paul school district, said she and her teachers knew students would need more individualized attention this year.

That's why district officials made sure that every kindergarten, first- and second-grade class had a reading specialist. Schools recruited existing classroom teachers to fill those positions, which means those specialists are already familiar with the building, are enthusiastic about focusing on one subject, and have an immediate rapport with their colleagues.

"It's been phenomenal, one of the very best initiatives," Braithwaite said. "Everybody says it's been transformational."

Ditching old methods

The North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district has taken a similar approach to reading instruction for about five years. Teachers and interventionists meet weekly to identify class-wide needs and then to figure out small-group assignments for their students, said Superintendent Christine Tucci Osorio.

Early on, they found it was hard for older students to catch up if they had fallen behind.

"One of the problems with literacy over the years has been that in certain grade levels, you're trained in phonemic awareness but that's been overlooked by teachers in upper grades," Tucci Osorio said. "There are plenty of kids who come into our schools in fourth grade or even sixth grade who need those core fundamental principles."

Elementary teachers were also using an outdated method to teach kids how to read called three-cueing.

That approach, with a few variations, generally works like this: First, students look at the letters that comprise the word. Then, based on the context of the sentence, try to deduce whether it's a noun or verb. Finally, they may consider illustrations that accompany the sentence to figure it out.

The method's merits have come under increased scrutiny lately, particularly as schools in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Mississippi began seeing gains in literacy among struggling readers.

The key to success in those states was the adoption of an instructional method widely known as "the science of reading," which puts a greater emphasis on teaching children to deconstruct and decode words rather than relying on contextual cues.

One of the training programs for that method, Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling — known as LETRS — has won favor with teachers and legislators in several states, Minnesota included.

Educators in North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale began taking that approach in 2018.

"We saw significant gains in letter name, letter sound, the transfer to other decoding skills," said Heidi Leigh, the district's director of teaching and learning.

In 2021, the state legislature allocated $3 million for LETRS training, enough for the Minnesota Department of Education to acquire about 2,300 licenses, according to agency spokesman Kevin Burns.

A $30 million literacy investment, mostly for LETRS, was one of few points of agreements between Democrats and Republicans during the 2022 session — though the legislation did not pass.

Sound it out

Williams, the Hamilton Elementary teacher, was astounded that decoding wasn't common practice in Minnesota schools when she arrived in Coon Rapids in 2018. But it'll soon be ubiquitous across the Anoka-Hennepin district's 26 elementary schools.

Last school year, 560 teachers and support specialists began LETRS training, according to district spokesman Jim Skelly. This year, another 225 started the two-year program.

Every kindergarten, first- and second-grade teacher — along with the district's reading specialists and some third-grade teachers — should be fully trained in its methods by the end of the 2023-24 academic year. That means reading lessons across the state's largest districts will look a lot like Williams'.

Her students are learning how to pair consonants and vowels, mixing and matching different combinations to become familiar with the way they sound together. On a recent morning, she began a small-group lesson with the word "have."

First, the students say it aloud.

"Have," the five pupils quickly recited in unison.

Then, they connect it to meaning. In this case, you "have" something. It belongs to you.

Next, they "stretch" the word and elongate each sound to get a sense of how each letter fits into it.

"Huh — aaaaa — vuh."

Finally, they "tap" it, stretching the word and lightly rapping the air with their fists as they pronounce it.

The group moved through a few more words before Williams set out about two dozen small paper squares with groups of letters on them. She asked the students to combine them and form words. One boy joined "emp" and "ire" — "empire."

The kids, almost effortlessly, read it aloud. Now they had to connect it to meaning. Their teacher began to answer, then pulled out her phone to find a simple definition.

"See? Even your teacher needs a bit of help sometimes," Williams said.