Utah wants 70% of third graders reading on grade level by 2027. Will this strategy help?

Utah has invested millions to improve third grade reading comprehension, including putting thousands of educators through a specialized language training program.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A kindergarten class practices reading at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

Orem • “Juh. Juh.”

The chant came from Carrie Johnson’s kindergarten classroom as she sounded out the day’s lesson on the letter “J.”

Moments earlier, she’d sent students on a “J” treasure hunt, asking them to find the letter somewhere in the room. Now, she was asking them to use their arms to draw the letter in the air.

“Down, curve — ‘J.’ Down, curve, dot — for lowercase ‘j.’” She repeated the words and movements over and over.

It’s a technique Johnson and other educators at Westmore Elementary School learned through their literacy training, a two-year program called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS.

The program is designed to improve the literacy instruction skills of educators and is based on scientific research about reading, spelling and language acquisition.

“There was an acting-out piece, for example,” Johnson said of LETRS. “That’s really powerful for language learners, being able to use their bodies.”

The school used an estimated $16,000 in state funding, said Principal Vic Larsen, to put 24 educators and administrators through the training — and the outcomes were significant, state data shows.

At the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, 38% of Westmore’s kindergarteners were reading at grade level. By the end of the year, that figure rose to 89%.

With the new kindergarten class this fall, 32% were reading on grade level at the beginning of the school year. According to the most recent benchmark tests administered during the first week of December, Larsen said, that number has risen to 62%.

“It feels amazing,” Johnson said. “The growth that [kindergarteners] make, there’s nothing like it. Especially language learners. Some of them have never handled a book before. And they come from not knowing any letters or sounds or even how to handle a book … and they’re able to read.”

Westmore’s success is a small but important step toward a larger, statewide goal of having 70% of Utah third graders reading on grade level by 2027. Getting there, research shows, means targeted reading interventions must start before third grade.

Statewide goals

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paraeducator Dusty Nance practices literacy with students at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

Third grade marks a crucial moment in a child’s academic career and future success. It’s the year students move from learning to read to reading to learn.

It’s also the first year Utah students take the proficiency exam called RISE, which assesses their mastery of state core standards in English language arts, math, science and writing. Third graders are only assessed on English language arts and math.

Currently, 48% of Utah third graders meet state standards in reading, according to state data released in August.

If the state hopes to reach its goal, the percentage of third graders reading at grade level would need to increase by 5.5% each year for the next four years, Jennifer Throndsen, director of teaching and learning for the Utah State Board of Education, has told the Salt Lake Tribune.

And early intervention is how the state plans to meet those benchmarks, Throndsen said. Initiatives have been underway for two years.

In 2021, the state set aside $11.9 million of its federal COVID-19 relief funding — an amount that topped $1 billion — to implement LETRS training statewide.

It was enough funding to serve approximately 8,000 educators, which would in turn impact 155,000 students, according to USBE documents. The funds expired in September.

The plan was based on K-3 early literacy initiatives in Mississippi and other states, which a study by the Institute of Education Sciences found to be successful.

Utah lawmakers last year passed a bill meant to improve student literacy, similar to a law Mississippi passed in 2013. It led to a significant increase in the average Mississippi teacher’s knowledge of early literacy programs between 2014 and 2015, according to the study.

Teachers there who had completed LETRS training were also rated higher in the quality of their instruction, student engagement and teaching competencies, the study found.

The Utah law, SB127, referred to as the Early Literacy Outcomes Improvement bill, allocated $18.5 million — a mix of one-time and ongoing funding — to fuel various literacy initiatives, like the continuation of LETRS training.

The ‘framework’ to succeed

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Westmore Elementary School principal Vic Larsen gives an interview in Orem, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

Larsen, Westmore’s principal, swiveled around in his office chair in September, grabbing an object from the shelf behind him and placing it on his desk: a small, plastic banana with a smiley face.

It was a trophy, he explained, called the “Top Banana Award,” given to students who could prove they knew their letters and sounds. Those students were then celebrated with a banana split party, he said.

“The students ran with it,” Larsen said. “When I walked through the hallways, kids were like, ‘Mr. Larsen, I’m a Top Banana!’”

The Top Banana award also motived students to track their own progress.

“They knew exactly where they were,” Larsen said. “It wasn’t just teachers, it wasn’t just me.”

Ensuring students are aware of their progress is something LETRS emphasizes, Larsen said. “LETRS gave the teachers the knowledge of how to do it, and then we created [the] little framework of our little banana split party and Top Banana,” he said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A reward given by principal Vic Larsen to students at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

Larsen also underwent LETRS training and said the most helpful component for him was the program’s emphasis on morphology.

In linguistics, morphology refers to the study of words and how they’re formed. Larsen said it was particularly helpful in bridging the gap between English and non-English sounds for Westmore’s high population of English-language learners.

“It made you more aware of the students and different cultures,” Larsen said. “When I say ‘culture,’ it’s more like how those other languages worked.”

LETRS helped raise the percentage of English-language learners reading on grade level from 15% at the start of the 2022-2023 school year to 76%.

Johnson said LETRS has changed nearly every aspect of the way she teaches.

“LETRS training, we just went deep,” Johnson said. “And I learned all kinds of different things that I could use just for best practices.”

She said that she now emphasizes vocabulary more than she had before taking LETRS training.

“That was a piece that I wasn’t using as strongly as we were taught to do in LETRS,” she said. “Vocabulary [is] such an important part of literacy.”

One piece of the puzzle

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A kindergarten class practices reading at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

The state is inching closer to its 2027 goal. In September, Utah education officials announced that four charter schools and one district — North Summit — had already hit the 70% mark.

But Larsen said LETRS is just one piece of the literacy puzzle.

“We don’t believe in hope as a strategy,” Larsen said. “I have to say LETRS provided us with the strategies to use.”

Seeing results also requires consistent buy-in from educators, he said.

“If a school doesn’t go back and refer [to] what they’ve learned, then I would say LETRS isn’t helpful,” said Larsen, “because it didn’t change the teachers’ attitudes, practices or beliefs. But because it’s changed ours, we’re still going keep pushing forward.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A kindergarten class practices reading at Westmore Elementary School in Orem, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.