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Educators looking at Wayne County Schools' improvements to literacy instruction

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How to Get Your District’s Literacy Programming on the Same Page

A chief academic officer shares how his district improved its literacy instruction through consistency, explicit phonics instruction, and a commitment to professional development.

By Brian Dishman

At Wayne County Schools, we serve approximately 3,000 students, about 80% of whom qualify for a free or reduced lunch. Ours is a rural district with about 20% minority enrollment. Seven years ago, district leadership became very concerned about where we were in terms of student reading. It’s been a long journey since, but by unifying our district around the goal of improved literacy and making some changes to ensure consistency, we’ve seen steady improvement along the way. Here’s how we did it.

Offering Explicit Phonics Instruction

When we first began to work on improving our reading instruction, we leaned heavily on the Report of the National Reading Panel to help guide our thinking about how we might make those improvements. We covered a lot of ground with that in those early days, but approximately three years ago, we realized that we had a big hole: We didn’t have any explicit, systematic phonics instruction. We had what I would call “incidental phonics” scattered throughout, but there was no direct, step-by-step instruction in phonics.

We selected the Reading Horizons platform in part for its Orton Gillingham-based approach, which is very important for students who are struggling to acquire their phonics foundation.

As Principal and former reading interventionist Angela Ballinger put it, “I love that it's kinesthetic. We have a lot of kids living in poverty. We have a lot of kids who just have not been exposed to reading in their homes. So this really fit well with what we were trying to accomplish as far as making sure that it is systematic, explicit, and it fits what we need for our kids.”

Consistency in Language and Scheduling

Another reason we decided to adopt a new literacy curriculum was to ensure consistency. There are three elementary schools in our district, and each was using different approaches to teaching reading. Now, they are all on the same page and using the same language to teach and talk about literacy concepts. From one class to the next, students understand what teachers are asking of them, and teachers are better able to talk to each other about their instruction and share ideas about what’s working and what’s not.

We also keep a consistent schedule for reading instruction, with a half-hour each day devoted to Reading Horizon’s Daily Core 4. That is immediately followed by another hour of Literacy Stations that are individualized or designed for small-group instruction. These are assigned by the teacher so they can be sure they are re-emphasizing the appropriate concepts or skills for each student.  In addition to Reading Horizons and literacy stations, students in grades K-5 also receive instruction from the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) curriculum, designed to build domain knowledge in areas like history and science.  

Of course, during the pandemic ensuring consistency has been a challenge, but we’ve worked hard to come as close as we could. To ensure students had internet access in our rural district, for example, we put hotspots around the community in places like shopping centers and the library. Our teachers would record videos of themselves going through each lesson, performing the kinesthetic cues and everything else they would normally do in a classroom. Students would watch the videos and then later in the day they would have a small-group Zoom session where the teacher would follow up to monitor how students were performing.

Continuous Professional Development

The teacher is the most effective learning resource in any classroom, and helping them to perform better will always be the most effective way to improve student performance. That, in turn, means that professional development is critically important. As of last summer, we have a dozen teachers who are now certified Reading Horizons district trainers, ensuring that our teachers understand the curriculum they are using and how it works.

Those teachers are now responsible for training new staff as they come on board—and they are our instructional coaches for literacy, helping teachers in the classroom deliver instruction with fidelity to the program. They’ve been creating unique action plans for each school this year based on a coaching sweep they did in the fall. Those plans detail things like what should be covered in professional learning communities, what kinds of individual coaching or other support teachers may need, and whether there are particular units for which a model video lesson would be particularly helpful.

It’s taken some time, a lot of hard work, and more than a little seat-of-our-pants innovation to improve our literacy programming, but these days the whole district is on the same page when it comes to learning to read.

Brian Dishman is the assistant superintendent & chief academic officer at Wayne County Schools, where they use Reading Horizons. He can be reached at


See how Bell Elementary Second Grade Teacher Heather Lewis successfully implements the Reading Horizons program in her classroom on the Wayne County School Campus...........

Her second graders are working on Decoding Skill 1 in Reading Horizons. For students to be successful in proving a word in Decoding Skill 1, they need to be able to determine short and long vowels along with the five phonetic skills taught with the Reading Horizon Curriculum. The following photos show how students are dictating words and proving them within Decoding Skill 1.                                                        

Heather Lewis' Class

(l-r:) Second graders Lily Bell and Jemma Wallen working on Decoding Skill 1 in Reading Horizons. 

Heather Lewis' Class

Second grader Lily Bell using phonics to work on a word. 

Heather Lewis' Class

(l-r:) Second graders Chandler Williams and Jacob Bertram

Heather Lewis' Class

Second grader Chandler Williams

Heather Lewis' Class

Bell Elementary Teacher Heather Lewis works with Caleb Stinson to decode a word as she moves around the classroom to check on her students.

Heather Lewis' Class

(l-r:) Brantley Rector and Caleb Stockton

Heather Lewis' Class

Bell Elementary Teacher Heather Lewis showing the class how to decode a word through the Reading Horizons program on her white board.

Girl and Boy

(l-r:) Deacon Chriswell and Emma Jenkins work on Decoding Skill 1 in Reading Horizons. 

Heather and boy

Teacher Heather Lewis assists second grader Abel Ross decode a word.

Heather Lewis and her students

Students follow their teacher's instructions as they sound out words following the Reading Horizons process.

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