Colorado parents, here’s what to ask your child’s school about reading instruction

Parents in a parent teacher meeting.
A new online guide recommends questions Colorado parents should ask their child’s school about reading instruction. (sturti/Getty Images)

A 2019 state law toughened up rules on how Colorado schools teach reading — establishing new training requirements for teachers and placing guardrails on the kind of curriculum schools can use in kindergarten through third grade.

But for the average parent, figuring out if schools are using proven approaches to reading instruction and following the new state rules still isn’t easy. That’s why a statewide dyslexia advocacy group, in partnership with a local school improvement consulting firm, created a free online guide that parents and caregivers can use during discussions with teachers, principals or other school staff. 

Officially called the Colorado Literacy Dialogue Tool for Parents/Caregivers, the eight-page guide walks parents through key questions they should ask about reading instruction. In addition to listing words and phrases that indicate a school is using scientifically based materials and strategies, the guide also cites names and phrases that may raise red flags about a school’s approach. 

The idea behind the tool is to help parents “traverse that educationese” and empower them to have real conversations about how schools teach reading, said Amy Dobronyi, a Douglas County parent and co-chair of COKID, a statewide parent advocacy group for students with dyslexia. COKID partnered with Schools Cubed, a Colorado-based consulting group, on the tool. The groups created a similar tool for parents of children who attend private schools or schools outside Colorado. 

Currently, the guides are only available in English but leaders of the project say they’d like to get them translated into Spanish. In addition, Lucinda Soltero-González, assistant professor of literacy education at the University of Colorado Denver, said she’d like to design something similar with a focus on reading instruction for English learners. 

The answers compiled below come from the dialogue tool as well as other experts. 

What are some key words parents should listen for?

The tool suggests parents ask for a description of the school’s “literacy block” — the part of the school day devoted to reading and writing. They should listen for phrases that suggest the school’s approach aligns to scientific research on how students learn to read. These include “research/evidence-based,” “direct or explicit instruction” and “decodable text” — a book or passage that features specific phonics patterns students have learned.

What should raise red flags?

Schools may mention a variety of reading practices and approaches that may indicate they don’t follow the science on reading instruction. These terms include “balanced literacy,” “workshop model,” “leveled reader,” and “guided reading.” 

The parent tool also warns parents about two popular reading programs that aren’t aligned with science: Lucy Calkins — officially known as Units of Study for Teaching Reading — and Fountas and Pinnell. Both are popular in Colorado and around the country. 

What other questions should parents ask?

The tool suggests parents ask if the school’s main reading program is on Colorado’s approved list and states “the answer should be YES.” 

The state’s recently revised list includes six English-language reading programs approved for K-3 core instruction. They are Core Knowledge Language Arts, Open Court Reading, Wonders, Into Reading, Benchmark Workshop, and The Writing Road to Reading. 

Four other programs are approved for K-2 core instruction: Benchmark Advance, Collaborative Literacy, EL Education, and Superkids Reading Program. 

State reviewers rejected several reading programs last spring, though many schools are still using them. They include Lucy Calkins, Fountas and Pinnell Classroom, and Reach for Reading. 

The two Spanish-language core reading curriculums approved so far are Maravillas and Arriba la Lectura.

My child is on a READ Plan. What do I need to know?

Parents with children on READ Plans — a state-mandated improvement plan for students whose reading skills are well below grade level — should ask what intervention program the school uses to help struggling readers, how often students get focused help, and which staff members deliver the help. 

As it does for core programs, the parent tool highlights several interventions that are state-approved, including Orton-Gillingham, Wilson, 95% Group, and Blast. The tool also mentions programs the state has deemed unacceptable but that some schools still use, including Fountas and Pinnell, and Leveled Literacy Intervention, which is often referred to as LLI.

My child is an English learner. What should I ask the school about reading instruction?

First, it’s important that English learners are present for whole class reading instruction — and don’t get pulled out for English language development during that time. Experts also recommend parents ask schools how the share of English learners on READ Plans compares with the share of native English speakers on such plans. If there’s a big difference, parents should ask what teachers are doing to address that disparity. 

Statewide, about 16% of K-3 students struggle enough with reading to qualify for a READ Plan. The rate for English learners is higher: 19% for students classified as having some English proficiency and 43% for students classified as non-English proficient. 

Soltero-González, of University of Colorado Denver, said emerging bilingual children may have little problem decoding English words, but still may not understand the text because they don’t know what the words mean. 

“That’s why it would be very important there’s attention to the development of oral language ... and vocabulary, along with word recognition and decoding,” she said. 

What else should parents of English learners be looking for?

School staff should convey to parents that using the family’s primary language — whether in routine conversation, storytelling, or singing at home — will help students gain skills for reading. 

Gloria Corral, president and CEO of the California-based Parent Institute for Quality Education, said too often parents absorb messages that speaking with children in their home language instead of English will confuse them or create educational barriers. 

“We really talk to families about how keeping home language, enriching home language is, in fact, a [reading] strategy.” she said. “That is not, sadly, a widely known, and certainly not a widely promoted strategy in a lot of school districts, or a lot of schools.” 

What should I ask about in terms of teacher training?

Experts say good quality reading curriculum and intervention programs are important, but they must be paired with teacher training. That’s why the parent tool suggests asking whether teachers have satisfied a new state rule requiring 45 hours of training on the science of reading. In lieu of taking an approved class, teachers can also get credit by passing a test on reading instruction or earning a Colorado reading teacher or reading specialist endorsement.

Since Colorado’s K-3 teachers have until August to meet the requirement, it’s possible some won’t have gone through the training yet, but they may have a plan in place. 

What should I do if my child’s teacher or principal provides answers to my question that indicate they’re not using approaches aligned to science?

Experts and advocates say this is tricky territory. Obviously, some parents might take such answers as a nudge to go shopping for a different school. But not everyone has that option and no one wants to become “that parent” for asking too many questions or disputing educators’ knowledge. 

“There’s concern about sending parents into something that could feel kind of hostile,” said Dobronyi, of COKID. 

But she and other advocates say parents don’t always have to go it alone. PTAs, school accountability committees, and even school boards can use the parent tool to pose questions and hold discussions about reading instruction with school or district officials. 

Stephanie Stollar, a consultant who helped the Colorado Department of Education develop the tool to review reading curriculum, recommended parents take a “let’s learn together” approach when asking educators for answers. 

“It has to be a collaborative effort. It can’t be, ‘We know better than you, ‘You’re wrong.’”

This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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