But some think Hawaii can be doing more to improve literacy at a young age.

At Makakilo Elementary, Christine Carder posed a question to her first graders. “What letters make the sound ‘ea’ as in tea?” The class eagerly scrambled to write down the correct letter combination in their notebooks.

This exercise helps to build students’ phonemic awareness, instructional coach Karen Yogi explained to the group of parents invited to observe Makakilo’s reading lessons for the morning. Older students will later advance to activities such as reading in pairs and assessing each other’s fluency and vocabulary skills, Yogi added.

“This is why my son says he’s famished at dinner, instead of hungry,” said parent Donna Sinclair, noting the improvement she’s seen in her fifth grader’s vocabulary this year.

Makakilo Elementary is one of about 80 schools in the state to receive funding from a roughly $50 million federal grant awarded in 2019 to improve literacy among the country’s youngest readers.

Teacher Christine Carder instructs her first grade class in phonics during a parent tour of the school on Oct. 25th, 2023. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Principal Raechelle Fabrao said her school used some grant money to purchase a new reading curriculum, adding that teachers have embraced the program’s emphasis on phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension – all strategies aligned with evidence-based teaching practices called the science of reading. 

The methods aren’t new. But in recent years, Hawaii has strengthened its commitment to implementing the science of reading in elementary schools, especially as reading scores declined following the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers and administrators believe these initiatives are producing positive results, but many programs have yet to be scaled up at the state level. 

At the same time, the literacy gains in other states raise questions about whether Hawaii could be doing more to help struggling readers. 

Building The Basics

Prior to the pandemic, Hawaii’s third grade reading scores were slowly improving, with just over half of the state’s third grade students scoring at or above proficiency on the state’s annual assessment. The proficiency scores dipped to 43% of third graders in the 2020-21 academic year but began to rise again, with just under half of students achieving proficient scores in spring 2022. 

Still, the academic struggles students experienced while learning at home during the pandemic may have alerted more parents to the challenges their children faced with basic reading skills, said David Sun-Miyashiro, executive director of HawaiiKidsCAN. 

“You have schools doing incredible work and kids are reading at a really impressive and staggering rate, and then others where the students may appear to be doing OK, but then under the surface, they don’t actually have the foundational skills they need to be successful readers,” Sun-Miyashiro said. 

This recognition has helped drive a national movement around the science of reading. Common teaching practices may encourage young students to use pictures or contextual clues to determine the meaning of words, said Heather Peske, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. But these practices weren’t actually teaching students how to read. 

Instead, Peske said, research suggests that students need to sound out words and understand how different letters combine to make sounds. As simple as these skills sound, it’s not a guarantee that they’re taught in all schools, she added.

In addition to educating students using the science of reading methods, the DOE has embraced the professional development program Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling.

Because students learn basic reading skills in early elementary, there’s a strong emphasis on assessing students’ literacy when they reach the third and fourth grade, said Cassandra Wheeler, director of LETRS state success for Lexia, a professional development and curriculum provider company. By the time students reach the fourth grade, she added, they’ve advanced past learning how to read and are now employing their reading skills to understand new material. 

In the 2023-29 strategic plan, DOE set a goal that all students achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.  

“That’s our internal (goal), is all children are capable and leaving third grade and beyond as fully literate,” said Lauren Padesky, an early childhood specialist at the DOE. “We are at a crossroads in terms of accomplishing that goal.”

Teaching For The Teachers

Successful student learning begins with effective teacher preparation, Peske said. But, she added, only a quarter of teacher preparation programs introduce students to all of the fundamental skills associated with the science of reading.

In a 2023 National Council on Teacher Quality review of four Hawaii teacher preparation programs, only the University of Hawaii Manoa received a passing score when analyzed on its inclusion of the core components of the science of reading, including phonics, reading fluency and comprehension. 

University of Hawaii at Manoa campus.
Of the four teacher preparation programs reviewed by the National Council on Teacher Quality, only the University of Hawaii Manoa received a passing score. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

The DOE is “certainly concerned” about these results, said Petra Schatz, the comprehensive literacy state development program manager at the Department of Education. But, she added, the department continues to work with its higher education partners on aligning teacher preparation programs to the state’s reading standards. 

The National Council on Teacher Quality has also received backlash regarding its review methods of teacher preparation programs. In 2021, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education said NCTQ placed too much emphasis on colleges’ course catalogs and syllabuses and failed to take into account faculty feedback in its evaluation. 

Peske said NCTQ reviews a variety of materials from colleges, including their syllabuses, required reading material and students’ opportunities to develop first hand teaching experience in the classroom. 

Nathan Murata, dean of the UH Manoa’s College of Education, echoed concerns around NCTQ’s methodology. But, he added, the college is still committed to continuously improving its program.

Mississippi As A Model

But for teachers who don’t learn about the science of reading in college, they have a second chance through professional development offered through the DOE. 

Erica Kaneshiro, a curriculum coordinator at Kapalama Elementary School, said she learned to teach reading comprehension in college, rather than the foundations of reading. When she heard about Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, a professional development program centered around the science of reading, Kaneshiro was hooked. 

“I think that's something that's happening in a lot of schools, where teachers aren't being taught how to teach the foundational part of reading,” said Kaneshiro, who began the professional development course this year. “LETRS does that.”

Kaneshiro is one of over 500 teachers in the state who have completed or are enrolled in LETRS. DOE’s Office of Curriculum and Instructional Design began offering the course in the 2020-21 school year and spent approximately $130,000 on teacher licenses for the training this year, said literacy specialist Leslie Stiller-West.

Teacher participation in LETRS is voluntary, and the DOE is still deciding if it will continue to offer LETRS after the current cohort of educators complete the two-year course. 

Professional development programs like LETRS emphasize using phonics, rhyming and spelling patterns to help students learn how to read. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

LETRS and other professional development programs centered around the science of reading have already seen widespread implementation in states like Mississippi. 

In what some have heralded as the “Mississippi miracle,” the state’s fourth grade reading proficiency scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress rose from 16% in 2002 to 31% in 2022. State literacy director Kristen Wynn attributes this improvement in part to the state’s 2013 early literacy law.

State law mandated a range of initiatives, from providing professional development for teachers to regularly screening students for reading proficiency in grades kindergarten to three. The law, with some exceptions, also requires third grade students to pass a literacy test in order to advance to the fourth grade, although the pass rate is around 85%, Wynn said. 

“It’s not a miracle, it’s a lot of hard work,” Wynn said. “It’s taken us a long, long time to do this.”

Unlike Mississippi, most Hawaii early literacy initiatives are undertaken by the DOE, rather than the Legislature. For example, DOE has required all schools to adopt a quality English Language Arts curriculum approved by the department by next academic year, said Schatz, adding that schools are currently employing more than 200 different curriculums across the state.

But it can be difficult to ensure that early literacy initiatives are uniformly implemented across the state, Wynn said. In Mississippi, she added, data reporting requirements are key. Districts are required to submit results from screening tests kindergarten to third grade students complete three times a year, along with details about what supports schools are offering to struggling students. 

The data helps the state understand what strategies are working and what schools might need extra support in the form of literacy coaches and additional teacher training, added Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, a nonprofit education advocacy organization. 

Schools like Makakilo Elementary received funding to implement practices related to the science of reading after the state received a $50 million grant from the federal Department of Education. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In some ways, Hawaii is still determining the best practices to pursue moving forward. The state awarded funding from the 2019 grant to six complex areas that are experimenting with a range of early literacy initiatives, Schatz said. Grant participants will review and present their strategies next year. 

“We’re hoping to scale and spread effective practice,” Schatz said. 

As a grant recipient, Makakilo Elementary annually invites families to visit classrooms to see how teachers are using the training and curriculum purchased with the federal funding. In families’ October visit, Fabrao reassured parents that, while the grant ends next year, the school plans on continuing with the curriculum purchased under the grant that’s aligned with the science of reading. 

“Good,” Erika Kingsmore, the mother of a kindergartener at the school, responded. “I’m glad.” 

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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