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A Deeper Dive with Mrs. Parker

A Deeper Dive with Mrs. Parker

New research on the Science of Reading made headlines recently as schools across the country reassess approaches to reading instruction and assessment in the early grades. Director of Curriculum Heather Parker unpacks the Science of Reading, providing insights into the ways RCDS practice already aligns with new findings, and how teachers are moving the literacy curriculum forward. 

What is the Science of Reading?

The Science of Reading is a growing body of research about how all children learn to read. While these studies started taking place over the past five decades ago, recent research including brain imaging has come to more consensus. Understanding The Science of Reading helps educators say with greater authority where and how reading takes place in the brain.  

What were the conclusions of the research?

What we now know is that all children need intentional reading instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, not just the children who struggle with learning to read. The Science of Reading points towards a real emphasis on teaching children how to decode words into parts and how to then put those parts back together to make words. This is the piece of early literacy instruction that is getting the most attention right now. 

Historically, this is different from what many educators were taught about reading. There’s been a bit of a pendulum swing between a focus on phonics vs. whole language, an approach that emphasizes memorizing and recognizing entire words as one part. We now know that fluent reading involves both word recognition, or decoding, and language comprehension, not one or the other.

How is RCDS responding to the Science of Reading?

Right now, this work is Lower School focused. It starts with developing phonemic awareness in Pre-K and gears up to the learning-to-read years for Beginners (Kindergartners) through second grade, with the expectation that most kids will become fluent readers by third grade.  

Explicit reading instruction has always been a part of RCDS classrooms. Our teachers take each child's needs into account and do a great job differentiating within reading groups, so everyone gets what they need.  

Fundations, our foundational reading skills program, is a phonics program that encompasses decoding and spelling with a logical scope and sequence, so it’s aligned with the latest research and we will continue to use it. What we are now working to change is the way we assess reading in the early years. 

How so?

Lower School teachers have been engaged in professional development involving a yearlong book study, Shifting the Balance: 6 Ways to Bring the Science of Reading into the Balanced Literacy Classroom. Until now, our reading program employed balanced literacy, which involves techniques like using pictures as cues or guessing a word based on context. We’re moving away from that to structured literacy because we don’t want kids to be guessing. We want our students to have the skills to actually decode words.  

We’ve learned a lot through this process. Fountas & Pinnell (F&P), the reading assessment system we used until recently — that’s also used by schools nationwide — does not assess decoding. It’s a leveled reading system that listens to fluency and assesses children's ability to use visual cues and other techniques and assigns a reading level. We have moved away from F&P and are now using DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills), which gives us much more specific information about the foundational skills children have mastered and what they still need to learn. Teachers can use that information to target and differentiate their instruction based on where the children are. 

Certainly, we are still exposing students to all kinds of texts in the classroom like fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. But small-group instructional time is focused on building and mastering foundational literacy skills with controlled decodable text.

It sounds like the research regarding the Science of Reading didn’t catch RCDS by surprise. A lot of schools are now going back to the drawing board on literacy. 

Our teachers were ready because they are trained in phonics strategies and phonemic awareness. A unique resource available at RCDS is the expertise of teachers in the Jayne S. Carmody School who have even more extensive training in these strategies. Being able to collaborate with the Carmody School, hold professional development sessions, and share knowledge and tools has been an exceptional benefit for all of our teachers.

Collaboration is also central to this process. It’s important for teachers to have multiple supports with administrators who bring different expertise. You’ve got the student support expert from the Carmody School led by Natalie Diehl, the Head of Lower School Lea Prendergast, who has decades of experience doing this work, and myself as Director of Curriculum. It’s important to have that to create momentum and to make sure we get it right.  

You and Lea Prendergast gave a presentation to RCDS parents on curriculum updates to the teaching and assessment of reading in the early grades. What was the response?

With any change, parents want to know, “What does this mean for my child?” I think parents having more specific information about how their child is reading, and what we’re going to be targeting is really helpful as opposed to, “Your child is reading on grade level.” We can increase our specificity which parents appreciate.  

With the move to structured literacy, how will RCDS continue to instill a love of reading?

As many already know, the Lower School is implementing, in-depth, overarching themes in each grade. So the language and reading comprehension portions of reading will be embedded within our thematic studies. That’s going to ignite the possibilities for our students because reading instruction will be integrated into a rich, engaging, and relevant curriculum. 

We are also working closely with Lisa Fallon, our librarian and incoming Makerspace Director, to be sure we have a variety of thematic texts and plenty of resources related to each unit to allow each student to explore related topics that interest them. Our forthcoming makerspace will bring the library, technology, and hands-on projects together in a way that allows children to dig deep and follow their curiosity. We’re very excited about the opportunity. 

Is there anything you want current and prospective parents to know about the Lower School curriculum?

We are making sure that our practice is aligned with how children learn best. It’s important for families to know that teachers are adaptable and committed to keeping up with research about best practices. Our faculty is excited about opportunities for change. That’s what drew me in when I first interviewed at RCDS. Teachers have a clear openness to work together and move forward together. 

Heather Parker joined RCDS in September 2023 as Director of Curriculum and teacher of sixth grade math. Prior to RCDS, she was the Upper School Director of Teaching and Learning at King School in Stamford, Connecticut. Parker also taught grades 1-3 at Mary McDowell Friends School in Brooklyn. A Summa Cum Laude graduate of Middlebury College, she holds a M.S.Ed. in Childhood Special Education from Bank Street College of Education.