It is fascinating to think about all of the complex activities happening when we read. For example, our brains are doing a lot of high-level cognitive work just reading this sentence. Different parts of our brains are busy recognizing and decoding symbols, linking written words to their spoken equivalents and analyzing each word’s meaning against a database of background knowledge, vocabulary, verbal reasoning and personal experiences. And all that’s happening over and over again as we proceed through this article.
Our remarkable ability to read didn’t just happen. Young children are hard-wired to develop spoken language through a process that is the same all over the globe. But learning to read requires explicit instruction and years of practice – efforts we’ve probably forgotten since attaining literacy. Luckily, education researchers continue to think about and investigate this process, and their studies of the brain-reading connection have produced a body of research about the science of reading that’s given us a deeper understanding of how we learn to read.
We now know the neurological basis for common language issues such as dyslexia, in which the brain struggles to process speech sounds and how they relate to written letters and words. That knowledge has led to better strategies to teach reading so all children, including those with dyslexia, can master needed reading skills.
The New Mexico Public Education Department is on a mission to make sure every pre-K through 12th grade teacher in the state learns those science-based strategies so we can get every child reading at or above grade level, which can be a real game changer. Reading builds a child’s self-confidence in the short term and opens doors to future learning and career opportunities in the long term.
In summer 2020, PED adopted the New Mexico Literacy Framework, which aligns reading instruction with science of reading principles and strategies. The result is what we call “structured literacy” – a science-based, explicit, systematic and cumulative approach to reading and writing instruction that is beneficial to all, essential to some and harmful to none.
Now we are deeply involved in teaching New Mexico educators how to use structured literacy in the classroom. The PED offers pre-K through third grade educators – at no cost to them, their school or their district – a suite of professional development learning called Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, known by the acronym LETRS and considered the gold standard in structured literacy instruction.
This intensive professional learning opportunity consists of eight units, each of which takes 10 or more hours to complete, stretching over a two-year cycle. The New Mexico Legislature added funding to school budgets to cover the cost of hiring substitutes or paying stipends for teachers to complete this program.
All first grade teachers started the two-year training in the 2020-2021 school year; kindergarten and second grade teachers began it in 2021-2022, and third grade teachers will begin it in the coming school year. Additionally, some smaller districts have already offered the training to every teacher from kindergarten through fifth grade.
Our goal is to provide structured literacy training to every New Mexico educator who teaches reading – a goal we will reach by January 2025. That’s how New Mexico is moving the needle on literacy!
The Journal is publishing this monthly column by New Mexico Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus as part of its ongoing “The Literacy Project,” which shines a light on the issue in partnership with KOAT-TV and KKOB Radio.