DCPS Readers Next Door helps DC students become better readers


Public schools in Washington, D.C. began a new school year last week, and with them a reading curriculum resource designed to improve literacy among the city’s younger readers.

The program — called DCPS Readers Next Door — includes a collection of 120 books written and heavily illustrated by teachers in the region, an extension of a years-long effort to align literacy education with what experts say are best practices for teaching children how to read.

It also comes as results from the Consolidated District Partnership for College and Career Readiness Assessment — widely known as PARCC — show how much learning has been lost during the pandemic. Thirty-six percent of students in the traditional public school system passed the reading exam this year, down four percentage points from the last time the exam was taken, in 2019. Students in grades three through eight and high schools took the exam online in the spring.

National data released this week painted a similar realistic picture for the rest of the country, showing reading and math scores among young students dropping to their lowest levels in decades.

Officials said the new series of books are “Decoded Texts,” which emphasize phonics skills, and will be used in kindergarten through second-grade classrooms. The books are a departure from “equal texts”, which are books that are categorized by level of difficulty and tend to focus on the “whole language” – a philosophy that says children learn to read best through exposure to words rather than by deconstructing them into individual voices as in acoustics.

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“What the data has revealed, and what research and science has revealed, is that teaching students word recognition skills with flat text is ineffective,” said Sharyn Cruz, district director of early literacy strategy. “It’s not about developing students’ spontaneity and fluency in word recognition and decoding, and it’s really a big handicap in the ultimate goal of reading, which is reading comprehension.”

Children need opportunities to practice phonics skills – which emphasize the relationship between sounds and letters – to be successful readers. Otherwise, Allison Williams, Vice President of Content and Curriculum, said, “There’s a lot of guesswork going on. They look at the pictures, and they think about what might make sense instead of really caring about letter sounds, relationships, and parts of words.”

Williams said that students in the district are often considered able to read at grade level until they reach fourth and fifth grades, and then “step back,” because the books they were reading no longer contain pictures.

In an effort to prevent this, the school system has adopted more decipherable texts in recent years. Each book focuses on a specific phonetic pattern or word family. This year, every building will use this type of script.

In addition to improving literacy, officials said, the new books are designed to reflect the experiences of the children who read them. The public school system teamed up with reading experts and outside consultants to write a series that follows 10 characters who live in the area.

Dakota King, 8, a student at CW Harris Elementary School in southeast Washington, said she’s been a fan of the character, Lex, who is shorter than her peers and has to confront her classmates over a painful nickname. Dakota and her mother were present at a reading session last month, during which Luis Ferribe, school system administrator, showed off some new books.

The books follow characters like Kayden, Amanuel, Jenna, Jacob, and Lex, who each attend a school in the area. Yolanda Henson, a visual arts teacher at McKinley Technology High School and illustrator of the project, said in an address, the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl makes an appearance. Students will also read about a pet store in Anacostia.

said Celestina Lee, a first-grade teacher at Garrison Elementary who helped write the series. She said she looks forward to seeing the student children discover the places they have visited or the foods they ate in the books. “This is the secret recipe for what makes children happy and cheerful at school.”

Literacy scores show the widening achievement gap in the capital during the pandemic

The push to improve literacy comes amid growing gaps in reading proficiency between students of color and their white peers. In 2018, about 23 percent of black students, 32 percent of Hispanic students, and 83 percent of white students in DC’s traditional public schools passed the PARCC reading test. By 2019, each group showed improvement, with Hispanic students making the largest gains: Nearly 40 percent were reading at or above grade level. Eighty-eight percent of white children and 27 percent of black children met this standard.

Now, students across ethnic groups are back at 2018 levels, erasing years of progress.

But there are bright spots. Younger students in the city have already made improvements, based on the results of an exam given to students in kindergarten through second grade called DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Essential Early Reading and Writing Skills). At the start of the last school year, 41 percent of the children tested met the criteria for early literacy. This figure increased by 25 percentage points to 66 percent by the end of the year.

“We’ve seen some of the highest gains DCPS have made in a single year, from the start of the year to the end of the year,” said Ferribe.

Officials said it’s a much lower number than during the 2018-2019 school year, when 71 percent of children met early standards, but it’s an indication that kids are back on track.

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