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Up next in Colorado’s bid to help struggling readers: New training for thousands of teachers

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As part of an effort to boost persistently low reading proficiency rates, Colorado education officials will soon require 25,000 K-3 teachers to have completed 45 hours of training on reading instruction.

While there are several ways for teachers to comply with the new rule, which came out of a 2019 update of Colorado’s landmark reading law, the state is spending about $500,000 to provide educators two free options. Both adhere to the state’s more than 50 criteria for teaching elementary reading, including direct and sequenced phonics instruction.

The free training options include an online class scheduled to roll out in late June through the Public Consulting Group, a Boston-based company with an office in Denver. The firm has developed K-3 literacy training for Connecticut and New Mexico, and is currently working with the Colorado Springs 11 district on a strategic plan.

The second option was supposed to be a face-to-face training offered by state education department staff who were to receive training from a different Massachusetts company, Keys to Literacy. With the coronavirus pandemic limiting travel and gatherings, company leaders and state officials are now trying to hammer out an alternative format, both for state staff to receive the training, and in turn, for those staff members to train K-3 teachers.

The new teacher training requirement is among a raft of recent state changes meant to ensure teachers know and use approaches to reading instruction backed by science. Officials have also cracked down on teacher preparation programs to ensure their literacy courses adhere to state standards. And starting next year, the state will require schools to use reading curriculum backed by science in kindergarten through third grade.

Colorado’s focus on scientifically based reading instruction reflects a nationwide trend that has sparked a push for explicit systematic phonics instruction in the early elementary grades — that is, when teachers directly teach letter-sound relationships in a clear and well-defined order. While such phonics instruction alone isn’t enough to forge good readers, it’s an essential step that some teacher preparation programs and popular curriculums gloss over.

Experts say some children learn to read no matter how teachers are trained or what curriculums schools use, but a large swath gets left behind if their schools or teachers rely on scientifically unsound strategies.

Joan Sedita, the founder of Keys to Literacy, said, “While it may be true that there are some young children who will learn to read without their phonics instruction … those who struggle benefit much more from explicit phonics instruction. That’s why I fall on that side.”

Under Colorado’s new teacher training rule, teachers will have until the beginning of the 2021-22 school year to satisfy the 45-hour training requirement, with extensions allowed in some cases. Other than shifting in-person training to online, state officials said they don’t expect any other coronavirus-related changes in the timeline or rollout of the new training requirement.

Several key education groups, including the Colorado Association of School Executives and the state’s largest teachers union, wanted a shorter training length, but the State Board of Education refused to make that change this spring. A 45-hour course is roughly equivalent to a college class worth three credit hours.

In addition to taking the free trainings covered by the state, teachers can satisfy the requirement in six other ways, including taking other state-approved training, passing a test on elementary reading instruction, or having a state endorsement as a reading teacher or reading specialist.

“Our goal was to make as many pathways available as we could,” said Floyd Cobb, the state education department’s executive director of teaching and learning.

Teachers will also be able to meet the training requirement by submitting documentation from an undergraduate or graduate literacy course showing its alignment to state reading instruction standards. State officials will determine by the fall what type of documentation teachers will need to submit, but Cobb said a course syllabus will likely not be enough.

In addition to the free training rolling out this summer, the state has approved three trainings that schools or districts can choose to pay for to help their teachers meet the new requirement. These include Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling, or LETRS, and The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools, offered online through an Idaho company of the same name.

The third fee-based training is called Keys to Early Reading from Keys to Literacy — the same training that will also be available for free through the education department.

Sedita said because the training was developed in collaboration with a Massachusetts school district, it’s designed to be practical, so teachers can immediately apply what they’ve learned.

The idea is to provide teachers with deep background knowledge about the best way to teach phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and other key components of reading.

“That’s what these training programs do,” Sedita said. “They give them that foundational knowledge.”

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