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Colorado seeks to improve literacy rates for K through 3rd grade students

The school library at Central Elementary in Longmont, Colorado. The state is seeking to improve literacy rates for K-3rd grade students.
Maeve Conran
Rocky Mountain Community Radio
The school library at Central Elementary in Longmont, Colorado. The state is seeking to improve literacy rates for K-3rd grade students.

Many school districts around the state have been phasing in a new reading curriculum for kindergarten through third grade students.

This is part of a decade-long effort in Colorado to improve literacy rates.

Ann Schimke has written about this in Chalkbeat Colorado, an online news outlet that focuses on education.

“In the long term, the ability to read proficiently is connected to everything from high school graduation rates to a lower likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system, college going rates, so there's a lot of basically life wellbeing links to proficient reading,” she said.

In 2022 nearly 41% of third graders in Colorado were reading at or above grade level, meaning that the majority were not.

The state has been seeking ways to improve those statistics.

Part of their push focuses on getting schools to use higher-quality reading curriculum, and comes out of a law passed in 2019.

“So the 2019 law basically revised an earlier 2012 law that I think people, lawmakers, advocates, educators, had really come to conclude wasn't doing the job it was meant to do, which is, increase reading proficiency around Colorado,” said Schimke.

"The 2019 law was two main things. It required all kindergarten through third grade teachers to take training on how to teach reading. It also put very strict, or stricter, I should say, guardrails on what reading curriculum schools can use in the early elementary years. Before it was basically a free for all, school districts could use anything they wanted or none at all. Several popular programs were allowed that basically included discredited methods for teaching kids how to read.”

One of the discredited methods Schimke says, encourages students to look at the picture or figure out a word's meaning by the context of the story.

“So basically it's taking students' attention away from the word and sounding out the word using phonics principles. So the idea now is that all schools in Colorado are using scientifically or evidence-based reading curriculum. So number one, they wouldn't use methods, like having kids look at the picture to figure out the word.”

In addition the new curriculum rules have a larger focus on building students' knowledge of the world.

“When you understand the vocabulary and the subject that you're reading about, chances are you're gonna understand the words that you're reading better.”

Some school districts throughout the state were already using the state-approved reading methods, but Schimke says many are currently in the process of making the switch.

“I would say a lot of our larger districts as well as some of our rural districts, were not using acceptable curriculum and they do have to switch.”

The 2019 law was passed just before the COVID pandemic which upended education, and has led to pushback from some educators about the changes.

“It was a very stressful time. It was hard to pile, you know, something else on the teachers who were already kind of burned out, so I think some of the pushback came just in terms of timing. There are a few districts that also kind of argue that though they were using, state-rejected curriculum, that they were also layering in state-approved curriculum with it, and that they kind of felt that would compensate for the bad curriculum.”

The 2019 law also requires kindergarten through third grade teachers to take a specific state mandated training on reading instruction.

They had until August 2022 to complete this.

“So a lot of teachers say they did not learn very much about how to teach kids to read in their teacher preparation programs, you know, which is a four-year college program where you'd think such a fundamental topic would be covered. I think there is now a shift and teacher preparation programs are being pushed by the state to teach the science of reading. That was not always the case. And so this 45 hour training that current teachers just had to complete this fall is in a way making up for maybe what that generation of teachers did not get in their teacher preparation programs.”

This story was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Maeve Conran has been working in public and community radio in Colorado for more than 15 years. She served as the news director at KGNU in Boulder/Denver until 2020 and has since been working as the Program Director at Free Speech TV based in Denver, as well as host/producer of the Radio Bookclub podcast and radio show which is a collaboration with the Boulder Bookstore.