District 65 to emphasize skills like word recognition, phonics and language comprehension in literacy curriculum


Illustration by Aviva Bechky

District 65 officials said they are hopeful a new literacy curriculum will improve students’ literacy success.

Kunjal Bastola, Assistant Sports Editor

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 is updating its K-8 literacy curriculum to emphasize necessary foundational skills, including word recognition and language comprehension, needed to read complex texts.

Last August, the district hired Shyla Kinhal as the director of literacy to restructure the curriculum to focus on introducing strong instructional literacy resources and high quality professional learning for teachers.

“We want to make sure that all students in District 65 leave our buildings knowing how to crack the alphabetic code,” Kinhal said. “We want to make sure that they can comprehend complex texts and engage in really strong text-based discussions and are equipped as strong writers as well.” 

According to District 65, the current curriculum assigns many students to work below their grade level when they can be just as successful on grade-level tasks. The district gave students in marginalized communities, particularly those from low-income families, the most work below grade level.   

Nationwide, schools are considering updating their literacy curriculum to include more phonics instruction. Discussions revolve around consistent gaps between the research, classroom instruction and reading policy. Calls for updated curriculums have focused on the need for student-centered instructional practices and more training for teachers.

During District 65’s Jan. 17 Curriculum and Policy Board Meeting, Kinhal said 95% of students are cognitively capable of learning to read, yet nationwide data suggests that many students are not getting the support they need to develop these skills.

“I think these data sort of suggest a need to more deeply examine our literacy practice and the need to shift to a new resource,” Kinhal said at the Board meeting.

The proposed timeline suggests new resources, which will begin to be implemented in the 2023-2024 school year. District 65 literacy and curriculum leaders are hoping to have the resources decided upon and brought before the Curriculum Advisory Committee by the end of March.

The district currently uses the Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing Units of Study in kindergarten through fifth grade and the Phonics Units of Study in kindergarten through second grade. Kinhal said the curriculum lacks explicit, systematic and diagnostic foundational skills instruction, as well as assessment strategies to meaningfully assess grade-level content. 

Now, District 65 is meeting with families and administrators to decide on which resources to help all students with literacy skills. In the meantime, however, Kinhal said the district is working on grade-level specific practices.

One initiative is Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling training, a two-year training program for teachers.

The training is based on the Scarborough Reading Rope, which emphasizes word recognition and language comprehension as the foundational skills needed to ease students’ transition into reading more complex texts.

Furthermore, the LETRS training provides teachers with the skills — such as phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension and written language — needed to master reading and writing instruction. The training is targeted towards teachers of kindergarten through third grade to build those skills in younger students. 

Shira Schwartz, a founder of Dyslexia Connection of Evanston, said the state is failing at its core mission to teach students to read. Consequently, she said students struggle with academics, drop out of school and face mental health challenges. 

“What teachers really need is more foundational skills to provide structured literacy to students,” Schwartz said. “LETRS training can help provide that.”

To support students in grades four through eight, Kinhal said District 65 is looking to implement a resource called Improving Reading for Older Students for the upcoming school year. She also said this resource uses research-based strategies to help students who are still struggling with reading complex texts.

Kinhal said she hopes teachers will be able to support all students in reading.

However, Stacy Beardsley, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said some students need extra support, at which point they receive a lower tier of instruction, which include small group or one-on-one work.

“So if we can really align our intervention practices with our tier one instruction, we’ll be putting all kids in just a much better place,” said Kinhal. 

District 65’s new literacy curriculum hopes to provide resources for students who show early symptoms of dyslexia, Kinhal said. The district has struggled to identify and support students who may be dyslexic.

The district currently screens students for potential signs of dyslexia three times a year and has further diagnostic testing to assess a child’s need, Kinhal said. With improved foundational skills instruction, she said tier one instruction will support all students.

The district will supplement by providing an aligned intervention to students receiving lower tier instruction. 

“I think over the last several years, we’ve built a lot of stronger practices on how to identify and respond to students that are dyslexic,” Beardsley said.  

Leaders said they are hopeful their work will be less repetitive.

Kinhal wants to prioritize making literacy equitable for all students and is excited about her work in D65. 

“I think what I’d like to bring more into the foreground is the vision for equitable literacy instruction moving forward and how we can build on the current strengths of the districts to really empower teachers and learners in classrooms. It’s just a really exciting moment,” said Kinhal. 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kunjal_bastola

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