Over the years, it has become apparent that the Reading Workshop/Guided Reading model of instruction, popular in U.S. schools, does not produce the results promised. Special Education numbers have increased, and many children get labeled, unnecessarily, as having a “reading disability.”
It is undoubtedly a huge undertaking to put the brakes on and start fresh. It takes brave leadership to ignore neighboring districts and slick marketing by elite institutions and business enterprises and simply do what is right for kids. There is only one district I know out of 124 districts on Long Island that has such leadership. I will never forget when Dr. Gerard Beleckas, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in the Lynbrook School District, called me in the Spring of 2021 and said that he wanted me to help him change his district’s literacy instruction. I assumed he wanted me to help fill in gaps or bolster what was already in place. I was wrong.
Dr. Beleckas asked, “If you could have your dream come true, what would you want to see?” I nearly fell on the floor! I was thinking, “Is he really serious?” He told me to make a list of everything that I would want to see: programs, training, books, and materials, and that we would talk about it the following week. Afterwards, Dr. Beleckas asked me to meet with the Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Melissa Burak, and share my suggestions.
It starts from the top, with people willing to take heat and risk their reputation for the benefit of children
After years of preaching that “it starts from the top,” this was probably the highlight of my career, to have finally found an administrator willing to take the heat and risk his reputation for the benefit of children. I felt a huge sense of responsibility not to disappoint him… or ruin my own reputation. Refreshingly, Dr. Burak is another brave administrator willing to face down opposition to do what is right by the kids under her charge. She reviewed the research I provided her, she spoke to her colleagues, she looked at the statistics in her district, and she gave us the green light to revamp Lynbrook’s tier one instruction!
Having worked for years with struggling readers and kids diagnosed with dyslexia, I knew that I wanted to use a program emphasizing the connection between letters and sounds at the earliest stages of instruction, rather than focusing on letter names. I suggested a few “speech to print” programs I had used or researched. After conducting his own research, Dr. Beleckas decided that every K-2 teacher and interventionist in the Lynbrook School District would be trained in “Sounds-Write®,” a United Kingdom-based phonics and word-study program that would be implemented in Lynbrook’s Kindergarten Center and elementary schools.
For handwriting and letter recognition, I suggested and Dr. Beleckas chose Itchy’s Alphabet®, a program that uses picture mnemonics to aid recall of lowercase letters and sounds. Last, but certainly not least, Lynbrook invested in decodable books from Phonic Books Ltd®, that seamlessly align to the Sounds-Write® curriculum and will allow the children to practice their phonics skills. And not just a handful of books for a book room; Lynbrook bought sets of decodables for EVERY CLASSROOM! No other district that I know of has made such a commitment to a structured phonics approach so that kids are taught to “say the sounds and read the word” right from the start.
Working collaboratively with dedicated principals and teachers
To prepare the teachers for this major shift, over the summer we began sharing information with school principals, the curriculum coordinator, and a handful of teacher leaders and building interventionists. I was asked to do a series of summer workshops for the district before teachers began training officially in Sounds-Write® and Itchy’s Alphabet®. Dr. Burak and Dr. Beleckas worked collaboratively with a dedicated group of principals and teachers to create a unified vision and work out the logistics. Teachers were given release time to be allowed to do the training, while Teacher’s Assistants watched their classrooms. And, in a show of their commitment, academic integrity, and solidarity with their teachers and interventionists, Dr. Beleckas, Curriculum Coordinator Allison Curran, and Kindergarten Principal Ellen Postman, all went through the training as well.
Since the start of the school year, I have been in Lynbrook classrooms weekly to work with teachers and interventionists, as Dr. Burak and Dr. Beleckas understand how important embedded support is toward making a sustainable change. There is reason for optimism.
Through this guest blog, I hope to share with readers how change is possible when leaders do not just give lip service to the “Science of Reading.” Lynbrook’s leadership is showing courage as it leads the way on Long Island.
Faith Borkowsky is the founder of High Five Literacy and Academic Coaching and is a Certified Dyslexia Practitioner with thirty-five years of experience in literacy instruction – as a classroom teacher, reading and learning specialist, regional literacy coach, administrator, and tutor. Ms. Borkowsky provides professional development for teachers and school districts, as well as parent workshops, presentations, and private consultations on science-based literacy practices. She is the author of the award-winning book, Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, and the “If Only I Would Have Known…” series of books, conceived as a roadmap for literacy readiness and success for parents of young children. In 2021, Ms. Borkowsky was a finalist for the World Literacy Foundation award for her significant contributions to literacy.