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LETRS Lacks Evidence for Student Outcomes

Diving Into the LETRS Program

The LETRS (Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling) professional development program has recently been a hot topic on social media, particularly regarding its effectiveness. A notable point of discussion emerged from an IES (Institute of Education Sciences) study, which revealed that while LETRS training enhances teachers' understanding and knowledge of reading instruction, it seemingly does not translate into better reading performance among students. This finding, brought into the spotlight by Tim Rasinski's tweet, raises important considerations, especially as LETRS training has become a central element in the "Science of Reading" initiatives adopted by many states. According to Education Week, as many as 23 states have incorporated LETRS training into their educational strategies, even though its direct benefit in elevating student reading achievements remains unclear.


A report from the What Works Clearinghouse offers additional insights. It states that when second-grade teachers receive LETRS training, their grasp of reading instruction methods and their application of explicit instruction techniques improve. However, this professional development does not seem to be reflected in the reading test scores of their students. The effect sizes observed in student reading scores were minor, ranging between 0.03 and 0.08, and these changes were not statistically significant. This data suggests that while LETRS training is effective in enhancing teacher skills, its direct impact on student literacy outcomes is limited.


LETRS in Mississippi

In 2014, Mississippi embarked on implementing the LETRS program for its kindergarten to 3rd-grade teachers. This initiative was part of a larger strategy to align the state's reading instruction with evidence-based methodologies beyond just providing LETRS training. It also included a comprehensive coaching system to assist teachers in effectively applying their newfound knowledge in practical classroom scenarios. The impact of these efforts on student achievement is difficult to isolate, considering the state also concurrently introduced major changes in coaching methods, curriculum designs, and intervention strategies. Despite these complexities, LETRS quickly became an integral part of literacy development plans in various states that sought to emulate Mississippi's approach.


Regarding the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results, there was a noticeable effect on proficiency before the introduction of LETRS (Figure 1). It is clear to see that proficiency levels were on the rise prior to LETRS training in 2014. In 2022, 64% of Mississippi's 4th graders achieved at least a basic reading level, slightly higher than the 61% observed in both Minnesota and the national average. Also, the two-year duration of the LETRS program brings into question the immediacy and extent of its impact on the rising proficiency levels immediately following the beginning of LETRS training.


Figure 1

Mississippi 4th Grade NAEP Reading
Mississippi 4th Grade NAEP Reading

LETRS in North Carolina

In the fall of 2021, North Carolina launched an initiative across its 115 school districts, offering them an opportunity to participate in one of three distinct training groups, each with different starting times. These groups were part of a comprehensive professional development program designed to enhance the teaching skills of educators from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. The program was structured into two primary focus areas: one for kindergarten through fifth-grade students (K-5) and another for pre-kindergarten (PreK) students.


By the end of this initiative, slated for the summer of 2024, it's anticipated that over 44,000 educators in North Carolina will have received this advanced training. As of Autumn 2023, 29 school districts have already completed the LETRS training. This includes nearly 10,000 K-5 educators, about 870 PreK educators, and over 500 administrators. A second group of teachers is expected to finish their training in the winter (2024), with a third group completing theirs by the summer of 2024. However, implementing these teaching strategies across the state and observing their full effects will take additional time.


Early results in North Carolina, particularly for younger students, have shown encouraging signs based on the DIBELS 8 testing outcomes (Figure 2). However, this positive impact seems to lessen in older students. Additionally, according to the NAEP, only 61% of 4th graders in North Carolina have reached a basic reading level (Figure 3), which aligns with proficiency levels for Minnesota and the national average. A possible explanation for the lesser impact on higher grades could be that these students didn't receive robust foundational reading instruction in their earlier school years, considering that the comprehensive 2-year training program only recently started in the fall of 2021.


Figure 2


North Carolina Early Literacy Assessment Results
North Carolina Early Literacy Assessment Results

Figure 3


North Carolina 4th Grade NAEP Reading
North Carolina 4th Grade NAEP Reading

LETRS in Minnesota

In the autumn of 2021, a school district in Minnesota initiated a two-year training program using LETRS. This effort was geared towards enhancing reading instruction methodologies.

 

Early findings from this Minnesota district, based on assessments from the FastBridge Learning earlyReading tests, indicate some improvement in student reading outcomes by the end of the school year. However, it's important to note that these results pertain solely to first graders in just one district. Also, despite the observed progress, the proficiency rate in this group has not yet crossed the 50% threshold, suggesting that while there is some advancement, significant room for improvement remains. 


Figure 4


Single Minnesota District Early Reading Results
Single Minnesota District Early Reading Results

Considering LETRS for Reading Instruction

The decision to adopt the LETRS training program comes with several considerations, especially in light of preliminary and mixed evidence about its effectiveness in boosting reading achievement. Even in cases like Mississippi, where LETRS has gained national attention for its potential impact on reading scores, it's challenging to directly attribute improvements to the program. There's a possibility that reading scores have merely aligned with national averages without significant advancement.


A critical observation is that previous methods of early reading instruction might have been ineffective, benefiting only those students who could adapt to various teaching styles. This situation underscores the need for more efficacious teaching strategies, among which LETRS is a viable, though not exclusive, option. The apparent stagnation in reading skills for about one-third of students could be due to the need for a clearly structured literacy plan with increasingly more intensive instruction provided to students not making adequate progress. These students need more than just the evidence-based instruction offered in training programs like LETRS; but a well-organized literacy plan with progressively intensive teaching methods.


Conclusion

While LETRS presents one avenue for improving reading instruction, it isn't the sole solution. There are other professional development programs available that equip educators with knowledge and skills in evidence-based reading practices. Ultimately, LETRS should be viewed as part of a broader toolkit.


It is important to acknowledge that LETRS is not a panacea for the widespread challenge of achieving reading proficiency. A comprehensive strategy is essential, one that involves educators and administrators collaboratively developing and implementing systematic, explicit, and structured literacy plans. Such plans should cater to the varying needs of students, especially those lagging in progress. To truly enhance reading outcomes as part of the evolving science of reading, a collective and prioritized effort in supporting reading development is crucial.

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