Groves Literacy

Groves Academy: Where the art of teaching meets the science of learning

Leave a comment

The Teaching of Reading

When it comes to the teaching of reading, it is imperative that we get it right the first time.  If we don’t, our students and ultimately society suffers.  Unfortunately, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2011 test scores, we are not getting it right the first time.  Forty percent of Minnesota’s fourth graders do not read at a basic reading level, meaning they can’t identify words in print.  Almost 70% of Minnesota fourth graders cannot read proficiently (with good comprehension).  Sadly, Minnesota has the biggest achievement gap between those who can read and those who can’t in the country. 

 Only ten percent of children who do not read at grade level are dyslexic and have a neurological reason for their difficulty with the printed word.  Ninety percent of students who read poorly are instructional casualties.  They have never been taught properly, largely because their teachers have not been trained properly in colleges of education.  It is critical that students learn to read by the end of third grade as this is when the focus of schools changes from teaching students to read to having students reading to learn.  If students haven’t learned to read by the end of third grade, they will hit the proverbial “brick wall” in fourth grade and beyond.  It is also imperative that a student with a reading disability be identified and proper forms of intervention provided by the start of third grade.  If not, there is only a 25% chance that that student will read at grade level during the next nine years of school.  Unfortunately, our current system of identifying these students doesn’t do so until fourth grade or later.  Many students never have a chance.

 What makes reading failure so frustrating is the fact that we know how to teach reading to all students; there are no secret ingredients.  We know that students need to have phonemic awareness, the ability to sequence and segment sounds found within words; we know that they need to have an understanding of symbol-sound associations and or word parts—syllables and morphemes; we know that they need to become fluent reader (read with accuracy and an appropriate rate); and we know that students need to develop a sufficient vocabulary in order to comprehend what they need; we know that students need to be explicitly taught different question types and how to derive meaning from different types of writing; and, finally, we know that students will learn to read better and faster when the above components of reading are taught explicitly and systematically by a skilled, knowledgeable teacher.

 While reading researchers have conducted a multitude of studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there are reading “experts” who feel they know better.  They feel that students will learn to read better using a child-centered, constructivist approach in which the student directs his learning; the teacher is merely the facilitator.  If a student is not reading to his potential or if he is not at the same reading level as his classmates, it’s because he is not ready to learn to read.  Practitioners of this approach will say, “Don’t worry.  He will read when he is ready to read.  The light bulb will turn on.”

 All students deserve to find pleasure from reading, and using this approach with emerging and struggling readers does them a great disservice.  We know how to teach them to read.  It is our responsibility as adults to teach them with evidenced-based practices.  To do anything less, impedes not only the individual child but society at large.  

John Alexander


Leave a comment

Minnesota Reading Reform 2006-2013

Minnesota Grassroots Reading Reform Movement 2006-2013


 Minnesota is a little different than other states in that there are two avenues to affect change in teacher licensure.  Bills affecting teacher licensure can be enacted through the legislature and signed into law by the governor.  Minnesota also has a Board of Teaching which can enact rules that have the same impact as law.  In the case of the Minnesota grassroots reading reform movement, a dual path was taken—both legislatively and through the Board of Teaching—to enact reading reform.

The Journey

The grassroots political effort for reading reform began in 2006 when a group of parents—mostly moms of students with reading difficulties—came together to affect change in the way children are taught to read.  With a range of different political views, these parents were a collection of people with diverse career experiences including: teachers, a corporate executive, an accountant, an attorney, an investment banker, a media specialist, and reading specialists.  During its heyday in 2007, the group grew to almost 40 members.  These were parents of struggling readers who were not making progress in schools—both private and public—yet they did learn to read when private tutors used a direct, explicit, and sequential approach to reading instruction. 

Although these parents had the means to provide tutoring for their children so they would learn to read, they were concerned that other children might not be so fortunate.  These moms then began looking at state statistics involving reading competency.  What they learned was depressing.  2009 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) testing revealed that 30% of Minnesota fourth graders were not reading at a basic reading level (showing competency decoding the written word) and 63% of Minnesota fourth graders were not reading proficiently (with good comprehension).  The 2009 testing results also revealed that Minnesota had one of the largest achievement gaps in reading.  Black and Hispanic students had average scores that were 35 points lower than those of White students.

In December, 2006 these Moms on a Mission (MOM) invited John Alexander to speak to a group of almost 200 people about the state of reading in Minnesota.  Alexander is head of school at Groves Academy, an independent school for students with learning disabilities—primarily dyslexia, and has consulted on various literacy initiatives both within Minnesota and nationally.  In attendance were parents, students, teachers, principals, and four state senators.  Alexander discussed what constituted good reading instruction and remarked that the vast majority of struggling readers were not dyslexic, or neurologically miswired.  Rather, they were instructional casualties, students who had never been taught properly.  He didn’t put the blame on teachers.  After all, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Instead, Alexander blamed schools of education and individual school district’s professional development programs regarding the teaching of reading.  He stated that teachers leaving colleges of education were woefully unprepared to teach reading to emerging and struggling readers, and the professional development programs in school districts were not addressing the core issues involved in the teaching of reading.

After this community event, the MOM group dedicated itself to becoming more organized, and these parents were determined to improve reading instruction for all students.  They decided to mobilize politically.

During the 2007 legislative session, legislators met with community members and drafted House File 1853 and Senate File 1438.  In January, 2007, members of the MOM coalition and Alexander offered testimony in Senate hearings.  The Executive Director of the Board of Teaching was present at the hearings and contacted the authors of the legislation and proposed that in lieu of legislative action, members of the MOM coalition be invited to join the recently initiated Board of Teaching Reading Task Force.  In late January, 2007, Susan Thomson, a lead member of the MOM coalition, Claire Eckley, the past president of the local IDA chapter, and Alexander were added to the Reading Task Force.

The charge of the task force was to recommend new rules and standards of knowledge that address the initial preparation and continued development of teachers of reading in Minnesota.  The task force was a diverse group comprised of three members from Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union, three professors of education, two members of the Department of Education, two members from the state’s Board of Teaching, one member from the Minnesota Reading Association, one member from the Minnesota Reading License Coalition, and the three advocates—Thomson, Eckley, and Alexander.   Not only was the reading task force diverse in representation, it was also diverse in its beliefs about what constituted good reading instruction and what constituted a good teacher preparation program.  Topics of controversy included academic freedom of higher education versus prescriptive rules and standards enforced by government agencies.  The divides regarding what constituted good reading instruction and the foundational knowledge that teachers need to have to be good reading teachers were significant and finding consensus would prove to be extremely difficult.

As the Board of Teaching Reading Task Force continued meeting, a group of Minnesota reading reformers (the MOMs and Alexander) drafted a comprehensive standards that included foundational knowledge focused on scientifically-based reading research.  The standards were detailed and prescriptive.  Higher education representatives on the task force felt the proposed standards were too prescriptive and that they would constrain their academic freedom and control their curriculum.

After a year of monthly task force meetings and countless hours of meetings with our MOMs’ friends, the grassroots reformers realized that we had to resume the dual track of creating legislation that would promote reading reform while continuing our work on creating rules affecting teacher standards through the Board of Teaching Reading Task Force.  We felt we had to work on legislation, because we were being stymied by the professors and the union representatives on the Reading Task Force.  We were clearly outnumbered.

We shared our updates throughout the Reading Task Force process with legislators who became frustrated by the lack of progress that was being made on the Reading Task Force.  To create some opportunity for reform, Senators Olson and Saltzman re-opened literacy hearings.  Not surprisingly, the tension within the task force grew, as the professors did not want a literacy bill to govern what they were teaching or how they were teaching their curricula.

The MOM coalition offered names of potential witnesses including reading experts, reading teachers, teacher trainers, parents of children who weren’t reading to potential, and children who struggled with reading themselves.  Testimony of the Senate hearings can be found on YouTube in four short segments:

part 1 at,

part 2 at,

part 3 at,

part 4 at

As the December 17, 2007, hearing unfolded, it became apparent that too many children were struggling to read.  There was a great deal of testimony pointing to the fact that teachers of reading needed more depth of content knowledge and more meaningful practicum experiences to apply their skills of reading instruction.  Additional hearings were held in January, 2008 to gather testimony from professors of higher education, teachers, and other reading professionals.  The professors asserted that teachers were well prepared to teach reading and attributed low student achievement in reading to factors outside their sphere of influence such as poverty, household dynamics, motivation, etc.  While all parties were polite in testifying, it was clear that there was an incredible amount of tension between higher education and the grassroots reformers.  There were significant differences of opinion about the severity of the reading problem as well as to why the problem existed. 

After the hearings, Senators Olson and Saltzman co-authored a literacy bill that required colleges of education to include scientifically-based reading instruction within their reading curricula.  The literacy bill also required teacher candidates to take, and pass, licensure tests that reflected the foundational knowledge required to teach reading. 

Led by Bette Erickson and Susan Thomson, the grassroots reformers’ lobbying effort was intense.  This group worked around the clock at the State Capitol, discussing the merits of scientifically-based reading instruction to legislators, staff members, and anyone else who would listen.  By the end of the 2008 session, the bill was successfully included in the Education Omnibus Bill.  However, though the governor supported the bill, he vetoed the bill due to dissatisfaction with other aspects of the bill.  We ended our second legislative session with no reading reform bill. 

Both because our reading bill was successfully included in the Education Omnibus Bill and because it was clear that we were going to press on with our legislative efforts in the next session, we began to make some progress within the Board of Teaching Reading Task Force.  After eighteen months of meetings, debates, and much frustration, the Reading Task Force reached consensus.  The new standards for five licensure categories were unanimously recommended to the board of teaching in June, 2008.  Much to the disdain of the professors of education, the standards for K-6 elementary education were significantly changed with over 50 (check the number) very detailed standards reflecting the foundational knowledge that teachers should have to teach reading to emerging or struggling readers. 

Although the Board of Teaching had launched the proposed reading rules into the formal administrative rule making process, there was no assurance of the eventual outcome, so, simultaneously, we resumed or legislative efforts.  After three years of hard work in the legislature, our reading reform bill was included in Omnibus House File 2 and signed into law in May, 2009. 

New Laws and Rules Due to the Grassroots Reading Reform Effort

  1. MN Stat 122A.06 (enacted in 2009)

2.  Definition of Scientifically Based Reading Instruction

Read MN Stat 122A.06 subdivision 4 at

3.  Requires that teacher candidates successfully complete test on reading

Read MN Stat 122A.09 subdivision 4e at

4.  Requires colleges to prepare teacher candidates for reading test

Read MN Stat 122A.18 subdivision 2a

Note that the effective date of February 1, 2012 applies to the licensure exam required by MN Stat. 122A.09 subdivision 4(e)

(See Appendix for the language of the law.)

1.  Reading rules through the Board of Teaching approved.

After reading legislation was approved, the 14 month administrative rule-making process successfully concluded in the fall of 2009.  The rules included:

  • Rule 8710.3000 Teachers of Early Childhood Education Subpart 3 E through I
  • Rule 8710.3200 Teachers of Elementary Education Subpart 3 C through G
  • Rule 8710.4725 Teacher of Reading Subpart 3a
  • Rule 8710.4925 Reading Leader Subpart 3
  • 19 other licensure areas relating to reading in secondary content areas

The most significant rule change involved the Board of Teaching rules governing reading standards of elementary education.  A copy of these specific standards can be found in appendix B.

 Implementation of Reading Rules by Board of Teaching

 Fall, 2009 Board of Teaching unanimously accepts Reading Task Force recommendations for reading rule changes.

  • Between January, 2010 and September, 2010, colleges revised their curriculum to align with the new reading rules and submitted revised programs to the Board of Teaching for review.
  • September, 2010 teacher candidates start taking courses aligned to new reading rules.
  • September, 2010 Evaluation Systems of Pearson Publishing offered new licensure exams aligned to reading rules.  See test objectives and practice tests at
  • October, 2010 Board of Teaching approved passing scores on tests with higher expectations of entry-level teachers.  (Testimony offered by grassroots constituents favored higher scores but testimony offered by teachers union and higher education representatives opposed higher cut scores.)

 New Literacy Initiatives Passed in 2011-12 Legislative Sessions

 1.    “Reading Proficiently by the End of Third Grade” legislation approved that amended MN Statute 120b.12 with language calling for each district to have a local literacy plan with four components including:

a.    Assessing students’ reading proficiency:  The district must identify students who are not reading at grade level before the end of kindergarten and in first and second grades;

b.    Notifying parents:  Districts must inform parents of his/her child’s reading below grade level and let parents know what services are being provided while providing strategies for parents to support the student’s reading achievement;

c.    Intervene with students who are reading below grade level:  Districts must provide intervention to accelerate student growth in order to reach the goal of reading proficiently by the end of third grade;

d.    Identify and meet staff development needs:  Districts must identify staff development needs so that elementary teachers are able to implement scientifically-based reading instruction as defined in MN Statute 122A.06 subd.4 so that teachers can provide appropriate interventions for students not yet proficient at reading.

 2.    Minnesota Statutes 2013 124D.98 Literacy Incentive Aid

a.    School districts receive additional money from the state defined as Literacy Incentive Aid, commencing in fiscal year 2012-13 and thereafter;

b.    Literacy Incentive Aid equals proficiency aid plus growth aid.  Literacy Incentive Aid is based on grade three reading proficiency and grade four reading growth, based on the prior three years’ administrations of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA);

c.    Literacy Incentive Aid totals $530 per student who meets proficiency on the MCA;

d.    Growth Aid totals $530 per student for the percentage of fourth graders who achieve medium or high growth on the MCA reading test;

e.    To see specific details of the Literacy Incentive Aid law go to;

 Notes Regarding Literacy Incentive Aid

  • In 2012-2013, the total Literacy Incentive Aide was capped at $48,585,000 and all of this Literacy Incentive Aid was distributed to schools throughout the state including 331 school districts and about 150 charter schools.  Note that some of the larger school districts received as much as $2,000,000 of Literacy Incentive Aid in 2013.
  • In 2013-14 and thereafter, the literacy incentive aide is not capped.
  • Note that the MCA test was redesigned for more rigor and administered in Spring 2013 with resulting reading scores showing lower number of students with proficiency in grade 3 and lower number of students showing growth in grade 4.   In 2012-13, 48,000 of 60,000 3rd graders, 80% showed reading proficiency.  In 2013-14, 36,000 of 62,000, 57% showed reading proficiency with the revised more rigorous MCA test.
  • The literacy incentive aid for 2014 is calculated on the prior three years MCA scores so the impact of the “tougher” test will be most evident in 2015-16 school year when the three prior years used in the calculation relate to the “tougher” test  unless students skills accelerate to achieve proficiency on the more rigorous test.

Minnesota Reading Corps

  • The Minnesota Reading Corps (MRC) is a non-profit entity in partnership with the MN Legislature, the Corporation for National and Community Service, United Way, Target Corporation, and other private funders.  In 2002, the Chair of the House Education House Finance Committee approached ServeMinnesota to partner on an early literacy program.  Serve Minnesota received $150,000 to pilot a research-based reading intervention program and MRC was born.
  • MRC started in 2003 with 24 AmeriCorps tutors working with 250 children.
  • In the biennium budget approved for fiscal years 2011-12 and 2012-13, the Minnesota State Legislature increased funding for MRC by 300 percent and allocated $4,100,000 for state expansion.
  • In 2013, MRC delivers data driven literacy intervention to 30,000 students across Minnesota through more than 1,000 trained AmeriCorps literacy tutors.
  • Scaling in Minnesota:  In its 10 year history, MRC has become the largest AmeriCorps state program in the country.  It partners with 213 school districts, deploying over 1,000 tutors in more than 700 locations in all corners of the state, reaching 30,000 students, age 3 to grade three.
  • Expanding Nationally:  an independent evaluation conducted by the University of Chicago’s Opinion Research Center concluded that MRC is “highly replicable.”  The model is currently being replicated with strong fidelity through partnerships in seven states (California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia.
  • Results:
    • MRC students in Head Start Programs outperformed their peers and exceeded target scores for literacy proficiency as shown in a five-year matched sample study;
    • In 2012, more than 80% of third graders, who successfully completed Reading Corps, passed their state reading exams.
    • More than 70% of Reading Corps participants demonstrate more than a year’s worth of progress in one year’s time, exceeding state and national averages;
    • A 2012 matched sample study showed that Reading Corps participants are three times less likely to be referred to special education services, which could result in nearly $9 million in annual savings for Minnesota.


  • 2013 NAEP Scores:  This year’s test results also showed significant progress in reading among Minnesota fourth grade students.  Minnesota fourth graders performed tenth best in the nation in 2013, moving up from 22nd best just two years ago.  Additionally, the reading gap between white students and African American and Hispanic students closed by 10 test points, roughly a 25% improvement since 2009.  (htpp://

(htpp:// s


  •  We are going to have to closely monitor student progress on an annual basis to be sure that gains are not lost and that progress towards closing the achievement gap continues.  It is also important that we gather all organizations and people involved in reading reform so that we are working together and there is no “silo effect.”  Together we are a much more powerful voice than when we speak independently while delivering a similar message.
  • It is important to note that the new reading rules and the reading legislation pertaining to passing an assessment based on scientifically-based reading instruction are applied only to new teaching candidates leaving colleges of education.  Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teaching union, was clear that it would not support any literacy bill that would impact teachers who already held teaching licenses.  This attitude undermines the work we have done.  Imagine that you just graduated from the University of Minnesota’s college of education.  Due to the new reading rules and literacy law, you have a much deeper understanding of reading and how to teach reading than you otherwise would have.  You have even passed the statewide reading assessment and have been offered a job as a first grade teacher at The Kenwood Elementary School.  You are one of four new teachers at the school.  The others teach in kindergarten, fifth, and sixth grade.  The school uses a guided reading curriculum based on Fountas and Pinnell.  How does a young teacher, taking her first job in the profession stand up to the prevailing school attitude about how reading should be taught?  We have a great deal of work left to do to change that prevailing belief system in schools.  We are not sure whether that can be done legislatively or by working with individual schools until there a tipping point is reached and everyone recognizes what constitutes a good literacy program in grades k-3.