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Alaska's K–3 readers undergo statewide testing. 'Alaska Reads Act' to decide targeted reading plans

LKSD educators wait for rides after the 2023 fall conference.
Sunni Bean
LKSD educators wait for rides after the 2023 fall conference.

Teachers across Alaska are testing kindergarten through third grade students on their literacy this month. The idea is to establish a baseline of what reading level each child will be at. Under the state’s new Alaska Reads Act, the baseline will determine which track students will be funneled into for reading support.

The literacy screening window for the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) was going to end Sept. 22, but last week the Alaska Department of Early Education and Development told districts to extend their testing window until Sept. 29 due to technical and connection issues.

There were technical issues in LKSD, but the district had anticipated them. Some schools finished the screening in the first week, but the extra week gives flexibility for the new statewide program.

Before they could start testing the kids, educators had to learn a new way of testing reading and working with students on individual reading plans.

In early September, educators attended training workshops on the new software and testing system at LKSD's annual fall conference.

In classrooms at Bethel Regional High School, teachers listened to YouTube videos of children reading aloud. They clicked through slides with each word, marking off if the student pronounced it wrong or got it on the second try.

Phonics, a way of teaching reading by associating letters with sounds, may sound unfamiliar to those who learned to read by recognizing letters and the meaning of words. Instead of focusing on comprehension, phonics helps with spelling and sounding out words.

“I did not learn this way to read. A lot of you probably didn't either,” Kevin Lopez, an instructional coach for the district, said to the teachers. “They did, like, whole word when I was a kid, so I didn’t learn every little sound. Your kids hopefully have learned this way so they'll be able to handle it, but if you don't know that sound just check with somebody else, one of your lower grade teachers.”

There’s a debate on which method of teaching reading works best, but many believe that phonics are more effective. It’s one of the five categories that teachers will be testing students on, one by one. There's also fluency, phonological awareness, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Fast forward to testing week. By Sept. 29, LKSD teachers will have tested most kindergarten through third grade students in the district using this new system.

It’s not clear exactly how the new curriculum will work out. Educators say that it will take time to learn the new system, but it’s clear that they all want to help kids learn how to read.

Melissa Gill, a third to fourth grade teacher at Ayuprun Elitnaurvik, said that in her classroom, she’s found the best way to get kids to learn how to read is to make school fun.

“So if reading is fun, schools, students will want to do it,” said Gill. “So I try to make it like more games, singing songs. And when they're learning, they're like, 'Whoa, I thought I was just having fun.' And, you know, they start reading and they're like, 'Wow, this is pretty fun and I want to come back.”

Spenser Nelson, the seventh through 12th grade English and social studies teacher in Nightmute, has a similar approach.

“The best solution we've found, honestly, is to engage them with graphic novels,” said Nelson. “Because they were so used to during the pandemic, 'Oh, someone's online either reading to me.' And so they have that pair of visual and text that we're having to basically not rely on as a crutch, but definitely use as the bridge to get them back to reading longer texts.”

Nelson knows that the technique is getting students to read because they’re plowing through the books.

“Everything and anything,” Nelson said. “And actually, I just put another one on my Amazon list to get out here. Because they honestly run through those so quickly, because it's so accessible, right?”

Nelson is optimistic about the new reading program. He struggled to read when he was a kid, and phonics were a big help for him. He was also one of a number of the educators that brought up the success of similar programs in Mississippi, South Carolina, Michigan, and more.

But, one criticism of phonics is that it doesn’t focus much on comprehension. And that’s something his kids struggle with.

“At our school, and I think it's in the district as well, talking to other teachers, our students are so hyper-focused on reading the word and pronouncing the word correctly that they're not really realizing what they're reading,” said Nelson. “It would be like, if you were to look at the color of these lockers, at this blue color. You can say, ‘okay, that is blue.’ But you're not connecting that that color and that word go together because you’re just so focused on identifying.”

The results of these screening tests will determine each student’s reading track and how much extra support they’ll get. Students will take the screeners two more times this school year.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.