State sharpens focus on improving literacy skills of Tennessee students

State sharpens focus on improving literacy skills of Tennessee students

April 26th, 2018 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Only about one-third of Tennessee's third-grade students are reading on grade level.

Students are able to understand what they hear, and are performing well when it comes to vocabulary and language, but they still struggle with reading comprehension, fluency and writing, according to a new report released Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Education.

But that isn't news.

Tennessee students' dismal performance when it comes to reading and language skills was the very reason the First Steps report was conducted. The report looks at the work done in the two years since the department set the ambitious goal of at least 75 percent of third-graders in the state reading on grade level by 2025.

Progress is being made across the state, the report finds, but several recommendations outline the next steps the state needs to take to ensure it meets that goal. Though students are doing better in reading than those in 2016, they still fall short of national averages. Hamilton County Schools students perform even worse, with only 31.5 percent of students in grades 3 to 8 reading on grade level, compared to the state's average of 33.8 percent.

"Though we are still in the early phases of this work, I am encouraged by the progress and commitment we have seen to Read to be Ready, especially from our educators and school leaders," state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Candice McQueen

Candice McQueen

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

In 2016, inspired by national research illustrating that reading ability in third grade is a strong predictor of student success and in response to relatively stagnant literacy rates, Gov. Bill Haslam, first lady Crissy Haslam and the education department launched the Read to be Ready initiative to improve children's reading skills.

As part of the campaign, the state created a coaching network that has provided intensive support and professional learning opportunities for teachers who teach literacy. More than half of all Tennessee school districts have participated in the network and at least 200 teacher-coaches.

In partnership with the state Department of Human Services, the educational department also launched 20 summer reading programs in 2016. This year it awarded more than $8.8 million to support about 203 summer camps across the state.

This year's report recommendations to teachers include selecting better texts worthy of students' time (something many classrooms are lacking), aligning lessons, questions and tasks with standards and allowing more time for reading and writing each day.

School leaders and administrators are encouraged to support and evaluate teachers based on the amount of reading and writing done in the classroom and on how well the tasks they provide align with standards. Leaders are also urged to provide access to high-quality materials, such as better text selections, and training to develop how they teach students to read.

Teacher preparation programs also are recommended to rethink requirements and course sequencing for how they prepare new teachers and to participate in literacy networks.

"We know that with the right supports through coaching and professional learning and through access to high-quality instructional materials, our teachers will continue to improve and more students will become proficient readers," McQueen said in a statement. "As this work advances, we will continue to reflect on our progress so we can learn how to best keep moving our educators and students forward."

Last year, Hamilton County Schools placed a focus on literacy, requiring all elementary and middle schools to implement guided reading, and this fall the district rolled out a new literacy intervention model, RISE, or Reading Intervention for Student Express, in many of its Opportunity Zone schools, the network of schools that are among the lowest performing in the entire county.

In January, Hamilton County district officials and school leaders celebrated the results they were seeing in part due to the RISE model. This summer, eight Hamilton County schools will host Read to be Ready programs — Calvin Donaldson, Clifton Hills, East Lake, Orchard Knob, Wolftever Creek, Woodmore Elementary, Barger Academy and Lakeside Academy. Those schools were recipients of the state's Read to be Ready grants.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.