BIG HORN — Teachers in Big Horn have started improving student literacy by implementing a curriculum considered best practice for students struggling with dyslexia.

The effort grew out of state legislation passed in 2019 that strengthened Wyoming’s requirement to screen for signs of dyslexia in kindergarten through third grade. House Bill 297 requires specific foundational reading skills be screened for all students in kindergarten through third grade, but also requires school districts use evidence-based core reading and intervention programs and that all educators who teach reading be trained in such programs. 

With those requirements in mind, Big Horn Elementary reading teacher Crystal Lenhart went all in, earning certifications and the knowledge needed to implement knew reading curriculum that not only helps students with dyslexia, but has boosts literacy across the board.

Structured literacy, an approach recommended by the International Dyslexia Association, emphasizes highly explicit and systemic teaching of reading. It also requires teachers to clearly explain and model literacy skills rather than have students learn primarily through discovery.

The teaching includes specific phonics training, allowing children to crack the language code and help them get the words off the page and said verbally.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Lenhart said. “What’s benefiting the kids struggling with reading is benefiting all kids.”

She added that children struggling to master language skills may get an extra dose of the structured teaching, but all students are learning language more explicitly both in the classroom and small group instruction.

Big Horn Elementary School Principal Kathy Powers said she and Lenhart have heard a number of anecdotal stories of parents and students loving the new curriculum.  

“The kids are just picking it up better, they are decoding words better, and the progress is evident,” Powers said. 

Kids who didn’t like to read before are now seeking out opportunities to read, she said.

Powers noted the data from literacy assessments in the first quarter of the current school year are better than past years’ mid-year data — another sign the new school curriculum is working. 

Part of Big Horn Elementary’s success has come from working with WY Lit, a nonprofit organization dedicated to evidence-based literacy instruction for all Wyoming children. Heather Fleming started the nonprofit with Kari Roden just a few years ago, after the mothers shared stories about their own children struggling with literacy.

In 2015, Fleming’s third-grader was diagnosed with dyslexia after several years of struggling in academics. Her son’s diagnosis led Fleming to research the learning disorder and the best practices for teaching individuals with dyslexia.

Fleming spoke at an informational presentation at Big Horn schools last month, sharing her own journey and what she has learned about dyslexia since her son’s diagnosis.

For example, she dispelled several myths around the learning disability. Dyslexia affects up to 20% of the population, making it more common than many realize. In addition, it does not have anything to do with intelligence, but rather involves the sector of the brain that processes language.

While dyslexia can present itself in a broad range of ways, Fleming said indicators include difficulty with language skills, difficulty with letter and sound correspondence, persistent confusion of visually similar letters, listening comprehension that is better than reading comprehension, poor decoding and spelling with errors such as letter reversals, omissions and additions.

While Big Horn Elementary School teachers don’t diagnosis dyslexia, they do screen students and provide early intervention programs. 

“Literacy fuels so much in education,” Lenhart said. “This is a social justice issue, ensuring every kid has a shot to learn. We’re really committed to making sure every child has a fair shot.”

Through explicit instruction involving phonics, and the excitement that has created among parents, children and school district staff, Powers and Lenhart hope to vastly increase the literacy rates of children in Sheridan County School District 1.

Kristen Czaban has worked with The Sheridan Press since June 2008, moving to Wyoming after graduating from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She covered a wide range of beats before becoming editor in 2012 and publisher in 2017.

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