League of Women Voters

Teaching literacy focus of upcoming forum


“It’s easy to take for granted the ability to read,” said Anthony Tharp, assistant superintendent for North Montgomery Schools. Yet one of every five Hoosier kids struggles to read when they exit third grade. Just when they’re expected to read to learn, they still need to learn to read, and teachers know that if they don’t catch up, they’ll continue to struggle through the rest of school and into adult life.

Because so many students have a deficit in reading/literacy skills that can affect their entire lives, state educators and legislators have taken dramatic steps to improve how to teach reading and when to hold back students who haven’t yet mastered the skill. From enacting a new law that will retain third graders who fail the I-READ to pivoting towards research-backed reading instruction, Hoosiers are facing some dramatic, and critical, actions to improve literacy for each student in the state.

One of five educators who will contribute to the Teaching Literacy in Montgomery County Forum on April 16, Tharp noted that “the ability to read “impacts the quality of life for an individual, and eventually it can impact the family. If you have struggled with reading, it impacts your livelihood probably in a lot of different ways that you think about the individual, the family structure, but then ripples out to the community and workforce development.”

The forum, which begins at 6 p.m. at Crawfordsville High School Commons, includes a panel of four educators, Brittany Cooper, CCSC Director of Elementary Education, Wendy Myers, Southmont Director of Student Services, Lisa Walter, MCCF Early Childhood Coalition, along with Anthony Tharp, EdD, and will be moderated by Kathy Steele, EdD, former CCSC Superintendent. They will discuss their schools’ shift to data-driven, tried-and-true reading instruction. They want parents and community members to understand the link between literacy and personal empowerment. Strong reading skills give individuals agency in every aspect of life, from acing a job application to teaching yourself new skills to getting cultural references in your favorite show to bonding with your child or grandchild over a classic book.

The term you might hear is the “science of reading,” which merely means teachers are ensuring that they are teaching reading skills from preschool up with research-based practices. It means they are pacing the process to meet students at their developmental stage.

Tharp noted that Montgomery County educators across corporations have already implemented research-driven reading instruction, a process they began as they focused on methods to address dyslexia. The science includes identifying and naming each stage and testing the techniques that work best at that stage. It starts with phonemic awareness, which simply means helping students recognize and manipulate sounds within words. For example, helping a student know when the letter E makes the short ‘eh’ sound versus the long e ‘eeee’ sound or is silent. Or why c-h makes the ch sound, and so forth. When we learn the patterns of when an “e” makes different sounds, we can attack unfamiliar words, test out what works, by breaking a word into smaller parts, then putting it back together as a whole.

The next stage, phonics and word recognition, looks at how those sounds work together to create words, like the “ee” between m and k or “ea” between m and t both make the same sounds. Phonics helps readers learn how individual sounds are dependent on the sounds around them. Helping students decode these relationships helps them determine which word they’re reading. If they’ve never heard the word, they can still sound it out, and with some related knowledge determine what it means as they hear it used. Word and sound recognition require adult intervention, Tharp noted. We might think it’s adorable when our kids says li-bary instead of lib-rary or pah-sgetti to spagh-etti, but we also need to help them hear the correct sounds

“Phonics and word recognition is really just teaching students to recognize and manipulate the sounds within words,” Tharp said. Strong readers know how to break a word into individual sounds, use what they know about dependencies, and figure out syllables, then put syllables together into words. “Once they understand the pattern, they can then transfer to other patterns.”

To help their readers, any parent can play a few games to improve students’ skills. Tharp suggested that parents can help at home with reading simple fun books in the evenings. Keep your fingers on the words as you read, showing kids left to right, “a basic ability that we need to ensure students know,” Tharp said. “Practice letting them read, pointing from one word to the next. Then have them read cereal boxes during breakfast. Play I Spy while you’re traveling down the road. If your kids come home with a word list, try to have them find those words in the text around them.”

Once emerging readers can use what they know to tackle an unfamiliar word by its parts, they can develop word fluency. That’s where they recognize the word from seeing it so often, they no longer need to sound it out, part by part. Their next step is sentence fluency, where they can read word to word in a sentence and understand the sentence as a larger chunk, an idea. At first, this requires simple read-alouds that are re-read until students can read nice fluid sentences without a lot of breaks. At first, Tharp noted, they’re “not fixated on comprehension of understanding that sentence. They’re just being able to read that sentence without a lot of pauses and with a smooth expression.”  All of this takes practice and multi-sensory approaches, which Tharp said most districts are doing through structured literacy programs that increase fluency.

Once kids can read passages smoothly, it leads to reading comprehension. To get there, teachers need to check each student’s oral reading fluency with a simple two-minute test that measures how many words a student can read correctly within two minutes. Teachers will monitor the growth trajectory of our students and use that to evaluate their effectiveness in reading instruction.

Finally, students will expand their vocabulary. “I love vocabulary because you can practice in everyday life with everyday things. Those basic conversations at the kitchen table you can quiz your kids on what they think that word means. If they use that big word, unpack it,” Tharp said. But even everyday words merit a conversation. “A word that I love to unpack all the time is good. When I hear someone say you did a good job, I ask them to define good for me. We tell students all the time to behave or be good, like, but what does that mean? You’re going to have a lot of deep rich conversations because there are a lot of interpretations. But as you’re building vocabulary, you’ll hear from young scholars with their impression or interpretation of vocabulary words, what it means to them,” Tharp said.

Reading and writing are two complex, multi-level skills. They improve with practice at home and in school.

“We would love for parents to get time in their busy schedules to just read with their kids and talk about what they’ve read with their kids,” Tharp said. He encourages parents and grandparents to ask questions and let the readers ask back. But also, “reading is best enriched by experiences. Anytime our students can make that text itself or self-to-text connection with what they’re reading or what they’re doing, such as from a trip to grandma and grandpa, visiting parks and libraries, or other places, then they can make that true real-life connection. That’s when comprehension just explodes.”

Tharp cited an older study from the 1980s, where lower-reading level and upper-reading level students had to take a quiz about baseball after reading about it. Because both groups had experienced baseball, they performed similarly on the reading comprehension quiz. Why did both groups score similarly when one group couldn’t read as well? They both had the background knowledge to improve their reading comprehension.

The hope that teachers can improve reading scores and empower students has everyone across the school districts “beyond excited” and “teaching like their hair’s on fire,” said Tharp. He believes teachers have more clarity and intrinsic motivation, realizing they can learn from, not feel shame about, what hasn’t worked. They’re more collaborative, planning and testing their instruction together. Part of that is reframing the idea of “failure.” Failure is part of learning anything new, from reading to how to help every single kid to learn to read. Fall down nine times, get up ten, as the saying goes.

Tharp encourages parents to foster and protect their children’s curiosity, encourage them to take risks, let them fail and try again, and answer their questions with more questions.

Tharp, like the other panelists, loves reading. He recently finished reading Lawnboy by Gary Paulson with his 9-year-old son, which gave them an opportunity to discuss the economic terms and opportunities. He also re-read The Knowledge Gap by Natalie Wexler, a book about the science of reading.

The event, Teaching Literacy in Montgomery County, is sponsored by the LWVMC, the Montgomery County Community Foundation and the three school districts. Community members are invited to join the event which begins at 6 p.m. April 16 at Crawfordsville High School Commons.


The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.