Literacy Instruction in Mississippi Lacking, Report Suggests

(Photo: US Department  of Education, Creative Commons)

(Photo: US Department of Education, Creative Commons)

A new report has examined the state of literacy instruction in Mississippi in an effort to promote changes to both pre-service and in-service programs to better meet the needs of those within rural and high-poverty environments.

The report, “2014-15 Study of Mississippi Teacher Preparation for Early Literacy Instruction,” found Mississippi to be consistently ranked among the bottom five states when it comes to national measures of reading achievement.  However, the author goes on to say that this can be changed through work within the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE), the public schools, the State Legislature, and the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHLs).

The State Legislature took steps to improve literacy achievement in 2012 through the creation of programs meant to improve reading instruction for those students with specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia.  The efforts continued in 2013 with the passing of the Literacy-based Promotion Act (LBPA), which was meant to ensure that students were reading at their grade level by the time they completed third grade.

In the first year of the act, reading coaches were implemented in the lowest-performing schools throughout the state in order to improve the teaching of learning.  Each year since, more coaches have been added to offer support, and research-based professional development has been offered to in-service teachers and made available to literacy professors at universities.

Performed by the Barksdale Reading Institute (BRI), the report focuses on the role played by teacher preparation programs in the state to help increase reading proficiency in early grade levels.  The study looked to determine whether these programs are adequately preparing teaching candidates for effective literacy teaching upon their entrance into classrooms.

Two early-literacy courses are currently required in the state for those participating in undergraduate elementary education programs, including Early Literacy 1/EL1 and Early Literacy 2/EL2.  The courses aim to provide students with evidence-based practices for literacy instruction within five areas of reading: phonological/phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Writing instruction is also included.

The report found that of the 2,450 minutes spent in EL1, only 20% of course time was spent learning to teach these five topics considered to be essential for reading.  In EL2, which lasted for 2,750 minutes, just 22% of course time was spent discussing how to teach these areas.

The authors suggest that research-based practices be adopted at every level of reading education.  They say that pre-service core courses should focus on “explicit, systematic instruction for all five essential components, plus writing, rather than on the balanced literacy approach which is more implicit and less systematic.”  Knowledge of such practices should be increased so that all teachers, instructors, and literacy coaches are using the same approaches throughout the state.

To that end, the authors argue that consistency in all early-literacy course content and delivery within teacher preparation programs.  They suggest the creation of “laboratory classrooms” within the K-3 system that make use of paid, skilled, mentor teachers for fieldwork and teaching practice.

Lastly, they say that educators should be directly involved in the shaping of policy and practice.