Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Please join us for a three-part series as we highlight three districts in Iowa that are making strides in adopting new English language arts materials and implementing structured literacy practices.

This first installment provides the background for each of our three districts. We asked leaders from each of the districts to reflect on their qualitative and quantitative data during early implementation of the new instructional materials. Our second article in this series will focus on professional development and teacher feedback, and our last installment will provide insights and advice for other districts beginning their journey.  

Our goal in this series is to recognize the experiences of these diverse districts and share some insights that might assist other districts looking to make changes.

Spencer Community School District 

Spencer is in its second year of implementing a content-based curriculum, Core Knowledge and Language Arts (CKLA) in Grades K-2 and American Reading Company (ARC) in Grades 3-5. To support teachers in the transition, Spencer Community School District is providing professional development in structured literacy routines. 

“We have asked a lot of our staff, and they have really stepped up to the plate,” says Dr. Angela Hanson, the director of school improvement. “We are seeing really great results for our kids.” 

Interestingly, fluency scores for Curriculum-Based Measure for reading (CBMr) dropped for some students. In spite of this, Hanson remains optimistic.

“This dip makes sense as students are no longer just skipping words they do not know,” Hanson explains. “Instead, they are sounding them out. Qualitatively, students may read slower due to the fact that we teach the strategies students need to accurately decode a word, and this takes time.”

In other words, as a consequence of the curriculum shift, increased emphasis is placed on reading accuracy over speed. To support reading accuracy, students learn strategies to break down and sound out words based on sound and spelling correspondences. With explicit instruction in these strategies and repeated practice opportunities, word recognition becomes effortless and automatic. Automatic word recognition, in turn, has been shown to support reading fluency. Thus, although students’ fluency may temporarily falter as they focus on reading accurately, research suggests that fluency will increase as word recognition becomes automatic.  

Additionally, the new curriculum has allowed students to make connections across subjects, applying their reading and writing skills in social studies and science, and leveraging their social studies and science knowledge to support their reading and writing. 

“We have students that are writing a newscast during the Civil War [or] pretending to be meteorologists and filming a weather forecast,” Hanson describes. “Students are growing their knowledge on a deep level as they connect reading, writing, and knowledge.”

As teachers gain confidence in implementing the new curriculum and students become familiar with the new instructional routines, Hanson and others look forward to seeing more student progress.

“While we are not at our moonshot yet, we are making steps to get there,” says Hanson. 

Ottumwa Community Schools 

Ottumwa Community Schools also adopted CKLA this past fall. Oftentimes, a district will see a dip in student scores as teachers learn the new materials. Nevertheless, Ottumwa is seeing some great indicators of success. 

Teachers administer DIBELS 8, a diagnostic assessment, to students in order to identify students’ needs and guide grouping and instructional decisions. Although teachers are required to administer DIBELS 8 only to students that fall below the benchmark on FastBridge, many teachers are gathering data on their entire class. They are using this data to inform instruction to meet the needs of all students. 

Implementing a new set of instructional materials can be a challenge, and it requires commitment and collaboration between teachers, administrators, and school staff. 

“We are being responsive to the needs of teachers,” Director of Curriculum and Instruction Dr. Maria Lantz says. “We heard teachers' concerns and made sure to free up time for unit planning sessions and restructured PLC [professional learning community] time.”

Additionally, open communication has been a critical component of successful implementation. 

“We are learning so much through qualitative conversations,” Lantz says. “One of our big wins: Our district leadership is ‘hands-on’ and in buildings for PLCs and alongside our school improvement leaders, listening and responding so little things don’t become big things.” 

While implementing new instructional materials, the Ottumwa School District took intentional steps to set itself up for success: 

  • Prior to implementation, the district had spent the previous three years providing professional development around the science of reading and structured literacy practices so that educators understood the need for a shift in instructional materials. 
  • District leaders invited anyone interested to serve on the literacy committee that conducted the search for new materials the year prior to implementation, welcoming all voices to the table. 
  • District leaders organized a collaborative book study around The Knowledge Gap by Education Writer Natalie Wexler. Through these conversations, teachers and school leaders worked collaboratively to establish new "non-negotiables” as they previewed various curricular options. 
  • As the district adopted the new materials, district leaders focused on student data and teacher conversations to guide professional learning opportunities. 

Teachers, students, and families are excited to see the connections students are developing between reading, writing, and knowledge. Students have been able to explore Ancient Egyptian culture, write in cuneiform, host medieval fairs, and many other knowledge-building projects that increase vocabulary and background knowledge. 

Parents and caregivers are sharing in the excitement their children bring home, ready to share and extend their learning outside of the classroom. 

"I can't believe the vocabulary my son is learning with the new reading program this year,” one parent commented. 

"When I listen to my son read the take-home stories, I am impressed with what he is learning,” another parent shared. 

Winterset Community School District 

“Our teachers came back from the COVID shutdown, looked at longitudinal data, and said, ‘No more,’” stated Doug Hinrichs, newly hired elementary principal of Winterset Community School District. After years of data that showed a lot of hard work by teachers and students, student scores were not improving. 

“Something has to change,” Hinrichs said. 

He gave his staff the go-ahead to begin researching various professional development opportunities. The staff came to a consensus that the Orton-Gillingham-based program, Institute for Multisensory Education (IMSE), was the direction they wanted to go. In the first year, several teachers were trained in Orton-Gillingham-based instructional routines, and they monitored student data to assess the impact. Data quickly began to show significant skill increases in those classrooms, and the decision to train all 37 K-6 teachers was made.

Prior to adding IMSE training, the preschool and kindergarten classrooms had made a significant shift to more phonological-based instruction by adding Heggerty phonemic awareness lessons to their instructional routines. 

As a district, these complementary shifts in routines and materials underscore Winterset’s commitment to explicit, direct instruction of foundational skills. The impact of the shift can be observed in students’ FastBridge scores, as displayed below.

Student FastBridge Scores Spring 2021 and Spring 2023


Spring 2021

Spring 2023

Percentage Growth

Kindergarten62% proficient 94% proficient + 32 percentage points
Grade 154% proficient85% proficient + 31 percentage points
Grade 263% proficient 77% proficient + 14 percentage points
Grade 364% proficient 74% proficient + 10 percentage points

K-12 Literacy Coach Michelle Macumber shared that these changes have been a grassroots effort, driven by teachers. Improvement in student data, consistency in academic language, and tremendous support from coaches, administration, and the school board have been huge “wins” for students and staff. 


Editor’s note: We are greatly appreciative of the following district leaders for taking the time to share with us their challenges, lessons, and celebrations: Dr. Angela Hanson, Spencer Community Schools; Dr. Maria Lantz, Ottumwa Community Schools; and Doug Hinrichs and Michelle Macumber, Winterset Community Schools.