Missouri is Trying to Overhaul Reading Instruction. KIPP Got There First

By Kevin Mahnken

The kindergartners at St. Louis’s KIPP Wisdom Academy stood with their hands apart and palms up, facing a whiteboard festooned with rows of vowels and consonants.

Their teacher, Sonya Taylor, was leading a lesson designed to help them recognize sound and letter patterns. In a piping, resonant voice — she stretches it out Sundays as a singer and worship leader at her church — Taylor called out a string of words for the class to echo, clapping simultaneously, before repeating the sound they had in common.

“Say ‘rub, tribe, scrub’!”


“What’s the end sound?” she trilled in syncopated eighth-notes.

“Buh-Buh-Buh,” answered all 20 students, sounding like a school of fish.

The lesson comes from the Heggerty curriculum of phonemic tutorials, one of four reading-specific programs in use at KIPP Wisdom. Taylor’s class, along with their schoolmates in grades 1–4, are taught for hours each week how to pick apart the phonics code through a sequence of clapping, call-and-response, group discussion and independent study. The aim is to identify which letter combinations produce certain sounds and, with enough practice, to get a successful start on reading.

As in dozens of other states over the last decade, Missouri lawmakers recently mandated that students between kindergarten and the third grade be screened for reading challenges. It’s part of a widespread campaign among educators and activists to bring English language arts into closer alignment with the “science of reading,” the sprawling body of psychological and neuroscientific research exploring how people come to understand the written word. And in Missouri, where reading scores ranked around the middle of the pack nationally even before the pandemic, school leaders hope the new regime of testing and additional support will help kids recover from substantial learning loss suffered over the last few years.

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