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Learning to Read at Mark Day School

Learning to Read at Mark Day School
Sophie Shulman

The ongoing debate about how to teach kids to read has resurfaced with a vengeance in the media lately. You may have heard journalist Emily Hanford’s new podcast, Sold a Story, or read articles about the “reading wars” in the New York Times or Washington Post. In a nutshell, some literacy programs adopted by schools across the country have turned away from phonemic awareness in favor of other strategies like using visual cues and guessing words based on context—despite well established research showing the ineffectuality of such practices.

Mark Day’s practice of curricular review means that we examine our programs proactively with the goal of evaluating and strengthening what is already strong. We assembled a team to examine and evaluate our approach to literacy instruction and acquisition five years ago, in 2018, based on our desire to pursue the most effective approach for teaching children to read—asking a series of questions that form the basis for the concerns currently circulating in popular media. We engaged in a curricular study to review our literacy program and ensure we were aligned with current research and best practices. The two-year review process included examining our program and writing a self-study describing its components. We then worked with outside consultants who read our self-study, spent multiple days on campus observing classes and meeting with teachers, and ultimately provided us with a written report that included commendations and recommendations. We continued to work on the project even through the disruptions of Covid. What the Hanford podcast describes as best practices were anticipated by our research, self-study, and outside review—emphasizing direct phonics instruction and phonemic awareness in grades K-3 and deploying a consistent assessment system. 

To be clear, sight reading, cueing, and guided reading, as described in recent articles, are not part of our literacy program. We provide direct phonics instruction, coupled with teacher-directed reading groups, which allow for targeted reading intervention. In addition to the regular assessments that teachers use to differentiate direct instruction and remix reading groups, our students are assessed multiple times per year to monitor progress and are supported and challenged appropriately based on their skill acquisition. Literacy is a gatekeeper to all that we want students to learn. We dedicate a great deal of time to literacy instruction, and students often engage in literacy activities multiple times a day, sometimes across disciplines. Literacy instruction is differentiated across the grades, and students often work in small, fluid groups based on student needs and skills.

At Mark Day School, reading and a love of books have been part of the school's culture since our very founding. In order to foster a love of books, students must first be taught to read using programs that are backed by science. We are confident that our literacy program is addressing the needs of students, and we will continue to review what we do to remain aligned with best practices and current research.