science of reading
Photo by Benjamin Naylor.

The Surprising State Where Kids Are Making a Reading Comeback

While kids across the country still struggle to read due to pandemic school closures, hopeful signs are emerging in Tennessee. Why there?

When Brittany Ferrell’s son first came to her in Brownsville, Tennessee, as a foster child, she worried he might never read. At nearly five years old, Sonny was far behind his peers in language and speech skills. In the fall of 2018, Ferrell remembered, Sonny’s pre-K goal was to know and speak 50 words. 

By last fall, two years of pandemic school disruptions had Ferrell worried that he had fallen so far behind, that he might never catch up. But about halfway through last school year, Ferrell noticed Sonny was sounding out words. Soon after, he began reading. 

Sonny gained crucial ground this year. “Going into second grade, he really struggled to name the letters of the alphabet and their sounds. But he made more gains than I ever could have imagined,” Ferrell said.

“He’s reading at an end-of-kindergarten level—but still, he’s reading.” 

Ferrell happens to know a bit more than your average mom about why Sonny progressed so far in a year—she’s also a kindergarten teacher in the district. That makes her part of an ambitious statewide reading initiative the state launched in January 2021.

“This is the most effective reading program—curriculum, intervention, all of it together—that I’ve seen as a teacher, and I’ve been teaching 11 years,” Ferrell said. “I have a lot of faith in it because it worked.” 

A Clear Goal and a Research-Based Approach 

Since the pandemic began in 2020, national data show many students—especially the youngest learners and children in poverty—have stalled or regressed in reading. However, in the 2021-22 school year, Tennessee, a high-poverty state with some of the country’s lowest literacy levels, saw noteworthy rebounds in student reading achievement. 

Three-quarters of Tennessee districts saw students’ reading scores improve to some degree, with upper elementary and middle school students making the largest gains. The state even saw a slight gain in the number of students reaching grade-level reading. 

Though the state’s progress in the face of the pandemic is noteworthy, with only 36% of students reading at grade level, Tennessee’s children are still far from fully literate. 

The state has been pushing hard to improve K-12 education for more than a decade

In its latest move, the Volunteer State established Reading 360, which brought all its teachers online and in-person training, improved literacy coaching, and high-quality reading curricula supported by scientific research. These new supports are rooted in the ‘science of reading,’ a shorthand term for the large body of research on how the brain learns to read and how best to teach students to read. 

The goal is to get more students reading fluently, ideally by third grade. And the program’s initial results–achieved despite all the fallout on schools from the pandemic–have turned heads in the education world.

Under the new overhaul, teachers are learning–many for the first time–how the brain actually learns to read. Then they are getting the materials, strategies, and time they need to help students through the process. The state’s insistence on research-backed curricula marks an important shift from the usual hodgepodge of materials districts often pick when left to their own devices.

Tennessee’s education leaders themselves cite the clear goal, coupled with a more “holistic” approach to tackling low literacy rates than their previous, fragmented strategies. 

Pulling Literacy Threads Together to Make a Comprehensive Whole

Over the last decade, Tennessee has tried several different reading initiatives—ones that tackled just teacher training or just literacy coaching. Those efforts weren’t linking all the pieces together, said Tennessee chief academic officer Lisa Coons.

By contrast, Reading 360 tackles learning to read from multiple angles, including how teachers are trained, what materials and curriculum they are using in classrooms, and supporting teachers as their classroom practices change. All of these strategies are rooted in literacy best practices and in the research-backed “five pillars of early literacy.”

“Reading 360 is a framework, not a checklist,” said Coons.

“We gave schools materials and training, but they also needed a system of support and feedback from the school and district level.”

Brittany Ferrell, right, listens to her son reading to his second-grade teacher, Stacie Carlton. Photo by Benjamin Naylor.

Better Tools and More Time for Teachers

Veteran second-grade teacher Stacie Carlton was integral to all the reading gains Sonny Ferrell made last year. She’s seen four or five early reading curricular programs come and go, but none as immediately effective as the latest overhaul. 

With previous curricula, Carlton said, there were lessons to be covered each week based on students’ “reading levels,” but she had no idea which sounds or letter combinations her young readers still didn’t get; after time spent on a lesson, they just moved on. “I didn’t specifically know if this student had long e, or she didn’t. Now I take very detailed notes on what they know and don’t know. And once they’ve got it, we move on—no need wasting time if they got it.” 

Tennessee built teachers’ knowledge of the science of reading using a two-part training created by the nonprofit education consulting group TNTP, focusing first on the theory and research behind how the brain learns to read. The second part of the training, which differs from other science-of-reading training like LETRS, shows teachers how to apply what they’ve learned to both materials and actual classroom settings. 

Coupled with the training, Tennessee took the added step of making high-quality classroom materials a priority from the start. Districts can pick the universal screeners, curricula and materials, and training that works best for them within a state-approved set of choices. This prevents districts from off-roading into the wilderness of materials that don’t actually help children learn to read well. 

As academic officer Coons put it: “There’s a menu of options districts can engage in, but overall, now there’s coherence.”

One popular—and free–curriculum choice, Sounds First, is an evidence-based phonics program created by two former teachers that dives deeply into the sounds that make up words, the phonemic awareness research says students need to read words fluently. Early readers need help connecting the sounds that letters make to the printed letters themselves—a step that often gets glossed over in early reading classrooms. 

Carlton said the state’s training on the science of reading improved her knowledge. Perhaps even more importantly, her district, Haywood County Schools, gave her key tools to put that knowledge to work immediately for kids: assessments that helped teachers target which sounds, letters, and concepts students were missing; a system of ‘microphases’ that checked each student for mastery; and perhaps most important, time for students to learn it all. 

Haywood County took a 45-minute slot of daily “intervention” time reserved for students to work on mastering a variety of skills and shifted it back into foundational reading instruction for everyone. Now all students study phonics during that time—but they also work on fiction and non-fiction texts, building the kind of background knowledge research says helps improve reading comprehension. 

After only one year of the changes, Haywood County Schools is seeing improvements. “Last year, only 8% of our third graders scored proficient” on the state reading test, said superintendent Joey Hassell.

“But in the past year, we have jumped to about 25%, almost 26% proficient.” 

Coons said Tennessee has provided districts with grants to hire coaches to help guide instruction and provide feedback. They have also invested in free decodable books families can read with students at home—more than 70,000 books in families’ hands so far. 

And again, there’s the element of time—not just giving students more time to focus on reading essentials, but building in time for teachers to get good at teaching them. “Giving teachers time for lesson prep and unit prep, time and space to learn how to use materials, and a system that can support their growth—that’s the approach,” Coons said. 

By ensuring teachers across the state have quality materials in hand from the get-go, Coons hopes teachers will get back at least the 12 hours a week surveys say they spend finding and creating curriculum. “Teachers need to focus on delivering high-quality learning experiences to children, not on hunting and gathering resources.”

Sonya Thomas (right) leads Nashville PROPEL, a parent advocacy group focused on educational equity. Here, she's with a family attending PROPEL's July back-to-school event. Photo courtesy of Nashville PROPEL.

‘We Have So Far to Go’ 

Even though Tennessee’s reading scores have recently rebounded to near pre-pandemic levels, overall literacy levels remain low. 

Three-quarters of Tennessee districts posted reading gains that outpaced their pre-pandemic scores. Yet not everyone’s scores improved—while more Tennessee students scored ‘proficient’ in reading this spring, more students also fell below grade level. About a quarter of Tennessee students have fallen to the lowest reading level—the highest number since 2017. The gap widened especially for Black and Latine students, English learners, and students with disabilities. 

“I’m wondering what people are celebrating,” said Sonya Thomas, executive director of Nashville PROPEL, a parent group that advocates for more equitable education outcomes. While Metro Nashville students’ reading scores improved at a faster rate than the state as a whole, achievement gaps remain wide. Overall, not quite a quarter of Metro Nashville’s students scored at or above grade level in reading.

“What does this mean for each and every child across the state of Tennessee? Math doesn’t lie: three out of four students cannot read at grade level. We have so far to go.” 

Yet some Tennessee students are taking big leaps. A couple of hours west of Nashville, in Haywood County, Brittany Ferrell has gone from dreading the thought that her son might never read to wondering what he might do next. 

“It was painful reading those words at the beginning of the year, he wasn’t ready. I was asking myself, ‘why are we even doing this?’” Ferrell said. “But as the year progressed, he was excited to show us what he could do. My favorite part was watching his confidence grow.”

Holly Korbey
Holly Korbey is an education and parenting journalist writing about teachers, parents, and schools for a national audience. She is the author of Building Better Citizens, and her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, Medium's Bright, Brain, Child Magazine, Babble, The Nervous Breakdown, the essay collection How to Fit a Car Seat on a Camel ...

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