Breathitt County District Literacy Specialist Fannie Hall studies the LETRS for Administrators manual with Chief Academic Officer Timothy Wooton and Curriculum Specialist Nancy Eversole. Submitted photo.

Breathitt County District Literacy Specialist Fannie Hall studies the LETRS for Administrators manual with Chief Academic Officer Timothy Wooton and Curriculum Specialist Nancy Eversole. Submitted photo.

District leaders in Breathitt County recall first hearing of the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling (LETRS) in 2019 when the district was carrying out the requirements of their Striving Readers grant.

The positive impact LETRS had on students in Mississippi led administrators to want to know more. Their research revealed there were similarities between the student demographics in Mississippi and the students in Breathitt County. However, the idea of bringing LETRS to Breathitt County had to be put on hold in 2020 as the pandemic shifted priorities from planning professional learning to making plans for online and hybrid instruction.

It wasn’t until early 2022 when leaders were assessing the current state of early literacy as part of the Read to Achieve grant application process that they recognized the need for providing their teachers with meaningful professional learning opportunities. Once again, Mississippi’s story of change and improved student learning outcomes came to mind. The momentum that had started in 2019 was revived. District leaders were motivated to support their teachers and started by replicating some of Mississippi’s professional learning plan. Breathitt County was on their way to implementing LETRS professional learning.

To begin, district administrators met individually with each of the elementary principals and K-3 teachers to share how LETRS would support them in making instructional shifts in their literacy practices. These shifts would align with evidence-based literacy practices and structured literacy to better serve their students.

With a school merger on the horizon, leaders developed a plan to roll out LETRS to their staff. Three district administrators and one teacher enrolled in Cohort 1 of the Kentucky Reading Academies to show their commitment and to gain the knowledge they felt they needed to adequately support staff in the coming years.

When Cohort 2 of the Kentucky Reading Academies began in the fall of 2023, an additional 37 pre-K through 5th-grade teachers enrolled in LETRS for Educators, and nine administrators enrolled in LETRS for Administrators, allowing the district to reach an impressive 76% participation rate among elementary educators.

“I am proud of the Breathitt County staff as they eagerly welcomed the opportunity to participate in LETRS. Even in these early stages of training and implementation, I see the impact daily. I hear it in conversations with teachers and administrators. I see it in our classrooms, and I see it in our students. My excitement continues to grow as I consider the future impact LETRS will have on the success of our students,” said Curriculum Specialist Nancy Eversole.

Wanda Nobel helps a student read

Wanda Noble, a 1st grade teacher in Breathitt County, says LETRS training has been an eye-opening experience. Submitted photo.

As with most new learning, those involved were a bit anxious, but they soon began to see the positive impact. Both new and experienced teachers have found LETRS to be transformative of their classroom instruction.

“LETRS has been extremely beneficial to me as a new teacher. It has not only laid a foundation for me to work with my students but also building blocks as they progress through their reading journey. It teaches me the literacy skills that my students need to learn and strategies to help close learning gaps with my third graders,” said Hallie Howard of Sebastian Elementary.

Brenda Tincher of Breathitt Elementary added, “I think that the thing I love most about LETRS is how it can empower teachers to bridge their learning to daily classroom instruction. We have more and more Option 6 teachers entering the classroom due to such a shortage in our area. With that, we often see gaps in how reading is taught to our students. Even when educators take the traditional route to becoming a teacher, there are still so many concepts, especially in phonics instruction, that they don’t feel knowledgeable about. LETRS training addresses these gaps, making it a great professional learning experience, even for seasoned educators.  The case studies involved allow an in-depth look at a few of the students who struggle on grade level more than their peers. LETRS Bridge-to-Practice activities allow for a more in-depth look at the root of what is causing their struggles and also gives educators the tools to help move those students forward.” 

School administrators have noticed the changes in instruction. Sebastian Elementary School principal, Jeremy Hall, said, “The LETRS training that our staff has committed to has really made a positive impact on literacy instruction in our school. It has set our teachers up to be able to provide effective instruction for students in reading, while also helping to establish a strong literacy foundation. Prior to teachers implementing LETRS instruction, we were focused on reading levels. The LETRS training has forced our teachers to shift our instruction to include how reading and language work together by looking at both word recognition and comprehension. Teachers are able to apply strategies that they are learning through the LETRS training so that our students become more successful. The LETRS for Administrators training has given the administrative team at Sebastian Elementary a guide to help teachers in implementing LETRS strategies. We learn beside our teachers and are able to coach, provide feedback and build a deeper understanding of what it takes to help our students learn how to read.”

District leaders are excited to reap the benefits of this hard work but are under no illusion that results will come quickly. Chief Academic Officer Timothy Wooton said, “Teachers have a lot placed upon them in today’s classrooms. LETRS is a two-year commitment for our teachers, and they have embraced it.  We have had many conversations around our current practices and how this learning will help us grow professionally, but ultimately, we are excited to see the long-term impact that this process will have on our students. We understand this is a long-term process we are undertaking. We are building the instructional foundations for our staff and for our students to be able to sustain and achieve at high levels.”

Overall, the district is thankful for the learning provided through the Kentucky Reading Academies.  District Literacy Specialist Fannie Hall said, “Our district has developed a sense of urgency, and the LETRS program has been instrumental in our shift toward the science of reading. We are very grateful for this opportunity to learn and grow, and we anticipate our students will reap the benefits.”

MORE: Read to Succeed Act brings Cohort 3 of LETRS Professional Learning to educators through the Kentucky Reading Academies