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Focus on Literacy

 Molly Ness presents to staff during Superintendent's Conference Day

Earlier this month, Bedford Central School District held a Superintendent’s Conference Day that focused on deepening the district’s understanding of literacy. Presenters were brought in from places like Haskins Global Literacy Hub and the Winward Institute to discuss the science of reading and to dig into decodable texts, comprehension and vocabulary.

Dr. Molly Ness, a nationally recognized literacy researcher, writer, educator and speaker who has been working closely with the district as it selects a new literacy curriculum, was one of the experts brought in to present.

“Districts all over the country are grappling with how to ensure their literacy instruction is aligned with the science of reading, a longstanding body of research highlighting how children both lift words off the page and understand their meaning,” Dr. Ness said. “New York State has been late to these conversations, leaving them to happen at the local level. BCSD — like many districts — feels a sense of urgency to ensure that all children learn to read with high-quality instructional materials. And, like many districts, BCSD understands that impacting students' literacy is more than just new curriculum or programs, but also entails long-term professional development and buy-in from many players.”

Amy Fishkin, BCSD’s Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, agreed with Dr. Ness, adding, “Professional development in the teaching of reading and writing, K-12, provides our students with consistent and coherent instructional alignment, as well as the dexterity of teachers to respond to the unique needs of students in front of them.”

On Superintendent’s Conference Day, Dr. Ness presented at three different sessions. The first was aimed at grades K-5 and was called Using Decodable Texts to Support Phonics, Fluency, and Independent Reading. She also did sessions for grades 6-12, which included The More You Read, The More You Know: Best Practices for Comprehension Instruction and My What Big Words You Use: Effective and Engaging Vocabulary Instruction. A familiar face, Dr. Ness has been working closely with staff this year to support instructional shifts in the classroom.

Ben Powers, the Director of the Haskins Global Literacy Hub, presented on the New York State Education Department’s Literacy Briefs, which focused on the science of reading. Alexis Pochna, Director of the Windward Institute, also concentrated on the science of reading, giving participants an overview of the research-based approach to reading.

The district’s aim for focusing on literacy was to help empower staff and continue to support the full implementation of literacy curriculum, instruction and professional development aligned to research on the reading brain.

“It was important for us to focus on literacy districtwide because there has been a huge awakening in the education field around the growing body of research on how students acquire reading and writing skills,” Fishkin said. “Before we can improve student outcomes, we need to be sure that all our faculty and staff have a consistent understanding of the research behind the reading brain. While listening and speaking are innate skills, reading and writing are human inventions that must be explicitly taught. Reading is a complex process that requires many interconnected skills to work in concert with one another.”

Both Fishkin and Dr. Ness stressed that in order to be effective, the shift to a new literacy curriculum takes time.

“Community members should understand that this process will take time — time for teachers to adjust to and learn new materials, time for systems and structures to be put in place, and time for data to reflect changes,” Dr. Ness said. “As a nation, we are often impatient when it comes to wanting change; we have to recognize that this is a marathon, and not a sprint.”

Focusing on literacy districtwide during opportunities like Superintendent’s Conference Day is a great way to not only focus on the shift, but to shine a bright light on the importance of literacy.

“The gift of literacy is a human right that must be at the forefront of all educators’ minds,” Fishkin said.