When the Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling training, better known as LETRS, was offered at no cost by the Iowa Department of Education, schools across the state jumped at the chance to participate.

The first cohort began in January with a mix of both public and accredited nonpublic schools committed to the intensive eight-unit, two-year course. Nearly 1,400 educators and over 230 administrators are a part of the first cohort and are invested in learning more about evidence-based reading instruction and how it can improve grade-level reading proficiency.  

“We are excited to support literacy efforts at the state level and offer LETRS training to Iowa schools,” said Wanda Steuri, Department LETRS consultant. “With this opportunity, teachers will gain a better understanding of the Science of Reading and how to convert the research from it to their classroom practices, which can help enhance effectiveness and transform instruction for our students.”

The spring 2023 Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress showed 66 percent of Iowa’s third graders reading at grade level and significant achievement gaps with students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, students with disabilities and students who are English learners. The LETRS training provides an intensive look at the Science of Reading to help schools strengthen literacy instruction and address achievement gaps.

For Des Moines Public Schools’ River Woods Elementary, school officials recognized that the LETRS training would be a good opportunity for their group of 40 teachers and staff to bolster their instructional skills and confidence around literacy.

“We had been looking for an opportunity to enhance content knowledge for our teachers and accelerate reading growth with our students,” said Traci Shipley, principal at River Woods Elementary. “Our thought was if we could train a cohort of individuals that remain together for years to come, what an impact we could make at our school.”

Through LETRS, K-5 teachers, administrators, instructional coaches and reading support staff take part in individual reading and online learning, bridge to practice activities and group sessions on how students learn to read and how to best maximize positive literacy outcomes. Two learning tracks are featured through LETRS and offer specifically tailored content for elementary educators and administrators. Trainings are administered through a partnership with Lexia, an agency committed to the Science of Reading and literacy solutions, and schools can opt to upgrade for full-day, in-person trainings with them.

“I’m excited to work with the state and Lexia to have something that isn’t about changing a curriculum resource but instead focuses on the individuals who are delivering the instruction,” Shipley said. “We know from the Science of Reading, reading skills don’t come naturally for children. With what we’re learning through LETRS, we can put together the best instruction package for our kids.”

Along with working individually online and meeting as a large group through the upgraded sessions with Lexia, the team at River Woods has found that the LETRS training has also provided opportunities for small groups to thrive. Many teachers are collaborating within their grade levels to work through the coursework together and learn as a unit.

“In each grade, the teachers as well as the special education and Title I teachers for that grade are learning together for LETRS,” Shipley said. “This opportunity has allowed them to have discussions on how they can apply what they’ve learned to their instruction and make informed decisions. By supporting each other through the process, I feel like they are truly learning the content and not just going through the motions.”

Teachers at St. Paul the Apostle in Davenport are also a part of the first cohort for LETRS. Fifteen educators from the school have committed to the intensive training, with both veteran and new teachers learning more about evidence-based best practices in literacy.

“I like that I am learning how the ‘reading brain’ works,” said Amy Lucas, veteran third grade teacher at St. Paul the Apostle. “This is valuable information that needs to be taught and provided to all educators, especially at the beginning level. I would have been a much more effective teacher if I had this training years ago.”

Lucas’s fellow third grade teacher, Rose Frazer is in her first year of teaching and also shares how valuable it has been to be a part of the first LETRS cohort.

“One of the aspects of the program that I have appreciated are the checks for understanding and for the real-life applications that I can bring to my own teaching,” Frazer said. “It takes everything that teachers should know from a basic level to a very detailed level. It teaches me what to look out for in students and how to help the students who struggle with strengthening their phonemic awareness.”

Initial results show that success and interest in the LETRS training is high. Currently, the average unit testing score for the first cohort of schools is at 96 percent, and a second cohort began its eight-unit course in March with over 830 participants.

“LETRS allows teachers and administrators to dedicate time to truly understanding student reading performance and acknowledge their instructional needs,” Steuri said. “We encourage schools to register for the next cohort that starts in August.”

To participate in the cohort, schools must have at least 40 teachers, administrators and staff interested in the course. Smaller schools that do not have 40 participants may combine with other schools to form a cohort.

Although all schools have packed schedules, competing obligations and other professional development needs, administrators and teachers are highly encouraged to take part in a LETRS training cohort. In a short few months, schools like River Woods Elementary and St. Paul the Apostle have already seen its overall benefits.

“The LETRS training is a win-win for schools,” Shipley said. “It’s an investment. It’s heavy work, but it’s a learning opportunity that teachers can own. What they learn in LETRS belongs to them.”