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Seaford test scores improve with focus on science of reading

Betsy PriceEducation, Headlines

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While students at Blades Elementary get the traditional reminders to continue reading during the upcoming spring break, their reminders have a twist.

About 35% of the 400 students in that Seaford School District school come from homes in which English is not the first language spoken.

So Blades recommends the entire family read as a way to improve literacy among students, but also parents. 

“If a child spends time reading each day, it can open many opportunities – and reading bilingual books is also a fun way to continue practicing language skills as a family,” said Kelly Carvajal Hageman, director of curriculum and instruction for Seaford. 

Seaford students – and many in the rest of the state – will be on break April 15-22.

Part of the district’s request reflects the science of reading – a hot topic in educational and political circles now. That science is based on studies about how the brain learns to read. 

Reports show that since adopting the Science of Reading in 2015, district test scores have improved, with Seaford students consistently rising until the pandemic hit. 

However, while Hageman and Blades Principal Kirsten Jennette believe in the science of learning, they question whether it needs to be formalized by making it law. They fear that will stop schools from being able to quickly adopt new methods and techniques, should they arise.

Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Greenville, said a science of reading bill she’s sponsoring won’t stop a school from pivoting, but it will provide training to all teachers so the curriculum is effectively used.

Learning phonics – the sounds of words – is one of the basic points in the science of reading.

Regardless of a book’s language, the hour of reading per day during spring break provides cognitive benefits universally, Hageman said.


Helping family

Jennette said a lot of Blades families were concerned about their children’s reading capabilities if the parents weren’t literate in English and their child was still in the process of learning English, said  Jennette.

“We promote that parents, regardless of language, can read to their child and expect increased literacy for that child.” 

Seaford sent parents a list of suggested bilingual books to parents of Spanish speaking students or students trying to learn English:

  • Sulma Arzu-Brown’s “Bad Hair Does Not Exist!” After being told she had “pelo malo” as a child, Arzu-Brown wrote a book highlighting the hair of Black, Afro-descendent and Afro-Latinas that celebrates their differences.
  • Sonia Sotomayor’s “Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You.” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor was diagnosed with diabetes at a young age. She felt different from other children. This book helps celebrate people’s differences.
  • Lourdes Rivas’ “They Call me Mix.” After being asked by her students why she went by “maestre,” Rivas wrote this book to explain gender pronouns to children.
  • Chloe Fernandez’ “PCD Has Nothing on Me!” Fernandez was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition as a child. This book aims to relate to children who have ailments and miss school and activities as a result.
  • Juana Martinez-Neal’s “Alma and How She Got Her Name.” This book is about a little girl who has six names. It explains the history of her names and how they represent and honor her family and culture.

In the Seaford district, 40% of the Latino population in Seaford are proficient in English language arts, better than the state’s 30% mark. 

Hageman said a family literacy routine like everyone reading together for an hour at night after work or school has been proven to help develop language and also grow a love for reading books. 

“​​It could include everyone from babies to high-schoolers so that everyone can participate and engage,” said Hageman. “That will stimulate family conversation, and oral language is a big part of developing literacy and learning a new language.” 

Essentially, reading aloud helps people learn that letters have sounds and those sounds have meanings. Once children learn that, they can also apply those sounds to new words, but practice is important.


Adopting science of reading

The Seafood school district adopted a focus on the science of reading in 2015 when their literacy curriculum changed to Bookworms Reading and Writing from the University of Delaware.

The science of reading has six essential components of early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, text comprehension and oral language.

“All of our professional learning, all of our curricula, the routines and strategies that we use in every single classroom, kindergarten through eighth grade, is based on the science of reading,” said Hageman.

Since then, say Hageman and Jennette, they’ve noticed more students sharing books with one another and reading for pleasure. 

It’s hard to track how that has affected scores because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seaford’s change to the science of reading began in 2014, when the University of Delaware provided a coach to train teachers in the science and the Bookworms curriculum for 10 days. 

The next year, Seaford adopted the new curriculum in all four of its elementary schools. UD  provided two coaches for 40 days of professional development and support – 10 days at each school. 

Related: Delaware schools to turn to science of reading to improve literacy rates

The following year, in 2016-17, the district hired a full-time coordinator to assist in the implementation of the Bookworms curriculum. This same year, UD provided a coach to expand into the Spanish Immersion Program and classrooms serving English Language Learners. 

Since then, UD has consistently provided two coaches to assist in professional development aligned with the science of reading, while also focusing on the needs of English Language Learners. 

The effort showed up in test scores until 2020.

In 2015, 37% of Seaford’s third graders were proficient in reading, based on scores from the state-administered Smarter Balanced Assessment. It measures how well students read and write.  

After two years of instruction with the new science of reading curriculum, 61% of this group was proficient by the end of fifth grade. That measure is important because kindergarten to third graders focus on learning to read, and after that use reading to learn.



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Seaford’s English Language Learners benefited from the new curriculum as well. 

In its first year of implementation, 14% of Seaford’s third grade English Language Learners scored proficiently in the state assessment. By the time these students reached fifth grade, 41% of them were proficient. 

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In 2019, 53% of Seaford’s students were at grade level for reading. 

The Seaford district  reports scores on both the Smarter Balanced test and the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) that focuses on English language learners. The two tests cannot be directly compared. 

No testing was done in 2020, but the 2021 scores – which the state Department of Education warns cannot be considered complete – show the number dropped to 42%. 

With many schools still in hybrid mode in the spring of 2021, not all children were tested.

The state scores show the number of Seaford students reading beyond grade level also dropped from 22% of Seaford to 12% last year.

Those numbers reflect drops across the state. In 2019, 53% of Delaware students were proficient in English language arts (21% exceeding grade level). In 2021, this dropped to 42% (14% exceeding grade level). 


Reading legislation

While supporting the science of reading, Hageman is skeptical about whether it needs to be made law.

“It is concerning to put into legislation a very particular research base because over time, that might become outdated,” she said. “I wonder if the legislation could include something more along the lines of evidence-based, research-based reading strategies rather than naming the science of reading specifically.”

Districts need to be prepared to pivot their literacy curriculum at any moment if new research comes out to suggest that different practices would be better, she said.

“I worry about legislation that’s really prescriptive, because I want to have the opportunity to be responsive,” she said.

Jennette said the science of reading curriculum is the most comprehensive curriculum based off of research she’s ever seen. 

“We are exposing students to multiple levels of text every day,” she said, “so our students are having books read to them by the teacher, they’re reading with a partner or a peer and then they’re having a period of time of direct instruction with basic phonics skills.” 

RELATED: Science of reading bill sails through Senate

She said the curriculum has been critical to improving the reading instruction in Seaford’s schools and has given non-English speakers a better pathway to learn the language. 

Sen. Laura Sturgeon, D-Greenville, said a science of reading bill she’s sponsoring isn’t prescriptive and won’t stop a school from pivoting. 

Her Senate Bill 4, which passed the Senate Thursday and is heading to the House, would require the Department of Education to maintain and publish a list of evidence-based, reading instruction curricula for grades kindergarten through third grade that must align with the science of reading.

The bill tasks the DOE with keeping a curated list of curricula for grades K through three English Language Arts.

“If an alternative method or change is discovered there is nothing in this legislation stopping DOE from changing the curricula that they recommend to be as responsive as they can,” she said. 

Sturgeon pointed out that her bill would also require thorough teacher training.

 The key to literacy improvement is explicit, systematic, sequential instruction focused on the six essential components of early reading instruction laid out in the science of reading, she said.

“The teachers need to go through hours of training to be able to teach reading explicitly and systematically or the curriculum isn’t of any use,” she said.  


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